Larry Bird and Magic Johnson could renew their longtime rivalry come this summer.
They’re on schedule to go head-to-head once again in the summer and that just seems right. Whether it was inside the sweltering old barn known as the Boston Garden, or in front of the surgically-enhanced courtside faces at the old Fabulous Forum, these two Hall of Famers brought intensity to the humidity.
Once again, it’s Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird with something on the line. Their historic meetings are forever frozen on film and inside the memories of pre-millennials lucky enough to see and feel it.
“I wanted to beat him,” Magic once said of their friendly yet epic rivalry in the 1980s that changed the NBA, “and he wanted to beat me.”
Yet this time, this summer, it won’t be for the right to win a championship -- at least not right away. And it won’t be settled on the court. Magic and Bird will engage in a competition of sorts using their phones, some posturing and maybe a face-off if necessary.
With his new gig as head of the Los Angles Lakers’ basketball operations, Magic is now in charge of rebuilding and rebranding that tarnished team, while Bird still runs the Indiana Pacers. They can discuss trades that can help their teams, and one such potential deal in particular will be in play this July. Imagine that: Two greats, now head honchos of their franchises, are surely set to engage in a competition -- is that the right word? -- for the future of Pacers star Paul George.
Why did the Pacers opt to not move Paul George at the trade deadline?
George is signed only through next season. But once an All-Star and All-NBA type like George gets this close to the end of his contract, he gets put on a stopwatch by the public for a “decision,” as in Kevin Durant’s decision, LeBron James’ decision and on and on. George has never said he wanted out of Indiana. Yet George, a Palmdale, Calif., native, was born and raised a Kobe Bryant and Laker fan. And Magic was also one of his heroes. And … well, you can do the math.
It would be in his best interest of the Pacers for Bird to see what he can get for George this summer, and one of the first calls will be to Magic … if his old competitor doesn’t call him first.
If George doesn’t make one of the three All-NBA teams this season, Bird can’t offer him the new designated player contract extension of $200 million-plus. That deal would be far more than George could make as a free agent signee of the Lakers or any other team. In the likely event George doesn’t make All-NBA, that would strip the Pacers of a huge financial advantage to keep him.
And if that’s the case, Bird might want to dial an old friend and try to cut a deal.
The history Bird and Magic share is rich, pure and epic, starting with their ‘79 NCAA title-game showdown and ending, quite harmoniously, with the ‘92 Olympic Dream Team. Through the years in between, they elevated basketball and laid the foundation for a league now worth billions. Their professional lives since then have been mostly charmed, though they never intersected until now.
Bird brings more administrative experience, first as a former and coach of the Pacers and from 13 years as a Pacers executive. He spent his playing career with the Boston Celtics, yet Indiana is home and the Pacers are a better fit personally.
His run in Indiana has been good and consistent, stained only by the “Malice at the Palace” in 2004 which cost the Pacers what was likely to be a 60-win season and a potential shot at The NBA Finals. The wreckage caused by that game forced Bird to make swift roster changes to restore the franchise’s credibility, but also set it back a few years when Bird had to absorb bad contracts in exchange.
Kevin Ding discusses the future of the Lakers' roster.
The Pacers’ rebuild was complete when Bird drafted Roy Hibbert (in 2008), George (in 2010) and signed David West as a free agent (in 2013). Except the timing of it all was lousy, though, because the Miami Heat with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade ran roughshod over the Pacers and the rest of the NBA at the same time.
In the rebuild since those days, Bird made some tough choices, including briefly moving George to power forward last season, firing popular coach Frank Vogel last summer and trading point guard George Hill in a three-team deal. He drafted Miles Turner, a 20-year-old center with a high ceiling, but last summer’s additions of veterans Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young have mostly sputtered. Overall, Bird has a potential playoff team with a flexible payroll, but the Pacers are no powerhouse.
He has two choices this offseason: Scrap together enough additional assets to upgrade the Pacers with George, or trade George for assets and build around Turner.
Without much else to trade besides George, and with the possibility of signing an A-list free agent seemingly remote, Bird might shop George -- and the logical market is Los Angeles.
Magic lacks front office experience, although that can be minimized if he surrounds himself with the right cap experts and scouts. He obviously knows the game and the league and he’ll need to use the sharp negotiating skills that have served him well in the business world since retirement.
His clout and cult of personality could be a slight help to sign free agents, and the Lakers are a destination place for great players. Yet with the new cap rules making it tougher to poach those free agents, the Lakers must master the draft-and-develop formula and they’re equipped to do that.
While the Jim Buss era flopped, Magic was left with plenty to work with. This isn’t a stripped-bare team. He has young players to trade or keep in addition to a 2017 first-round pick provided it lands in the top three (otherwise it goes to the Sixers). That gives Magic a handful of options to use.
Bird didn’t trade George at the deadline because the offers weren’t enough, and because waiting until summer can expand the trade universe. If the Lakers keep that 2017 first-round pick, then the Magic-Bird talks will have more meaning.
Magic can offer a package: The No. 1 pick, plus a young player on the roster and a veteran or two to make the deal work salary cap-wise. Or he can drive a harder bargain, knowing that George can become a free agent in the summer of 2018 and possibly sign outright with the Lakers.
And so Bird and Magic will hold a conversation or two this summer. Bird seems inclined to make George a Pacer forever, like Reggie Miller was. If George isn’t receptive to that, then trading him can help both Magic and Bird, and because their relationship is built on friendship and mutual respect, there’s the good chance one won’t make the deal if it damages the other.
If this happens and a deal is made, maybe in a few years Magic and Bird will see the George trade as the turning point for both franchises. In that case, two men who once tried badly to beat each other will gladly settle for a tie.
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