Sports Nut

This Bird Don’t Fly

Larry Bird—legendary athlete, local hero, decent normal guy, and awful coach. The gossip line says Bird will leave coaching (“retire” seems a ridiculous expression for what athletes and coaches do, unless they’re genuinely going into retirement, like Dean Smith) after the end of NBA finals, now led by the Lakers 2-to-1. Bird should leave. He’s doing a terrible job.

Anyone who’s had the misfortune of watching Bird’s Indiana Pacers stumble around in this year’s playoffs has seen the proof. The team is consistently dreadful on the execution of plays, when it calls plays at all. For long stretches in Pacers games, there is no apparent offensive scheme, just players going one-on-one. The Lakers’ “triangle” offense may be overhyped, but at least it’s a strategy with plays and assignments; the Pacers on offense look like five volunteers from the audience who just met. True, many NBA teams are consistently bad on fundamentals too, allowing the Pacers to fall to the top. But that doesn’t excuse Bird for accomplishing so little in coaching his own group.

Consider the second finals game, won by the Lakers in Los Angeles. For most of the second half, the Pacers ran no play more complicated than a screen. Possession after possession, the first guy who caught the ball went one-on-one as four teammates stood by watching, not even weaving to get open. Bird seems to have despaired of getting modern ego-irradiated NBA players to run coordinated plays and simply allows them to play junk ball. At one point in the fourth quarter, Pacers forward Austin Croshere shot on five consecutive possessions. One shot was justified (he was open), the other four were one-on-ones that led to loud clang noises. Michael Jordan in his prime would have been yanked out of a game if he shot on five consecutive possessions. Croshere stayed in, as Bird watched impassively.

When Bird does make tactical decisions, they’re often weak. Late in Game 2, Shaquille O’Neal drew his fifth foul. The Pacers were still close. Rik Smits, the Indiana center, was on the bench. Smits is a poor defender but an effective offensive talent who’s given Shaq problems and drawn him into fouls. So did Bird put Smits back in and tell him to go straight at O’Neal and try to foul him out? No, Smits cooled his heels for the remainder of the game, never returning. Los Angeles pulled away as Shaq did as he pleased.

Last night, in Game 3, the Pacers won in part because Bird finally made the obvious tactical move he has been resisting—front-doubling or “collapsing on” O’Neal whenever he touches the ball. Through the first two Laker wins, Bird singled Shaq, basically conceding the big man’s points but hoping to shut down the other Laker players. This tactic failed in both games, just as it had failed when the Trail Blazers tried it in the previous series. Didn’t Bird watch any game tapes? When Bird switched to double-teaming Shaq, which worked for Portland, it worked for him too.

Defenders of the Bird administration point out that, starting with no head-coaching experience, he has taken the Pacers to three straight playoff years and their first finals appearance. But Bird’s record is not appreciably different from that of previous Pacers coaches who worked with the same players. In Bird’s three years, the Pacers have won 68 percent of regular-season games and 61 percent of playoff games; in the three years before him, the team won 58 percent in the regular season and 54 percent in the postseason. Thus, Bird’s numbers are a nice increase but you must consider: He’s coached post-Michael Jordan. The Pacers are in the same division with the Bulls. Bird only had to contend with basketball’s best-ever player in the division for one year, until Jordan “retired.” (That is, moved on to become, what, isn’t he now secretary-general of the United Nations?) Adjust Bird’s and his predecessors’ records by about five games each season for the presence or absence of Jordan in the division, and suddenly Bird has done no more than keep the Pacers on keel. He’s been fabulous for NBA marketing and Indiana home state pride. But his only clear accomplishment—getting the team into the finals—was secured over an injury-racked Knicks team in a series the Pacers tried assiduously to lose.

Does Bird simply lack coaching skills? John Wooden, the Wizard, suggested in an NBC interview during last night’s game that great players are rarely great teachers, since they can’t understand why the things that came naturally to them don’t come naturally to lesser mortals.

Then there’s the shoe-endorsement factor. It’s a fallacy that NBA players today are too spoiled to play hard. In the playoffs, at least, everyone goes all out—attend a playoff game and what you see, during timeouts, are sweat-drenched players tugging at their shorts and gasping for breath. But contemporary NBA players go all out because not to do so would be shameful for them personally. Everybody would see if they weren’t trying. Players who resist coordinated team play, on the other hand—most would much rather stop and launch a three because it’s individual glory—don’t get blamed for that. Poor-quality overall play is seen as management’s fault. So the image-conscious player can dodge the fundamentals without being personally held accountable.

And in an age when all NBA athletes, even the rookie free agents and didnips (DNP for “did not play” in the box scores) have guaranteed contracts, labor can simply defy management. As long as the players show up and sweat, coaches hold zero financial leverage. Magic Johnson, who lasted less than half a season as the Lakers’ coach, is said to have realized the new order when a player’s cell phone rang during practice. The guy answered. Magic told him to turn the phone off. The player replied, “No.”

For many NBA players, the deterioration in tactics and coordinated sport, made possible by their guaranteed-contract sinecure, is the desired outcome. Many don’t want to run pick-and-rolls or position for that backdoor cut. They want the game to devolve to playground improvisation, with its ego-based look-at-me one-on-one.

The annoying thing is that people like Larry Bird may perceive a stake in this same decline of quality. Bird, Magic, and Michael performed together in the league’s golden age. They’ve all since complained about how the new generation of NBA playgrounders isn’t up to their standards, and they’re right. But subconsciously they may want it that way, since the corrosion of basketball standards makes them seem all the greater in retrospect.

So, when Bird grumbles, as he often does, that his team refuses to pay attention when he preaches fundamentals, he may not really mind. Over the weekend Bird grouched to the New York Times about the fallen quality of competition and said, “It just seems like a lot of people aren’t talking about the NBA as much as they used to.” They aren’t, and Bird’s coaching is part of the reason.