The Indiana Pacers won a coin flip in 1978 to earn the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. One of the top talents available was a junior-eligible forward from French Lick who was playing his college ball a little more than an hour down the road in Terre Haute.
Larry Bird told NBA teams he was returning to Indiana State for his final season of eligibility, putting the team that drafted him in a difficult spot: Sign him prior to the 1979 draft or have nothing to show for the pick. Bird had all the leverage since he could simply re-enter the 1979 draft. The Pacers didn’t feel they could afford Bird due to the money owed to the NBA for joining the league from the ABA. The Boston Celtics, of course, selected Bird sixth in 1978 and eventually signed him to a five-year, $3.25 million contract that made him the highest-paid rookie in sports history at the time. The Pacers dealt the No. 1 pick to Portland for the No. 3 pick – selecting Rick Robey – and guard Johnny Davis.
But what would have happened if the Pacers had picked Bird and signed him, convinced he’d bring in more money than he cost? Here’s a look at how Pacers’ history played out in a different slice of the multiverse.
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Pacers still trade No. 1 pick
First, we’re still making the trade. If we’re going to lose Bird, at least we’re going to have something to show for the pick in Davis. Trading for Davis was a shrewd move, taking a shooting guard who averaged just 9.4 points per game in his first two seasons in Portland and moving him to point guard, where he’d average 16.4 points and 5.4 assists in four seasons with the Pacers. If Bird was available at No. 6, we can take him at No. 3 and get still get Davis.
The Pacers signed Mickey Johnson as a free agent prior to the 1979 offseason. The 6-10 Johnson had an incredible season, averaging 19.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists in his only year with the Pacers. But while it’s exciting to think of Johnson and Bird playing side-by-side, Indiana had to send Ricky Sobers to Chicago as compensation (there was no “free” agency in 1979) for signing Johnson. If we’ve got Bird, we need another guard more than we need Johnson so we’re erasing that move. Sobers averaged 17.8 points and 6.5 assists in two seasons with the Pacers; his numbers dipped after leaving, but he’d average 14.5 points and 4.5 assists over the next five seasons, giving Bird’s Pacers a capable backcourt.
The starting center is James Edwards, a traditional post-up big man who averaged 15.7 points and 7.0 rebounds. We’ll be happy to hold onto Edwards.
We lose Billy Knight since the Pacers traded their actual draft pick—Rick Robey—to the Celtics for him. Knight is an all-time Pacer and the 15 points per game he averaged in his second stint with the Pacers would have been useful in the backcourt but, with all due respect to Knight, we’ve got Larry Bird.
Another franchise-altering decision
The 1979-80 Pacers had Alex English averaging 14.9 points and 7.0 rebounds. He was a well-regarded player, but the Pacers dealt him during the season to Denver to bring George McGinnis back home. McGinnis had been an All-Star in 1978-79, but he had taken a step back to start the 1979-80 season. Though the trade made some sense at the time, McGinnis wouldn’t return to his previous level of production and would be out of the league three years later when English was well on his way to becoming a Hall of Famer in Denver. Here’s what the Pacers’ Slick Leonard said at the time of the deal:
“I hate to give Alex up, but I’ve never been able to trade for somebody and give up exactly who I wanted to give. It came down to this: We need a big, strong forward. We’ve got plenty of small forwards. There’s nothing out there in the draft this year and probably not next. And if you go into the free agent market, you’ve got pay at least this price.”
Well, guess what? In this alternate reality the Pacers have a big, strong forward named Larry Bird. Yes, English was a perfect match for Denver’s fast-breaking offense, so maybe he’s not averaging 25 a game in Indiana, but we’re keeping him to pair with Bird, who would win Rookie of the Year by averaging 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists, at forward.
There’s a surprisingly useful bench crew on this Pacers team as well. They added first-round pick Dudley Bradley, who would show promise as a defensive player (2.6 steals per game) but never develop further. However, with Davis and Sobers, Bradley is an adequate reserve guard beside Joe Hassett, one of the early 3-point-shooting guards. There’s also forward Mike Bantom (11.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists) and center Clemon Johnson (6.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks), who’s an excellent complement to Edwards.
How good would these Pacers be?
It’s hard to overstate the impact Bird made. The Celtics went from 29 wins to 61 when Bird joined a core of Cedric Maxwell, Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens and Chris Ford. Maxwell is an underrated player and Archibald and Cowens are Hall of Famers but were at the end of their careers. Ford was a very useful player but not as good as the Pacers’ guards. Boston’s best reserve was ML Carr.
The Pacers went 37-45 without Bird; based on the Celtics’ success, why wouldn’t a Pacers team of Bird, English, Edwards, Davis and Sobers win 55-plus games?
With Bird not available, we’ll give the Celtics Reggie Theus, a very good 6-7 combo guard. Maybe he and Bill Fitch don’t mesh but maybe the Celtics coach gets a little more defense out of Theus. Those Celtics aren’t winning 61 games but they’re still very good. Philadelphia is the team to beat, winning 59 games and eliminating the Celtics in the playoffs led by a deep roster highlighted by Julius Erving. Are the Bird-led Pacers beating those Sixers? Maybe not, but they’re in the thick of the East for the next decade led by a pair of Hall of Fame forwards in Bird and English.
The next season, the Celtics would trade for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale; even without Bird, they’re a contender at that point. Philadelphia wasn’t going anywhere and Milwaukee emerged as a power behind Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Junior Bridgeman and Bob Lanier. Can the new-look Pacers contend? Without Bird they’d have their best NBA season, winning 44 games; adding another useful forward in second-round pick Louis Orr and picking up veteran guard Don Buse and Martinsville’s Jerry Sichting.
The bottom drops out for the real Pacers at this point. They can’t afford to pay Edwards and trade a future draft pick for Tom Owens. That future draft pick would be No. 2 overall pick in 1983 and positioned the Pacers to take Michael Jordan. But with Bird on the roster, money is flowing, they can keep Edwards.
Does this team match the Celtics of Bird-McHale-Parish? No. There are some defensive issues with the Pacers’ new frontline. But over the next decade it’s a four-team race for East supremacy among the Sixers, Celtics, Bucks and, yes, Pacers.
(And ignore the fact the Lakers would have won at least seven NBA titles in a nine-year stretch in this alternate reality.)