At this time last year, the Indiana Pacers could have been in for turbulent times.
Coming off only their second playoff appearance since 2006, they had just lost their chief architect, Larry Bird, to retirement. A new general manager, Kevin Pritchard, had recently come on board. Free agency was underway, and the Pacers were poised to be major players.
They had no choice.
Despite advancing to the second round of the postseason, the Pacers had glaring needs. They had cash to spend but little margin for error during what was still a rebuilding process.
Expert direction was needed, from someone with a connoisseur’s eye for talent; with a keen understanding of the market; with an intrinsic knowledge of the franchise; and with an insider’s awareness of the roster’s delicate chemistry balance.
The Pacers needed someone like Donnie Walsh.
Not surprisingly, that’s precisely whom owner Herb Simon summoned to bridge the critical gap between Bird’s departure and the next phase of restoration.
Fortunately for the Pacers, Walsh not only was available but was willing.
And in the end, he was highly successful.
In the afterglow of Bird’s recent return as president of basketball operations, Walsh’s role in the Pacers’ phoenix-like rise to NBA prominence has seemingly gone unnoticed if not entirely under-appreciated. Coming off back-to-back playoff appearances, conventional wisdom suggested that a third trip was assured — that the team was, in a sense, capable of getting there on autopilot, regardless who was in charge.
But it was hardly that simple.
Although Bird left behind a sturdy foundation, the work wasn’t completed. They had two vital free agents to re-sign (Roy Hibbert and George Hill). They needed to fortify the bench. And their head coach — Frank Vogel — was still getting on-the-job training.
In less-capable hands, the summer moves could have easily failed. In Walsh’s, they did not.
Hibbert and Hill were brought back. Bench help arrived, albeit not as much as anticipated, and Vogel — given room to grow — cemented his place as one of the league’s best coaches.
The result was one of the best seasons in franchise history.
Paul George became an All-Star. Hibbert played like one by season’s end. The Pacers won only their fourth Central Division championship and reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2004.
And they did it with their best player, Danny Granger, sitting out all but five games.
Whether the Pacers could have accomplished a fraction of what they did with someone other than Walsh in charge is unknown. But this much is certain: His leadership didn’t hurt.
Then again, that’s been his history with the Pacers.
In almost every conceivable way, Walsh — the chief designer from 1986 to 2008 before departing for the Knicks — built the franchise, transforming it from an annual joke into a regular contender. With the exception of the post-brawl years, from 2004 to his departure for New York in 2008, his run of success with the small-market Pacers was remarkable.
On his watch, including the 2012-13 season, the Pacers reached the NBA playoffs 19 times, won four Central Division titles and advanced to the conference finals seven times.
By contrast, before his first appointment as general manager in 1986 (he was promoted to president in 1988), they had been to the playoffs only once. That was in 1981. They lost in the first round.
In time, one-and-dones became rare in the Walsh era. More often than not, the Pacers were among the Eastern Conference’s best teams, just as they were last season, when they pushed eventual champion Miami to Game 7 of the conference finals.
Indiana, in fact, has never reached the conference finals with anyone but Walsh leading the front office.
Fortunately for the Pacers, Walsh’s work isn’t finished. Not entirely.
Bird is now in charge. But Walsh, 72, is staying on as a consultant. Exactly how much input he’ll have on decisions is known only to him and Bird.
But there is no mistaking Bird’s respect for the man who literally taught him the business side of the NBA. Bird, who worked with Walsh from 2003 to 2008 before becoming president, might not have returned at all were it not for Walsh’s coaxing.
“He got them to the Eastern Conference Finals in Game 7, and it showed great leadership,” Bird said. “I’ve learned a lot from Donnie over the years, but we knew going in (to 2012-13) that we had an opportunity do something special here. I still think we can. But it’s been an honor to work with Donnie and hopefully continue to do that.
“But as I say that, there’s one voice. There’s got to be one voice, one guy leading the franchise, and I came back to do that,” Bird said.
Walsh not only accepts the arrangement, he made it happen — yet another, and perhaps final, example of his superb vision and leadership.
“I met with Larry when he wanted to leave last year, and I said I would do this until he was ready to come back,” Walsh said. “Well, he’s ready, and I couldn’t be happier. I had a great last year with this team. It is a great group of guys who have the potential for some great things.”