The Weekside

As he debates firing his coach, Larry Bird is only making himself look bad

by Jared Wade

Larry Bird has a press conference today at 11:00 am, and there is widespread speculation that he will announce that Frank Vogel will no longer coach the Indiana Pacers.

It was all good just a week ago.

Few thought Vogel’s job was in jeopardy that recently. Though there was some groundswell calling for his head after the Pacers collapsed in Game 5, the instant reaction to a blown 13-point lead largely subsided after his team nearly came back to upset the second-seeded Raptors n Game 7.

Nevertheless, here we are.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports got the ball rolling by reporting that the Pacers and Vogel were not negotiating a new contract. This seemingly came minutes after the team was eliminated and caused as much confusion as controversy.

Vogel, in the final year of his deal, signed what was reported, by Pacers.com no less, as a multi-year extension in October 2014. The math on that news is pretty simple: A contract that was due to end in June 2015 was extended by multiple years. So that’s the final year of the old contract plus, by definition at least two more years. Everyone was under the impression that deal would end in June 2017 at the earliest.

But it is apparently expiring now. And the world was blindsided either due to misreporting of that extension, selectively worded reporting, or some sort of contract option that was never ferreted out by anyone looking into the specifics. Woj was seemingly the only one aware of this — Vogel oddly coached the whole year without bringing it up — and the Yahoo Sports bloodhound dropped the wisdom as soon as “season’s end” officially hit for Vogel.

The report led to more media questions and, after initially dodging the inquiries, Bird offered up some strange comments. He included the following words about Vogel while talking with Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star: “If Frank comes back” and “if he’s not [back], he’s not” and “there’s other jobs out there he could get.”

Bird also said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” and noted that he needed to have a phone call with his boss, team owner Herb Simon, before figuring out what would happen. He all but threw up his hands.

Who could actually even know when the coach’s fate would be sealed? After all, Simon has a lot going on this week.

“He’s busy.” Bird actually said that out loud about his owner — for it to be printed in a newspaper Frank Vogel reads. The owner of the team, says Bird, was too busy with other things to discuss the GM’s thoughts about maybe, but who knows really, firing a coach.

Well, no rush here, Larry. Take a few days off while you let one of the league’s best coaches sit around wondering about his future and listening to the whole world speculate on his upcoming firing. And as you take your swell time, be sure to talk about the situation in public just so the stench can linger for a few days.

See, the oddest aspect of all this isn’t that the team would get rid of a coach who has been quite successful.

That is a bit odd. But there are cases to be made either way. Vogel has won a ton of games and done more than most could with his talent he has has. Then again, he also has overseen a bad offense every season of his tenure. Parting ways with Vogel will likely be a mistake, but there is a logical argument for doing so.

So that’s not weird. What is weird is that the Pacers are generally such a proper organization and are increasingly handling personnel matters like they want to be the Sacramento Kings East.

This is a departure for the franchise that has typically valued decorum. Examples of such aren’t tangible as much as an ongoing way to doing things. But generally, when it comes to trades and other significant moves, the news hits as a surprise.

There seem to be few within the company that exert energy spreading rumors and spilling news and this seems to be a cultural aspect of the organization. Owner Herb Simon also has had a long-standing policy to never try to sign other teams’ restricted free agents. The rationale for this — as it has been generally understood — is that it simply isn’t very gentlemanly (while at the same time tying up your cap room for a few days). And in terms of dealing with the media, their crew is seen as among the most positive to interact with in all the league. In 2013, they became the first team to become a two-time winner of the Brian McIntyre Media Relations Award that is handed out annually by the Pro Basketball Writers Association.

Now, Bird has always a bit coarse and gone against this grain to some degree. That attitude goes back to his playing days and is well known across the league. He’s just Larry Bird, and talks like more like Clint Eastwood than the walking-MBA-jargon disseminators throughout the modern NBA.

But his tenor has been changing in the past few years, taking on an even crasser, less-becoming tone that seems at odds with the image the franchise tries to otherwise project.

Around this time last year, the team had two big unknowns: Roy Hibbert and David West both had player options, and Indiana didn’t know whether they would stay or go. The odds, based on finances alone, were that they would stick around to get paid $15 million and $12 million in the coming year, respectively. Bird made it clear that he was hoping Hibbert would leave. He all but dared him to scram. He talked about Roy having a reduced role and openly mocked the big man’s performance.

Bird’s sick burn takes a bit of set up.

In earlier years, when Lance Stephenson was playing for the Pacers in a contract year, there was a widespread recognition that the young guard was trying to pad his stats by hunting for extra assists and rebounds. He was accused of stealing boards from his teammates. This was one reason used to explain why the center wasn’t putting up double doubles on the regular.

Even after Lance left in free agency, however, Hibbert’s numbers did not improve. So when someone asked Larry about Hibbert’s unimpressive stats throughout the year, Bird said, “Well, I don’t think Lance is stealing his rebounds this season.”

It was classic Legend. And Hibbert didn’t opt out.

But David West did.

In an interview with Bob Kravitz of WTHR-13, the prideful veteran was quick to point out that he thought Larry’s treatment of Hibbert was out of bounds. “That’s one thing where I wish they would have handled better was the situation with Roy,” West told Kravitz. “I’ll be honest with you, that bothered me a little bit, and I told Roy that. I’m the type of guy who feels like we’re all in this fight together and I’m not designed in that way to put it all on one guy. That did rub me the wrong way. That threw me off. I started reading some of that stuff, I started thinking, ‘Whoaa.’ I just didn’t feel good about that. I told Roy that it bothered me, that he’s still my teammate.”

There was more controversy.

Throughout the early part of the offseason, Bird continued to state that he was unaware whether West was opting in or planning to leave. Even on the night of the NBA draft, just days before the deadline for West to make a decision, he maintained that he had yet to hear from West. It made the big man seem a bit like he was holding the team hostage, dragging out his choice and therefore putting the franchise in a tough spot on draft night. Did the Pacers have to draft a replacement power forward or not? Grant them the courtesy of a decision already.

Well, West claims he informed the team about his decision to not return well before the draft.

By all accounts, David West is as stand-up of an individual as you will find in this league, a thoughtful man who has spent large chunks of his free time over the past decade visiting juvenile correction facilities to help steer troubled youth back on the right course.

West said this to Kravitz: “We wanted to be respectful so I had my agent tell the organization two, three days before the draft that we were going to opt out of the final year of the contract. I felt doing it post-draft wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”

As the columnist wrote at the time, one of the two men lied.

While West was soon gone from the organization, Bird continued his snippy ways all summer.

As he told Hibbert (who would opt in then get traded to the Lakers for peanuts), the team was moving towards small ball. Bird expected this new playing philosophy to push Paul George, fresh off a devastating leg injury and as skinny as ever, into a new role at the power forward spot. George publicly said he wasn’t into the idea. When the media asked Bird about his superstar’s conflicting opinion on the matter, Bird went Bird. “Well, he don’t make the decisions around here,” said Larry.

So here we are. After spending last Summer dropping one-liners, Bird is again involved in a strange saga that feels out of character for the Pacers. The franchise has always generally seemed to be in line with a sentiment best expressed by Stan Van Gundy when reacting to the news of David Blatt’s firing this season.

The coach is here to get results, and that’s the goal that matters.

Now, Vogel’s last two seasons haven’t been banner years for the organization, but most feel as he has overachieved. Finishing ninth last year without Paul George and taking the Raptors to the brink with a flawed roster in a transition year were both adequate at the very least. He has a 250-181 record in his tenure as Pacers coach, and Indiana has had the best defense in the NBA since he took over midway through the 2011-12 season.

Regardless, there is a case to be made against Vogel. But if they want to move on, this isn’t the way to do it.

This seems like Larry Bird, an ornery sumbitch as long as he’s been involved in the NBA, again letting the world know that he makes that he the decisions around here. Everyone else is welcome to go to hell and can wait their turn to find out what that decision is.

But rather than disrespecting a 7’2″ punching bag, he has taken to airing his indecision about firing a coach. Now, a coach who has been to two of the past four Eastern Conference finals — and seems to be one of the nicer men in the league — gets to read about his job status in the newspaper.

Has Bird been grappling with this decision? Is he staying up late making a pro-and-con checklist like some nervous high school kid in a romantic comedy? In the same interview that included the indecisive, dismissive comments about his coach, Bird also said he didn’t think Vogel was to blame for the team’s loss in Game 7. He blamed it on the role players, who he signed, for not scoring enough points.

Thus, Bird’s decision is not — at least according to his own words, to whatever degree their diminishing value still has — hinging on what happened Sunday night. From the way Larry said it, this wasn’t a Win Game 7 to Keep Your Job moment.

Nor should it have been. Bird has five years worth of footage, stats, memories, and emotions to base his opinion of Frank Vogel on. If he didn’t have a clear picture on Sunday night, what have a few extra days done?

So, again, this all comes back to respect, or the lack thereof, that Bird is showing his coach in public.

No matter what you think of Frank Vogel, the coach, there is no world in which Frank Vogel, the man, deserves to be subject to such dismissive behavior. If the scenario is as Bird has presented it and Vogel may still remain with the team, how would Vogel be expected to come back and coach a roster full of players who know the team’s top executive isn’t sure he is the right man for the job? Respect is hard enough for coaches to earn and maintain when they aren’t being undermined by the person signing the checks.

Larry Bird will never win any congeniality competitions. But the way he has handled this week is unbecoming. If Bird wants to move on from the Frank Vogel era, that is is his right. But treating one of the league’s best coaches like a summer intern on the wait list is an awful look.

Frank Vogel was the architect of a defense that put a team nobody cared about back on the map and oversaw the development of several young players who vastly outperformed that draft location. He took the franchise to within five wins of a title and has represented the team with class and honor throughout his tenure.

He deserves as much in return.

Fortunately for him, Vogel has that respect across the league — even if he no longer is getting it from his boss.

So whether Larry Bird does fire him for good or not, it won’t be a black mark on Vogel’s resume. It will just be another indiscretion on the timeline of a GM who increasingly seems disinterested in running a franchise like a professional.

Credit: FanSided

The Postman Cometh

The post-up is supposed to be dead. Erik Spoelstra’s pace-and-space offense put LeBron James at power forward and Chris Bosh at center for the Miami Heat, spreading out the court and forgetting about the block. Then came the Golden State Warriors to finish the job.

Shooting is cool. Standing on the block with your back to the hoop is dead.

Unless you’re LaMarcus Aldridge.

He has been thoroughly dominating the Oklahoma City Thunder by looking like a vintage 1990s beast in the lane, destroying Serge Ibaka with bucket after bucket after bucket.

Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated did a great job breaking down some of the devastation, highlighting the moves and discussing the Thunder’s decision to not bother double-teaming. This is the strategy despite Aldridge has putting up back-to-back game of 38 and 41 points for the San Antonio Spurs on a combined 33-of-44 (75.0%) shooting in Games 1 and 2.

It has been clinical.

First-year Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan has resorted to a double team on a few occasions, as Mahoney notes.

For the Thunder to willfully put their defense into rotation by double-teaming would require the utmost confidence in a team-wide ability to recover and contain. That style of defense is a constant stress test. We’ve seen the Thunder move to double on occasion—including a critical Game 2 possession in which Steven Adams timed his rotation perfectly to force an Aldridge to pass out of the post—but largely abstain from the practice

Considering the personnel involved, doubling on any more consistent basis would be an exercise in diminishing returns. A random, unpredictable double-team might be enough in some cases to throw Aldridge off balance. Presenting him with the same kind of pressure repeatedly would give the Spurs all the opportunity they need to feel out where the help is coming from and how to exploit it.

The Thunder managed to squeak out a victory in Game 2 — which had an insane final possession — and steal home-court advantage.

That was a big turnaround from Game 1 when they lost by, unofficially, 4,000 points. It also seems unlikely that Aldridge can continue shooting 75% for an entire series while putting up such ghastly scoring totals.

But even though they did their job in San Antonio by splitting the first two games, Donovan still has to figure out the LaMarcus issue. If they can’t slow him down, the lethal Spurs likely cannot be beat.

Credit: FanSided

Words With Friends

This week’s five must-read articles about the NBA. Excerpts here — click through to read the full piece.

1. Fez and Dray: Ezeli has backing of Warriors’ most vocal star
by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN

Green was here to remind everybody that Ezeli had a breakout year, albeit one interrupted by knee surgery. When Ezeli appraised his season as, “up and down,” Green corrected him. “I don’t mean to butt in,” Green said, “but when I look at his season, I don’t see a bunch of ups and downs. I see him having an amazing year. Improving and everything you said he needed to improve on, whether it was his hands or his rebounds or whether it was his post move, he did it.”

2. How the Thunder embraced Enes Kanter the person and extracted the most out of him as a player
by Anthony Slater, News OK

It goes far beyond the Turkish or Muslim community in OKC. The entire fan base has embraced him. “I go to Wal-Mart and they don’t want to bother me, but they want a picture,” he said. “So I ask them, ‘hey, you want to take a picture?’ They’re just really respectful, really nice people.” As part of his faith, Kanter fasts for Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, and strictly eats halal food. He explained this to the team’s chefs during that boarding process.

3. Who was that guy in the purple shirt heckling Dwyane Wade? We found him
by Theoden Janes, Charlotte Observer

“Those guys, they don’t like me,” he said. “The coach (Erik Spoelstra) doesn’t like me, the players get in trouble if they talk to me, (Heat guard) Gerald Green he tries his best not to talk to me and every time he does they ream him a new one. So when the Heat come to town, I try to step it up a little bit more.” Most people who’ve been to Hornets’ home games have probably noticed Deason and his attention-grabbing style of spectating; He yells, he screams, he heckles, he sometimes stalks the sideline as if he owns it. He tries to keep the trash talk about basketball, although it’s still most definitely trash talk.

4. Stephen Curry and Wife Ayesha on Marriage, Kids and Their Matching Tattoos
by Alan Shipnuck, Parents Magazine

I have to walk past the family waiting room to get to the interview room, and Riley wanted to hang out with me. She had that look, like she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. So I said, all right, come with me. She sat up there, and that’s when her personality shined bright. I tried my best to answer the questions even while feeling under the table and checking out of the corner of my eye—where is Riley? She’s got a great sense of humor. Now she’s the star of the family. If we go somewhere without her, the first question people ask us is, “Where’s Riley?”

5. I miss the old refs
by Russ Bengtson, Complex Sports

Guys like Bavetta and Crawford had a different, less deferential relationship with the players, no doubt reflective of when they entered the league and what the league was like then. The difference between 40 years ago and 30 years ago is stark.

Credit: FanSided

Rivers End

Austin Rivers hasn’t had the cozy, father-son relationship that most think got him onto the Los Angeles Clippers. There is love there, but their dynamic is unusual and hasn’t done him as many favors as it may seem.

But last week, both father and son knew their season’s hopes were over. They had been crushed as soon as it was announced that both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin would miss the rest of the playoffs. A cynic might say their dreams of a title had ended the day Steph Curry was born, but this was when even true believes had given up on the fantasy.

Despite this, Austin Rivers came out and had the game of his life.

It may not have been the best he’s ever played, but it was what everybody will remember him for. Even as the team got eliminated by the Portland Trailblazers, he was the story.

He took a shot to the face, fell down hard, and got up bleeding. He went to the locker room and got 11 stitches before returning and finishing with 21 points while playing through an eye he could hardly see out of.

The stat line wasn’t Wilt- or Russell Westrbrook-like. But he was valiant and fought through the hardship like a warrior, even in a game everyone knew was ultimately meaningless.

But that’s our problem today: this game had more meaning than most. Stuff like Austin Rivers fighting for pride alone, Kobe going out shooing while scoring 60 in his last game, and even a throwback performance by Dwyane Wade on the same night that Rivers bled red is why I just shake my head at people only concerned with titles.

Austin Rivers, dropping 21 after 11 stitches, with CP3 and Blake out for the year, pouring everything into this and then crying in public after. That’s sports.

Rings are cool. Debating top the all-time top fives, what-ifs from the past, and all the other barstool banter is a good pastime.

But seeing Austin Rivers go out there willing to give it all for nothing?

That’s why we watch.

 

Jared Wade is columnist at FanSided and editor of 8 Points, 9 Seconds. Follow him on Twitter @Jared_Wade.