We expect the 2010-11 season to reveal a lot of things for a lot of people in the Pacers organization. It’s “show and prove” time for many and we will continue to break down how we think that will play out this year in our “What This Season Means To …” series. Today, we discuss the coach with the Paulie Walnuts hair: Jim O’Brien.
Coaches are hired to be fired.
According to a recent piece by Tom Haberstroh, there have been 138 coaching changes in the last decade. Jim O’Brien has been involved in five of them. Keeping score, he’s been on the good side three times, and the bad side twice. Entering the final year of his contract with a 104-142 record and zero playoff appearances indicates the chances of him becoming another statistic by the end of the year are — to put it kindly — pretty fair.
It’s unlikely that there will be many tears shed in Indiana if and when this happens. In the NBA, there will never be a deep emotional bond forged between the fanbase and a coach who loses more games than he or she wins. The relationship between O’Brien and Pacer fans was further strained by stylistic differences — both professionally and personally.
What O’Brien faces this year is a hostile fanbase and the challenge of making the playoffs with a team coming off a 32-win season and relying on huge improvement from several relatively inexperienced and unproven players. It is certain that if Jim O’Brien wants to have any chance of another contract with the Pacers, he must make the playoffs this year. Even that would be no guarantee. The team is at a turning point, with young players and lots of available cap space, so it would also be an opportune time to get a “new voice” to lead the Pacers into the next phase of … well … whatever it is they’re doing.
If I were to guess what it would take for Jim O’Brien to get a new contract with the Pacers, I’d probably say something approaching 50 wins in the regular season and at least one playoff series win.
So … not likely.
In fact, if what these NBA experts or The Basketball Jones believe about this year’s Pacer squad is true, O’Brien doesn’t even have a fighting chance. Given his age (58) and his career coaching record (286-300), this will probably be his last go-round on the NBA coaching circuit. Teams will be looking for younger coaches with more appeal to the fans, either assistants coming out of winning programs or ex-players with “curb appeal.”
If Obie is, as it certainly appears, a “dead man walking,” then what could this season possibly mean to him?
Well, when the fall is all that’s left …
As we enter the fourth year of the Jim O’Brien coaching era, it’s pretty much all been said — generally in breathless rants involving wild gesticulations. Anybody who hasn’t made up their mind about O’Brien at this point isn’t going to be interested enough in the Pacers to be reading my work. Almost anything I write in detail ends up building straw men for me to knock down, and to quote Doc Holiday, “my hypocrisy only goes so far.” (Technically, this is me quoting Val Kilmer, who was actually more Doc Holiday than Doc Holiday — but you would have to read page 38 of this Chuck Klosterman book to make any sense of that.)
Let’s just say this: You and I probably disagree about Jim O’Brien.
I like Jim O’Brien. I respect Jim O’Brien. Over his three years here, I think he’s done an above-average job. Granted, that “above-average” job has consisted of about 2 1/4 seasons of pretty good work, and 3/4 of last season of pure, schizophrenic crappiness, but still … better than average overall.
The past three years have largely been spent by the Pacers in jail, to use an unfortunately on-the-nose metaphor. Below average overall talent — and bottom-of-the-barrel defensive talent — pretty much doomed this franchise to the results it has experience. I can understand people wanting to see a more traditional style, but to be honest, I can’t understand them thinking it would have generated more (or maybe even as many) wins.
Regardless, this discussion is probably just a few months away from being rendered moot, and, as I mentioned earlier, there aren’t a lot of minds that are going to be changing.
So this season is about how Jim O’Brien leaves the team for the next man up, even more than it possibly is for Larry Bird. While Bird has largely waited out the bad contracts and laid a basic young foundation, O’Brien has an opportunity to have a profound impact on the future Pacers in the form of four different players.
Let’s break down those guys individually.
Danny Granger – Offensively, Granger has made huge strides under O’Brien. Over the last three seasons, he has averaged just shy of 23 points per game and now hovers on the fringes of the elite class of players in the league. The challenge that faces both Danny and Jim this season is their biggest to date: bringing discipline to his game at both ends of the court. As Jared noted, it was there offensively in his All-Star season and the year prior, but was sorely lacking last season. There is some hope here, as his True Shooting % (TS%) during the last three months of the season was back to 2009 levels (.584), after plummeting to .542 early in the year.
The defensive end is another issue entirely.
“Defensive” Danny was always something of a myth. He’s got the tools, but he’s always been too sloppy and lacks the attention span to consistently defend. This was highlighted even more last season when his offensive efficiency fell off. The point should have been hammered home to Granger this summer when he sat at the end of the bench in the World Championships, ostensibly because he was a weaker defender than either Andre Iguodala (understandably) or Rudy Gay (alarmingly). I tend to view the phrase “demand defense” with a very healthy degree of skepticism. I think it’s reductionist. However, I think it fits in Danny’s case. The tools are there, it’s up to Danny and Jim to make sure they are used.
Roy Hibbert – More than anything else, it’s important to remember that Roy Hibbert is not ready for the responsibility that is about to be thrust upon him. Make no mistake, it’s time for him to become a true focal point of the offense and establish himself as a legitimate starting NBA center. It’s just important to recognize that there will be more games like his preseason performance in Chicago than in Minnesota — at least before the the new year. It’s up to both Hibbert and O’Brien to stick with it. On both a macro and micro level, patience will be the single most important factor with Hibbert this season.
The player that is Hibbert is (hopefully) on the verge of becoming is being built by Roy’s dedication and hard work, but the design is primarily O’Brien’s. Lighter and more mobile, the ideal is to have a player who can move fluidly within a team defense, but — more importantly — become a true pivot through which the offense flows. I can see few systems that give Hibbert a better opportunity to excel, particularly offensively. It de-emphasizes his physical shortcomings (primarily strength) and stresses his strengths (intelligence, passing, traditional post moves). It opens up the floor and gives him room to work, while putting the ball in his hands both at the elbow and on the block. Sure it’s uptempo, but uptempo systems can actually put more emphasis on a key post player. The most aggressive team in the NBA will only get one out of every five shots out of transition. The Pacers will be closer to one out of every six — and Hibbert will be the focal point of those half court sets.
It is the plan, and both player and coach need to give full commitment to it all year.
Josh McRoberts – This is perhaps more basic than anything. O’Brien has drawn harsh criticism surrounding player development, reaching a crescendo last March after O’Brien referred to McRoberts’ career high 15-point effort against in a blowout loss to the Lakers as irrelevant. (Jim likes to say what’s on his mind and isn’t exactly what you’d call politic.) There was further uproar among the fanbase after O’Brien let it be know during the summer league that they “insisted” that Josh take threes, including having him shoot 500 per day. This was softened at the start of training camp when O’Brien said that McRoberts would be measured on passing, running the floor and rebounding.
Still, it reflects a different, and I think better, vision for McRoberts than is generally held.
Most see him as a high energy/hustle player, most often garnering comparisons to guys like Anderson Varejao or Chris Andersen. Problem is, I don’t think he’s even vaguely similar to either of those players. He is a weaker rebounder and less athletic than both. He lacks the shot-blocking ability that Birdman has, and is nowhere near the defender than Varejao is. Put simply, he isn’t good enough at the hustle stuff to get by. O’Brien is setting him up more or less to be a poor man’s Lamar Odom, which I consider to be more in fitting with his “wing-like” tendencies.
Darren Collison – The aquisition of Darren Collison is perhaps the most important move the Pacers have made since drafting Danny Granger. It will also provide the biggest, and most important test for Jim O’Brien this season.
Collison is coming from a New Orleans offense that was almost ridiculously point guard heavy. Going to any other team was almost certain to result in Collison having the ball in his hands less often. But in O’Brien’s scheme, where the design is to get the ball up the court quickly then run the ball through the post in the half court, there may be a bigger adjustment than most.
O’Brien has gone through two “starting” point guards here. Jamaal Tinsley was a pre-existing problem, and O’Brien basically just did the dirty work for the franchise when Jamaal decided to permanently stick his head up his tuchus. TJ Ford was really just a way to break up Jermaine O’Neal’s contract that could maybe, possibly become the answer at the point. Instead, he lost his starting job for the third time in three cities before eventually being mothballed for significant parts of last season. In those instances, there was little question that Bird and Morway would side with Jim O’Brien. With Collison, there’s no question that the front office’s loyalties lie with Darren Collison. In fact, the only way I see Jim being fired during the season is if he has a blow up with the new point guard.
Can O’Brien get Collison to adapt to a new scheme (which will be at least partially necessary for the point guard to mesh well with high usage players like Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert) without burning another bridge? Can he get Collison back to being the defensive player he was in college — a big concern given Collison’s very poor defensive performance in the preseason?
Like with Danny, Roy and Josh … we shall see.
If O’Brien can accomplish all or even most of these “player goals” then he should probably feel somewhat justified. If at the end of the year, these players are where they can be, then this team has a very strong foundation. O’Brien can rightfully believe that he made significant contributions to that foundation. If not, then O’Brien has merely been a placeholder – a transitional coach keeping the seat warm while the Pacers waited to be released from their salary cap hell.
Ultimately, what this season means to O’Brien is the chance to demonstrate whether he is who he (and I) thinks he is, or whether he is who his critics charge him to be. Regardless, one way or another, the big questions will be answered this year.
And then Pacers fans can get on to the business of complaining about the next coach.
For some perspective on what may likely be Jim O’Brien’s last season in Indiana, we look to The Lion in Winter:
Prince Richard: He’ll get no satisfaction out of me. He isn’t going to see me beg.
Prince Geoffrey: My you chivalric fool … as if the way one fell down mattered.
Prince Richard: When the fall is all there is, it matters.