The Indiana Pacers fired coach Jim O’Brien on Sunday midway through the fourth year of O’Brien’s contract and named assistant Frank Vogel interim coach for the rest of 2010-11.
O’Brien went 121-169 as Pacers coach and began this season 17-27 before being relieved of his duties.
The first thing to take away from Sunday’s news is that the Pacers are doing the right thing in parting ways with O’Brien. He wasn’t getting it done at a point in his contract when Indiana should be a solid playoff contender in a weak Eastern Conference. I’ll have more on that later, but O’Brien’s dismissal presents an opportunity for the Pacers to start fresh.
The question is, is it just the first one?
By Drew Allen
Once again, it was time — perhaps past time — for O’Brien to go. The veteran coach went 36-46 in each of his first two seasons at the helm of the franchise and then regressed in 2009-10, going just 32-50. In his fourth season, a year in which team president Larry Bird believed the Pacers should make the playoffs, O’Brien had Indiana headed toward a similar result. He suffered too many losses for too many reasons. To name a few …
- Lack of continuity in lineups and rotations. This was probably the biggest complaint among Pacers fans about O’Brien’s tactics. Questions about the coach’s lineups gained steam during the 2009-10 season when O’Brien aimed to play “small ball” by starting ex-Pacer Troy Murphy at center and playing Danny Granger, a natural three, at the power forward position. That strategy backfired, heightening Indiana’s defensive woes and perhaps hindering the growth of center Roy Hibbert. O’Brien came under more fire this season for his rotations; the coach often would sit players at crucial points in games (ex: Josh McRoberts in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 111-96 loss at Chicago). Come to think of it, O’Brien’s constant shifting of the lineup created another problem …
- Not playing the young players on the roster. I would find it funny if O’Brien were sitting his young talent in favor of winning; the young players give this team the best chance to win. Maybe the coach felt it would be in the best financial interests of the franchise to utilize the expiring contracts of veterans Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford and Jeff Foster to make them attractive options on the trade market. While each of those guys has played well for the most part, their extensive playing time has limited opportunities for the youth on the Pacers’ roster. The team traded for Darren Collison in the summer to make the second-year man its franchise point guard. This season, O’Brien has given Ford similar minutes to Collison in many games. Dunleavy and Foster, both of whom are not expected back in Indiana next season at their current salaries, have trimmed playing time for former first-round picks Brandon Rush, Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George, much to Bird’s frustration early in the season. Bird also mentioned he’d like to see some contribution from rookie guard Lance Stephenson, who has not seen any action in 2010-11.
- Being tuned out by the team. Whether O’Brien actually lost connection to his players is something we may never know, but it seemed at times as though his messages weren’t getting through to the Pacers. Perhaps O’Brien brought some of it upon himself by calling out individual performances in public. In March 2010, he called a career night for McRoberts “irrelevant” after a 122-99 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. In December, he said Hibbert, who at the time was averaging almost a double-double on the season, was “not having a very good season.” Now, I’m not one to feel sorry for players who get called out by coaches in press conferences, but O’Brien’s comments in these instances seemed quite unwarranted and probably didn’t sit well in the locker room. Bird even said Sunday he believed Hibbert’s recent struggles could be traced back to O’Brien’s remarks.
So, long story short, the Pacers likely will be better off with O’Brien’s departure.
However, Indiana’s long-term prospects are far from certain even after eliminating perhaps the biggest problem.
Bird and everyone in the front office and on the coaching staff are in the final years of their contracts, and Bird has publicly stated he’s unsure if he wants to return to the organization after this season. Bird stood firm in his desire to refrain from replacing O’Brien as interim coach, a move Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz deemed a necessity last week. That might or might not speak to his long-term commitment to improving the franchise. Therefore, the Pacers might be looking at wholesale changes in management upon the season’s conclusion, perhaps by bringing in someone like Kevin Pritchard, the former Portland Trail Blazers general manager and an Indiana native.
Such a change would almost certainly prompt a search for a new coach and staff unless Indiana realizes drastic improvement and a playoff berth under Vogel. Names that have been tossed around for the job include former Pacers guard Mark Jackson and former team assistant and Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. Another name to consider is Lester Conner, a former Pacers assistant who was dismissed last June after publicly stating he would do things differently than O’Brien. Conner coached the team to a 130-115 win against Toronto last February while O’Brien attended his mother-in-law’s funeral.
In the meantime, however, Vogel is the man. To make a case for himself as a viable coaching option for the Pacers — or any team, for that matter — he must keep the team level-headed as it attempts to charge closer to .500, where it stood for much of the season before a recent slump. To do that, Vogel needs to find a way to utilize the youth on the roster while running consistent, effective rotations. Bird could help his new coach by striking deals for some of the team’s expiring contracts.
We’ll get our first look at this “fresh” Pacers team at 7 p.m. today against the Toronto Raptors at Conseco Fieldhouse.