If anyone doubted Larry Bird in the offseason when he returned as the Pacers’ team president and stated that he is bent on putting the finishing touches to the roster he architected years ago into a title contender, they’re surely believers now.
Bird surprised many at the traded deadline when he packaged is former franchise player Danny Granger and a 2015 second round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen.
It was Bird after all who drafted Granger back in 2005 and watched the former University of New Mexico standout blossom into an All-Star and become the face and leader of the Pacers as well as the lone bright spot during some of the franchise’s more trying times.
I personally thought Granger would be afforded the opportunity to chase a ring this season with the team he carried on his shoulders for years and did so as the consummate pro, which wasn’t always the case with the previous era of Pacers that contributed to alienating a once rabid local fan base. Granger has become a huge part of the community in Indiana in his nine seasons as a Pacer, and definitely deserved the chance to win a title with the team, if not for enduring several losing seasons, but for being a major influence in turning the team’s negative culture around.
Unfortunately for Granger, his boss cares more about winning a title for his home state franchise than nostalgia; and when the opportunity of upgrading made itself available, Bird pulled the trigger like one of his many cold-blooded buzzer-beating game-winners during his playing days.
"I had to think about it for a while but decided to do it (and) move on," Bird told IndyStar while noting that he wasn't shopping Granger and that Philly called at the 11th hour with the offer.
But just how much does Bird’s move propel Indiana closer to hoisting that coveted Larry O’Brien trophy in June? Allow me to analyze and speculate.
The 76ers’ motivations are obvious and simple: They are rebuilding and dumping salary and are thinking past this season, which is why Granger’s expiring contract that pays him over $14 million this season fits perfectly in their plans. Also, their chances of securing one of the top picks and hopes of getting someone like Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins improved substantially after getting rid of their top scorer in Turner. Now the 76ers can lose by 60 points rather than just 40.
The Pacers, on the other hand, have one goal in mind: Win now. And with Granger showing he is but a shell of his former self, the tough decision had to be made. Granger is averaging only 8.3 points through 29 games and is shooting around 36% from the field. He has lost his explosiveness, his ability to stop on the dime, make quick cuts and change direction and most his shots have been flat and short as a result of not getting enough lift from his legs. Perhaps Granger can still bounce back from his knee injury once he gets back in better game shape, but the Pacers just couldn’t afford to wait.
In this era of the new collective bargaining agreement, the Pacers are under the gun with most of their money committed to their starters, and face the possibility of losing Lance Stephenson to free agency in the offseason. For small market teams like the Pacers, going over the luxury tax threshold just isn’t an option (think Oklahoma City when they dealt James Harden).
Which is why - emotional ties aside - Bird deserves much praise with this savvy trade for various reasons. Not only did the Pacers get another young and live pair of legs in the 25-year-old Turner, they also did so while saving some coin in the process (Turner and Lavoy Allen’s salary combined is about $4 million less than Granger’s). And since Turner can also become an unrestricted free agent, he doesn’t jeopardize their ability to offer Stephenson the best contract they can in the offseason. More so, Turner provides somewhat of a back-up plan if Stephenson decides to dip for more money somewhere else. The same concept holds true with the Andrew Bynum signing, whom the Pacers acquired at a discount after being waived by Chicago.
The Pacers are definitely in the “here and now” and are gearing up for another Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Miami Heat. Frankly, it’s hard to envision Granger being a factor in that series just a few months away given his new limitations, on top of the possibility that he could go back on the injured list like he did after just a few preseason games in early October.
Now let’s switch our attention to Turner, the former second overall pick in the 2010 draft, ahead of number 10 pick Paul George and the aforementioned Stephenson who was the 40th pick by the Pacers out of that same draft class.
Being from the Midwest, it’s hard for me not to remember Turner’s exploits at Ohio State where he won College Player of the Year honors in 2010. As a pro, however, Turner got off to a rough start in Philly, before finally showing signs of his true potential last season in his third year by averaging career best numbers of 13.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as a full-time starter.
This season, Turner has averaged 17.4 points through 54 games as the 76ers’ lead guy, but has gotten a lot of criticism for his efficiency and shot selection. But anyone who has paid close attention to the entire league would recognize that the toll of having to be the main defensive focus on an erratic and struggling team could bear down on any player, which is the case for Turner as he labored through making the 76ers look respectable this season.
Turner’s 43% field goal shooting percentage is still better than Granger’s, so just imagine how he’ll fare off the bench for the Pacers with less pressure on him while seeing the most open looks and lanes he’s ever seen in his entire basketball career?
And let’s not forget that the Pacers were winning without Granger. Bringing in Turner simply adds another high IQ player who can create his own shots and fresh young legs off the bench for the Heat to deal with. Remember his 26 points at the beginning of the season when the 76ers shocked the Heat? And take in consideration the fact that Turner simply can’t wait to play in games that matter again and goes from planning his post-regular season vacation to chasing a ring.
“Definitely excited. Still shocked; I thought the trade deadline was over. I was actually setting up my postseason (vacation) with my agent’s assistant and pretty much when I was telling her the days I wanted to go. (Then) she said, ‘Well, no we can’t book (those days), you’ve just got traded,’ the IndyStar quoted Turner saying after finding out about the trade.
The one issue I’m concerned about is chemistry. Granger was a big brother to many of the Pacers’ young players and sacrificed his ego in embracing his new role off the bench and pushed for the team’s goals of winning a title over his personal motivations. Can Turner do the same?
In the end, the biggest player the Pacers added to their fold this season isn’t Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Andrew Bynum or Evan Turner. It’s Larry Bird.
And if his playing career wasn’t evidence enough, the 2012 NBA Executive of the Year is reminding people just how much of a competitor he is. Instead of sleeping on his laurels, Bird has addressed his team’s weaknesses without compromising their future. The only problem is that he won’t be on the court to help the Pacers actually win it all. Bird has done his part in his return as the Pacers’ team president and kept his word on doing whatever it takes to set his team up for success. It’s time for the players to finish the job.
Dennis is on Twitter @dRealSource.