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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.

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Tags: Jim O'Brien Larry Bird

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