(AP) Larry Bird is stepping down as president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, a stunningly abrupt move even for an NBA legend known for making swift decisions.
Bird made the call on Friday and general manager Kevin Pritchard will be elevated to take his place, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team has not announced the move, which was first reported by Yahoo! Sports.
Bird leaves the Pacers ahead of a pivotal summer in which the franchise will have to decide what to do with star forward Paul George. He can become a free agent after next season and there is wide speculation that he would prefer to play for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pacers will have to decide whether to try to persuade him to stay long term or trade him.
With that potentially franchise-changing scenario pending, Bird is stepping down from a major role with the Pacers for a third time.
His quick exit follows a pattern for Bird. When the Hall of Famer makes up his mind, that’s it.
“Larry is very special, tremendous integrity,” Pacers owner Herb Simon told The Indianapolis Star earlier this month. “His word means something.”
Bird coached the Pacers from 1997-2000, leading them to the NBA Finals in 2000 before walking away from the job after applying a long-held theory that a coach’s effectiveness is diminished after three years on the job.
He returned as team president in 2003, helping construct a team that was among the best in the league, won 61 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in 2003-04. That team ultimately fell apart the following season after the “Malice at the Palace,” the ugly scene in Detroit that saw players Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal fighting with Pistons fans.
The French Lick, Indiana, native methodically rebuilt the team into a contender again, building a promising core around George, Danny Granger and helping to mold Lance Stephenson from a troublemaker into a force. He was named NBA executive of the year in 2012, then stepped down a few months later.
He stayed away for a year before returning as the Pacers’ top executive, helping a team coached by Frank Vogel reach the conference finals in 2013 and 2014 with a new core of George, Stephenson and Roy Hibbert.
Bird did not renew the contract of Vogel, a popular coach around the league, after last season, installing Nate McMillan as his new coach. The Pacers were swept out of the first round this season by the Cleveland Cavaliers, a major point of frustration for George, one of the league’s most versatile stars.
George has not hesitated to make his displeasure with the direction of the franchise known, setting up for what is sure to be a tense summer of talks and decisions that need to be made.
Bird turned down several trade offers for George at the deadline in February, and his star rewarded him with exceptional play down the stretch to help the Pacers reach the playoffs. But their series against LeBron James and the Cavaliers, tight as it was, showed just how far they are from getting back to being a real factor in the East.
Now Pritchard will be driving that bus. Long one of the more respected executives in the league, he left the Portland Trail Blazers after disagreements with owner Paul Allen in 2010 and joined the Pacers in 2011.
Pritchard is considered an expert in the salary cap and the process of building a roster, and his deep ties to the Pacers since joining the organization should make for a seamless transition. But it remains to be seen what kind of approach he will advocate the organization take with George.
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