On Friday, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Larry Bird has once again stepped down as Pacers president of basketball operations, promoting general manager Kevin Pritchard as the franchise’s new steward. This is not the first time Bird has left the Pacers front office. In 2012, Bird cited health issues as a reason for his leave, but 364 days later, he returned, seemingly reinvigorated — putting together a 2013–14 team that notched a 56–26 record, the most successful Pacers season in 10 years. Health doesn’t appear to be the issue here; Bird will remain a consultant for Indiana, at least for now. Woj also reported that the rudderless Orlando Magic, in desperate need of a shepherd, are following his trail. Although, if Larry Bird, at 60, couldn’t be asked to put up with a potential Pacers rebuild, there’s little reason to think he would find Orlando’s situation any more attractive.
The transfer of power in Indy complicates what already seemed like an unwinnable quandary: what to do with Paul George. The move, at this point, seems to strongly suggest a top-down restructuring of the roster. And while Larry Legend has the pedigree, Pritchard is the perfect man for the job.
It was just over a decade ago that the Pritch Slap was born. Years before Sam Hinkie and the Process transformed the NBA draft into a dizzying asset-accumulation laboratory, Pritchard, then a Blazers front-office exec, was the man who won every trade. He was the guy who made the NBA draft one of the most entertaining live sports events in the mid-aughts. In 2006, Pritchard (then an assistant GM) laid the foundation for one of the most impressive rebuilds in recent memory, tainted only by what we know now to be one of the cruelest hands dealt by nature.
But we’ll save the melancholy for another time and celebrate what he was able to accumulate: He packaged Sebastian Telfair and Theo Ratliff in a deal with the Celtics for the no. 7 pick in 2006 and Raef LaFrentz; he traded up from no. 4 to no. 2, swapping the draft rights to Tyrus Thomas for LaMarcus Aldridge; then he took the no. 7 pick and some cash to the Wolves in exchange for the no. 6 pick — Brandon Roy. A year later, as the newly promoted GM, he shed the last vestiges of the Jail Blazer era by trading Zach Randolph to the Knicks for Steve Francis and Channing Frye (but it didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now). He landed the no. 1 pick in 2007, and drafted the most highly acclaimed prospect since LeBron James in Greg Oden. In 2008, he traded for the draft rights to Nicolas Batum.
In the span of three drafts, Pritchard built the youngest, most promising core in the NBA, and he did so by being the ultimate shark. Injuries soon ruined the careers of Oden and Roy, and ultimately the team’s failure to recover from those injuries led to Pritchard’s dismissal, but we saw flashes of what that team was capable of — they had a 54-win season in 2009 with one of the youngest rosters in the league. He was close to building an empire from the ground, and did so proactively — there aren’t too many executives in the league who can say the same.
Of course, that was 10 years ago. Basketball’s landscape has changed. It’s hard to imagine Pritchard hat-tricking monster draft-day deals like he did in the past; even Hinkie, his spiritual descendant, mostly made minor deals, adding up to a man-of-war of incremental progress. Still, the Pacers are now under the leadership of someone who has navigated wreckage and come away with gold before. It’s hard to know what happens next, but the 2017 draft just got a whole lot more interesting. The Slap is back.