The move seems unthinkable. How could the Celtics trade a player as revered as Larry Bird? But Red Auerbach understands the value of trading a player too early rather than too late. And if he were to play elsewhere, everyone knows he would prefer his home state of Indiana. The offer is just too much to pass up. The Celtics trade Bird to Indiana for Chuck Person and the rights to the No. 2 overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft (Rik Smits).
Injuries limit him to only six games in the 1988-89 season. But, that turns out to be something of a blessing. Without Bird or the players they traded for him, the Pacers have a miserable season. And, wind up with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1989 draft. With Bird coming back and looking increasingly creakier, the team decides to deal the pick for a veteran big man who can help immediately. Who better than his former teammate Robert Parish?
The Celtics simply have no need for him. Smits appears to be their center of the future, and without Bird they’d rather go young anyway. So the Pacers go into the 1989-90 season with an absolutely loaded lineup featuring Bird, Parish, Reggie Miller and Detlef Schrempf.
Defenses around the league just can’t contend with the space that lineup creates. They lead the league in three-point attempts by over a full shot per game and end the year with the league’s best offense. Chicago and Detroit challenge them in the playoffs, but Bird and Miller ultimately bring Indiana its first and only NBA championship.
The Bulls knock the Pacers off in the Eastern Conference Finals a year later and it becomes clear injuries are going to end Bird’s career. But he so enjoyed his time with the Pacers that he becomes their head coach only one year into his retirement, re-tooling the team around Miller and becoming easily the most beloved figure in Indiana sports.
And Boston? They get stuck in the middle. Smits, Person and Kevin McHale keep the Celtics hovering around playoff contention, but the young players don’t develop as much as the team would have hoped. And without a true franchise player, nobody can carry them as Bird once did. The 90s become the first decade in Boston’s franchise history to end without a single championship or Finals appearance. Without Bird, they’re just like everybody else.