Commentary

Bird should've faced facts with Thomas

At the very least, Isiah Thomas deserved a face-to-face with Larry Bird before getting fired.

Updated: July 10, 2008, 11:36 AM ET
By David Aldridge | Special to ESPN.com

This is what is understandable about Larry Bird's decision to fire Isiah Thomas a month before the start of training camp.

"I came in July 14th," Bird said on the phone Wednesday. "When I first came here, I came in with an open mind. But I was uncomfortable with some things. I wanted to take the time to talk with Donnie (Walsh, who was moved upstairs on the Pacers' food chain to make Bird the general manager). We both had concerns about what happened to the team at the end of the regular season. I just was uncomfortable with that."

Instead of leaping to a conclusion, Bird took the time to see if he was right, if there was something that could explain what he thought was rampant selfishness among the players at the worst possible time of the season. It is one of Bird's beliefs about basketball that a playoff team should be clicking and peaking when the postseason begins, not losing and bickering. And he saw too many players playing for themselves instead of for the Pacers.

And at the end of that period, Bird decided that a) Thomas hadn't done enough to stop the slide, and b) that was enough to fire Thomas, with Rick Carlisle waiting in the wings.

Isiah Thomas
OK. Bird is now the boss in Indiana, and it's his call. If he thinks Rick Carlisle is a better coach, that's his prerogative. That's understandable.

Here's what isn't.

If you don't like the way Thomas has done things and you're thinking about firing him, don't you owe him a meeting to discuss it? To allow him to give his side of the story, his reasons, his philosophies, his take on the players involved? Especially since Thomas would be more privy to the day-to-day workings of the squad than Bird -- who, after all, wasn't there last season?

But Bird, by his own admission, never had a face-to-face with Thomas. It's not hard to find Isiah, who is among the more accessible superstars that I've ever encountered. It usually doesn't take more than a couple hours to track him down. I talked with him for half an hour on the phone a couple of weeks ago about what pieces he believed the Pacers still needed before training camp (think guard) and his hope that the team would get off to a good start.

I don't doubt Bird when he says he didn't want to make a rash decision. But I also don't think there was any doubt about what his decision was going to be.

Thomas' ouster will no doubt be good news for the many critics that had attached themselves to him like barnacles the past three years. They seemed to revel in his team's playoff losses (never got out of the first round!) and lack of Central Division pelts.

But play along with me here for a minute.

Isiah Thomas was 0-3 in the first round of the playoffs.

Flip Saunders is 0-7.

Does that mean Flip is more than twice as bad a coach as Isiah?

(By the way, Kevin Garnett is 0-7 in the first round. Tracy McGrady is 0-4. Should they be traded?)

Come on. Indiana went from a .500 regular season in Thomas's first year as head coach to 14 games above .500 this season. There was a decided slump the second half of the season, to be sure. But can't some of that be explained by the personal tragedies that befell Jermaine O'Neal (his stepfather's attempted suicide in his mother's home), Jamaal Tinsley (his mother's losing battle with cancer) and Austin Croshere (his father-in-law's sudden death) all at once?

The reasons teams lose in the playoffs usually are directly correlated to their lack of postseason experience. The Pacers have been the youngest team in the L the last two years. Their stars, O'Neal and Ron Artest, are picking things up as they go. (For example: you don't have one good game against a team and then say they can't guard you, as a certain star forward did last year against Jersey.) There's a reason that the Jazz, against all logic, continued to be formidable playoff opponents.

Because their two superstars had played in a few hundred playoff games.

The Pacers that went belly-up in the playoffs weren't the Pacers that Bird coached to the Finals in 2000. After Rik Smits retired, any hopes of riding that group on another long postseason run pretty much evaporated. Walsh made the decision to rebuild on the fly, trading Dale Davis for O'Neal and moving Jalen Rose for Artest and Brad Miller. Indiana never had to dip into the lottery for players. Walsh, as usual, did a masterful job.

But by definition, that meant the Pacers had to learn everything about the playoffs all over again. That usually results in early exits. (By the way, did Thomas have anything to do with Reggie Miller going 4-of-25 from behind the arc against the Celtics? Or with Miller gutting it out all season on a bad ankle -- admirable, but ultimately detrimental?)

I am not saying Thomas carries no blame at all in all of this. He was the head coach and the Ws and Ls went on his record. (If you say that he should have had a firmer hand with Artest while the young forward went berserk the last couple of years, I'll accept it -- but only if what you would have done would have produced a better result.) And yes, the Pacers did look terrible getting bounced by Boston, especially in their Game 1 meltdown at home when they didn't have timeouts available in crunch time. That's the coach's responsibility. What I am saying is that the Pacers, like their coach, were a work in progress. Bottomline, I'd say going from 41-41 to 48-34 constitutes progress.

Thomas told me on Wednesday that he wants to continue coaching. I have no doubt he will be back on the bench within a year. Because the mark of a good coach is the answer to one question: Do his players play for him? I really don't think anything else matters. And Jermaine O'Neal played for Isiah Thomas. Al Harrington played for Isiah Thomas. Ron Artest played for Isiah Thomas. They were better after working with him than before.

I don't believe for one minute that Larry Bird fired Isiah Thomas because their teams were bitter rivals in the 80s, playing for rings. They're both too smart and professional for that -- and, I think, too respectful of the other's accomplishments. But maybe it's better that they go through the next chapter of their lives on different teams, building contenders in their own separate ways.

Odom, Riley get fresh starts together
Lamar Odom is watching the Olympic qualifying tournament.

"Time for me to start making some All-Star teams, especially in the East," LO said from Miami on Wednesday. "I'm looking at those USA dudes, and I'm hungry."

Pat Riley is watching the Olympic qualifying tournament.

Pat Riley
Riley

Lamar Odom
Odom

"There's some guys down there on the Olympic team that had issues when they were 22, 23," he said. "That's what young guys do. I think this kid is ready to move forward with a new start."

When the Clippers declined on Monday to make Miami's $65 million offer sheet for Odom, that's exactly what Riley gave him. Despite the injuries the past two seasons and the suspensions for marijuana, Riley still believes that Odom has superstar potential. That's why he was willing to spend now (although it did take Miami a week of visiting with Odom before dropping the sheet on his agent). Miami hasn't been a player in free agency since inking Eddie Jones and Brian Grant to help out Alonzo Mourning. Riley needed to hit a homer.

"Contrary to popular belief, we didn't have that much room next year," Riley said. "We needed to use the room this year ... when you're talking about the great free agents, the ones that are going to be on the open market next year, and there's a lot of them, if you're going to be a destination point for any of those players, you've got to have real room, not fake room or almost room. When they can go back to their teams and get seven years, and $104, $112, $126 (million), whatever it is, they've got to be in love with you (to leave). And we weren't going to have the same room next year. With everything, we were only going to have around $7 million, unless we had the trade assets, and those are harder and harder to get."

But Riley had more room this year because guard Anthony Carter (through his agent, Bill Duffy) failed to "opt in" for next season. The error gave Miami an additional $3.5 million in cap room; combined with the unexpected cap increase for next season, it made the Heat a player. Miami dropped an $82 million sheet on Elton Brand, but the Clippers matched. With time running out, Riley gambled.

I thought it was vital to get the talent this year and fast-track the rebuilding process, instead of waiting a year ... it was an important day for us. If we had lost this opportunity, the season would have been frustrating, and disappointing, and we probably were looking at the lottery.
Pat Riley

"When you have a chance to get a young, great, talented player, all three of those, you've got to do it," he said. "I thought it was vital to get the talent this year and fast-track the rebuilding process, instead of waiting a year ... it was an important day for us. If we had lost this opportunity, the season would have been frustrating, and disappointing, and we probably were looking at the lottery."

One man's caviar ...

It had been a while since anyone had spoken about Odom in those terms. The Clippers have had to deal with a laundry list of high jinks from their immature one-time franchise player over the years. The smoke was the least of it. There were missed practices, mysterious injuries, only fleeting glimpses of the all-court talent that made Odom seem like a reasonable gamble (that word again!) out of Rhode Island.

"It's a second chance for your boy," LO said. "It's time for me to get this little career of mine off the ground ... everybody, from the coaches to the players to the guys that tape the ankles, they're not prejudging. They're working with me. I've told everyone my mission is to make the Miami Heat organization proud, so one day, when this is over, (Riley) can say, 'See, I was right .... ' I looked him in his face and gave him my word, just like he looked me in my face and gave me his word."

Riley still doesn't have a proven inside presence other than Grant, so his new nucleus of Odom, Caron Butler and first-rounder Dwyane Wade will still have trouble, even in the East. But with Odom available to do whatever's needed ("I think I'm going to be the only player in the NBA that they don't say no position for me. They're just gonna say, 'Playing ... Lamar Odom' "), Riley can create matchup problems in the backcourt and at small forward. He plans to tailor his offense to his new charges.

"Right now, I don't have a player on my roster that's under 6-5," Riley says. "We may go out and get a really natural point guard, but my experience has been, unless you have a great one -- and I had one in Tim Hardaway -- or someone like a Gary Payton, or a Magic, or a John Stockton type, or Steve Nash, a great-thinking 6-foot guard, you're better off going with players, and size, and length, and athleticism."

Only time will tell if Odom is worth the investment. Odom says he knows the road he was on was draining his game, and himself. It seems amazing, but he's a contemporary of his new teammates, not a grizzled veteran.

"You know, the 19-year-old Lamar, I would have been like, 'C'mon, Pat, let me go up to New York for a while,' " Odom said. "But the team camaraderie down here is great. Caron Butler and I are the same age. Rasual Butler is older than me. My experience is going to come from what I've been through."

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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