A few years ago Indiana won 49 and 56 games and made it to the ECF in back to back seasons. If you didn't know about their late season issues you would probably expect that 56 win team to be a perennial contender. Four starters under 28 and no dead money tied up in terrible contracts would let them work around the few losses they would have. Two years later the Pacers not only dropped 3 starters from that team but 7 of their top 10 in total mins from that season for basically no return, and they are on pace for a 50 win season at the quarter mark, with no notable luck to speak of, and no mass of draft picks to trade. Even if they slip into the low-mid 40s in wins this is impressive, because not only is it difficult to replace multiple contributors (including a two time all-star C) but continuity is supposed to be a thing in the NBA. So is there something to be learned from this situation? Is Larry Bird a genius? Let's investigate.
First let us give credit to Bird where it is due. The 3 best (or 3 of the 4 best) players were part of that 56 win team and were acquired by draft (1) and trade (2). So, while we ignore that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George could be playing the 3/4 together we give Bird a good score for having at least a functional base to work off.
Now I am going to rate the Pacers pickups by two basic criteria. One is production on the court so far this season and the other is the annual value of their contract. In descending order of annual value of their contract
1. Monta Ellis. 4 years 44 million. Production- bad. His 12.7 PER is a reflection of the worst TS mark (.485), USG (20.1) and TO% (17.8) of his career. His excellent +/- is almost certainly a reflection of the fact that he has played 628 mins with PG and 59 mins without him.
2. Rodney Stucky. 3 years 21 million. Production- poor. 13.6 PER reflects a career low TS (though that should bounce up if he stops shooting 10 percentage points from 3 below his career average) and 2nd lowest assist and USG rates for his career.
3. Chase Budinger. 1 year 5 million (via trade). Production- acceptable. A "3+D" style player he is shooting a career high from 3 (41%) that will likely come down, but is a low usage (13.6%) player that hasn't been adding significant value via rebounding, assists or turnovers. His defensive numbers look good for a guy playing 1/3rds of his mins without either Mahinmi or George, and two thirds with either one or neither of them.
4. C.J.Miles. 3 years (4th PO) 13 million. Production- MAS FRESCO. 16.9 PER is 3rd highest on the team, TS a hair below 60% and a cosistently low TO rate throughout his career. Shooting 6 percentage points above his career mark, but I am inclined to believe that his last 1,100 shots from 3 are a much better indicator and he is only shooting 3 percentage points above that average so regression expectations should be less. Only 67 mins without PG on the court is a confounder, but he has played 83% of his mins as an undersized SF (per basketball-reference) on the 5th ranked D in the league and has been (unarguably imo) the Pacers 2nd best offensive player so far this year.
5. Jordan Hill. 1 year, 4 million. Production- solid. A good rebounding rate (18%) and an excellent defensive rtg despite playing 1/3rd of his mins without PG and almost none (only 65) with Mahinmi.
6. Lavoy Allen. 2 years (3rd TO), 7.7 million. Production- ugh (as in ugh, hard to figure out). Terrible PER (8.8) and decent defensive numbers. His on/off +/- is positive despite not playing with PG an overwhelming amount. Withholding comment for now.
7. Glenn Robinson 3. 3 years, 3 million. 155 mins of solid play, not really enough to comment on.
Bird's two biggest moves are highly suspect. Ellis (30) and Stucky (29) are bad ages to sign SGs with no outside shot. While both should finish the year better than they have started I would not want to go forward with either contract, and neither has been a major contributor. The CJ Miles signing has paid off well, and it would take a lot of regression for his contract to become bad. Hill and Budinger are 1 year deals and will probably get a pay bump just with the cap bump. They may be able to retain Hill cheaply as his best attribute so far (D) coincides with the worst aspect of his reputation. The longer term deals of GR3, Allen and Miles show some high level savvy.
Conclusion- Bird does not look like a genius, but is clearly a good GM. His overpay of Ellis especially looks bad and he will have to continue to find valuable deals like the Miles/Hill ones to overcome it and the Stucky signing, and Mahinmi should end up with a big raise from his $4 million a year deal he finishes this season. On the other hand a healthy Paul George will be making 10-20 million less than his market value each of then next two seasons, so he has that going for him, which is nice.