How Do You Solve a Problem Like O'Brien?

The NBA is a players’ league, and the results that any team achieves are overwhelmingly driven by the quality of that team’s players. Coaches are necessary, even important, but in the NBA they have less impact on the variability of a team’s result than is popularly attributed. The reason for this is that there is less variability in the quality of coaches than is popularly thought.

I believe that there are a select few “great” coaches, and, surprisingly, even fewer “terrible” coaches. Most are qualified individuals with their own collection of strengths and foibles. Most will succeed with good talent, and fail with weak talent.

The most successful coaches have their biggest impact before the game starts. Their primary job is to teach the players what to do and prepare them for what the opponent will do. In general, I consider in-game moves, particularly play-calling out of time outs or in late-game situations, to be highly overrated. Those times more than any other are dictated by the quality and the execution of the players.

Because of this, I consider the greatest sin an NBA coach can commit is to over-coach. To think that he can “out-coach” the game, or win a game in the huddle, as opposed to the players winning it on the floor. Or, as I like to say, “To become Isiah Thomas.”

Right now, Jim O’Brien is over-coaching. He seems to be over-coaching, because he has no faith in his players — at least most of them. The lack of faith in a lot of his players (guys like TJ Ford, Brandon Rush and, now, Roy Hibbert) is well earned and well deserved. But that is beside the point.

A classic rule of management says that people will perform to expectations — whether that be up or down. So by assuming failure on the part of his players, he changes that assumption from being probably right to almost certainly right. Therefore, he’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that these guys will fail.

So, while the root of the problem is, was, and will continue to be the issues related to the inadequacy of the players, O’Brien has become a contributor to the problem by confirming those flaws, predicting failure and, therefore, ensuring failure.

Perversely, the thing that seems to have happened here is not so much — as one commenter to 8p9s said — that the coach has “lost” the players, but that the players “lost” the coach.

So, the Pacer management is faced with a problem I’ve seen before in my professional life: How do you remove an under-performing manager without letting the under-performing workforce off the hook?

I’m of two minds on firing O’Brien mid-season.

Firs of all, I don’t like it because it gives credence to the overwhelming fan voice that says O’Brien is the problem. To me, that’s a gross oversimplification of the situation, and much of the vitriol is based on style, rather than actual substance. Put more simply: it’s always easy to blame the coach, particularly one you don’t like.

On the other hand, there doesn’t currently seem to be any signs that the team will turn around under O’Brien. It is possible that even a temporary (and false) bounce would be enough to get to the playoffs. That’s something I think these players (Danny Granger, Rush, Hibbert, Darren Collison, A.J. Price, Tyler Hansbrough, even Paul George) and this franchise desperately needs, and should weigh heavily in any considerations.

It has been reported that the Pacers’ brass are not pleased with O’Brien’s performance right now, but they will keep him until the end of the season — primarily because they don’t view any of his assistants as viable alternatives. Arguably, this restriction on removing O’Brien right now seems entirely artificial.

Let’s not pretend that former Pacers assistant coach Lester Conner was some head-coach-in-waiting and current Pacers assistant coach Frank Vogel isn’t. It seems to me that Vogel could continue the system well enough, while arguably being more likely to “not know what’s going to fail.” If I thought O’Brien was actually doing serious damage, Frank Vogel being only replacement wouldn’t stop me from pulling the trigger. (Mike Wells is reporting that the team “wouldn’t move any of the assistants up,” however.)

Still, what happens if Bird walks into Conseco today, tells O’Brien they’re letting him go, promotes Vogel, and then says to the players, “OK … no more excuses”? Does the team turn it around? Who knows? But there probably would not be a major windfall of victories immediately. This isn’t an incredibly talented team whose coach is holding them down. This is a flawed, immature team whose coach isn’t making things any better or easier.

Ultimately, I think O’Brien is committing what I consider to be the worst coaching sin.  However,  I don’t think he’s the core problem, and I don’t think firing him is the core solution. It’s self-serving, but my suspicion is that Bird’s opinion isn’t that far different from mine.

So can Bird stage an intervention?

What happens if Bird does two things?

  1. Goes to the players and lays it all on them. Says, “Grow up. The reason you’re losing is because you aren’t playing well. O’Brien will be here for the rest of the year, so man up, and do your job.”
  2. Then goes to O’Brien, and says, “Look, I’m not going to tell you who to play, but I am going to tell you to make a decision. By tomorrow morning, I want you to come back in here with a rotation that you will go with for the rest of the season, along with contingencies for injuries. It will be entirely up to you. I don’t care who it is, but you will lock down a 9- or 10-man rotation, and you will communicate this to your players with your commitment to stick with it for the rest of the year. I will back you completely. If a necessary change becomes apparent, then we will discuss it, but we are done with the constant changes. I know what you think the problems are, and I don’t necessarily disagree, but I don’t care any more. We need to pick a course and stick with it.”

Is that the happy — or even unhappy — medium that gets this team back on the same page?

Just as it would take a total team effort for these Pacers to have gone 15-5 over the last 20 games, it has taken a total team effort for them to go 5-15. Everybody had to come to the party on this one, including Larry Bird, who has been with the Pacers in some function when every player on this roster was acquired.

Ideally, problems are handled as they arise at lower levels of any organization. The best teams have strong leaders in the locker room to head off trouble early. Should that be insufficient, then it’s the coach’s responsibility to get things back on track. If it moves past that, then you have a team in crisis.

Right now, the Pacers are a team in crisis, and Larry Bird is the guy who must step up and resolve it.  He needs to make sure the players understand their ultimate accountability for their own (and the team’s) performance. He must address any problems he has with O’Brien’s performance without scapegoating him. He must put a fractured team back together.

And if he can’t or won’t do that, then I don’t know what this franchise can do to change the path they’re on. And I don’t know how they come back from where that path leads.

Tags: Jim O'Brien Larry Bird

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  • @Pacers_Chants


    A truly spot-on analysis. I agree with everything you say.

  • TC

    Not a Pacer fan, an NBA and Laker fan but your analysis sounds wise. It will take the leadership of Bird to impress upon O’Brien that he needs to arrive at a predictable, reliable rotation so that his players know where they stand with relation to the team…..and then once that’s done, obviously the players will need to step up. A great post though…..I fully agree that the only way O’Brien could make a mediocre situation worse is to tamper too much when his players are out there doing what they can. You have to give players a chance to fail……and when they have that chance, you are often surprised at how they will respond. I see talent on the Pacers, I think the primary responsibility for their poor performance has to be on a coach whose players are off-guard because they don’t know what he wants from them.

  • Ian Levy

    That’s the best description of the coaching situation I’ve heard. Especially this line:

    “This isn’t an incredibly talented team whose coach is holding them down. This is a flawed, immature team whose coach isn’t making things any better or easier.”

    Thanks for such a thoughtful, complete and realistic assessment.

  • mellifluous

    Fantastic article. If you combine this article with the Mahoney article you guys linked to about Hibbert, I think you’ve got an excellent picture of why the Pacers aren’t winning.

  • Hardwood Hype

    Great breakdown. I totally agree with your assessment. O’Brien does need to make a commitment and stand for something, whatever that “something” is. And while I agree that he’s not running a potentially elite team into the ground, there is some talent on this roster, namely Granger, Collison, George and Hibbert, whom I still have a lot of faith in as a long-time starting big man in the NBA. More that making the playoffs, O’Brien’s goal has got to be to create and nurture some rapport and chemistry among his most talented guys so that they can begin the process of growing together.

  • Gary

    …just do it and move on…sometimes getting mired in stagnation is the same as spiralling down the lousy tube…

  • Ian2

    I still think you are letting O’Brien too much off the hook. Your article seems to imply that while O’Brien is making mistakes right now, he’s not the primary problem. But that makes an assumption of what the primary problem is.

    If the primary problem is ‘The Pacers are not an elite team’ then yes, I agree %100 that he is not the major issue. Obviously the talent level on the roster is not ‘elite, or even very good’.

    But if the primary problem is ‘the young players on the squad are not developing, but rather, regressing’ then yes, I think that IS on the coach. He is not putting his guys in a position to succeed, and that is creating a repeating cycle of loss of confidence. That is on HIM. I want to see what happens if a coach comes in and tells Hibbert ‘we aren’t going to ask you to initiate the offense anymore, just focus on D and rebouding and we’ll try and get the ball occasionally if there is a good matchup?’ He goes to Collison and says ‘we are going to turn you loose a bit more and see what you can create, and oh, btw, what sort of fast break are you most comfortable running?’ Goes to Hansborough and George and says ‘the starting jobs are yours to lose’.

    The Pacers need a teacher. O’Brien is not, nor ever has been, a teacher. He was fired from Phily because he was unwilling to develop the young players on the roster. Maybe some of this is on Bird for insisting that they make the playoffs. Maybe they need a coach that is confident enough that he can let the players work through their growing pains without changing everything the instant something goes wrong. I admit those coaches are not always in rich supply. But its worth looking for one.

  • paven

    everyone has touched on what ive been thinking; thanks to the article and every comment for finally condensing the situation; the only forgotten is the fact that weve wasted many opportunities to get the developing into elite players year after year even though they were on our doorstep; so theres plenty of sharing to be done for the circumstance.

  • Josh Dhani

    Solid, solid job here Tim. Agreed with the article.

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