INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Pacers president Larry Bird is urging fans to remain patient through the team's struggles.
Indiana enters the All-Star break with an 18-34 record, well out of the playoff race after missing the postseason for the past three seasons. Last month, some players were openly wondering if their "weak-minded" defense could be righted and attendance woes have been a problem now for years, along with assorted off-the-court issues.
Yet Bird says the rebuilding phase that began when the Pacers traded Ron Artest in 2006 is on target, and will move into high gear after next season when the team gets salary cap space.
"We knew that we had to clean it out and rebuild it, and we knew we were going to go through some tough times," Bird told The Associated Press this week. "Nobody likes to lose, and everybody wants to be a part of a winner. We think we're on the right track to get there."
Bird also took the pressure off coach Jim O'Brien, who is in his third year after back-to-back 36-46 seasons. O'Brien signed a one-year extension last September to coach through the end of next season, and Bird said he is in no danger of being replaced.
"The one thing Jimmy bought into when he came here was that we were going to rebuild, and we were going to struggle at times," Bird said. "I always say the losses are on me because I want him to work these guys hard, develop the young guys we have and keep moving forward with what we have."
The Pacers have suffered through a series of injuries. Top scorer Danny Granger missed a month with a heel injury, center Jeff Foster is out for the season with a back injury, guard/forward Mike Dunleavy missed several weeks while recovering from knee surgery and rookie forward Tyler Hansbrough has missed the past month with an inner ear infection.
Healthy or not, Bird expected rough times.
"Even if we were healthy all year, I thought we could win 36 to 41 games with this team," he said. "In a rebuilding phase, which I think we're on track with, we'll just have to go forward with it."
Bird, whose resume includes three NBA titles and three MVP awards with the Boston Celtics, said the Pacers still could play better.
"The one thing about this team is that we stand too much and we settle way too much for the outside shot," he said. "If we get to the hole and put the pressure on the defense, we're a lot better. When we stand and just take outside shots, we have a tendency to struggle."
Granger, an All Star last season, hasn't been quite as good this season. He's still averaging 22.4 points per game, but that's down more than three points from last season. He's also shooting four percent lower from the field.
Forward Troy Murphy has remained steady, despite trade rumors. He averages 14 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
Part of the rebuilding process has led the Pacers to play younger players. O'Brien sat point guard T.J. Ford for 18 games while getting rookie A.J. Price some additional minutes.
"T.J. knows that I respect his game, and he knows how much I like him," Bird said. "It's unfortunate that they're in that situation, but at that time, we wanted to see if A.J. could play, and we know he can."
A bright spot has been second-year center Roy Hibbert. The 7-foot-2 Georgetown product has become a fan favorite with flashes of dominance. He's averaging 11.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, but that comes with 3.6 fouls every 24 minutes. He also sometimes struggles against quicker post players.
"With Roy, he's made great strides," Bird said. "He'll continue to get better because of his work ethic. He'll struggle at times, but I think in the long run, he'll be a very valuable player for us."
Second-year guard Brandon Rush has been inconsistent, but has shown potential. He's averaging 8.7 points and 4.1 rebounds. Hopes were high after he averaged 18.3 points and shot 55 percent from the field in the final 10 games last season.
Eventually, Bird said, the young core players will gain experience playing as a unit under O'Brien. Until then, he said, wins might not come as often as fans would like.
"Jimmy's done an excellent job of doing the things I want him to do," Bird said. "It won't show in wins and losses, but it will show in the long run."