Lame-duck coach? Larry doesn't mind
by Bob Kravitz
Posted: April 22, 2009
It wasn't big news to learn Tuesday that Larry Bird isn't the least bit concerned with having his contract extended over the long term.
What was news is that a few days after team co-owner Herb Simon sounded lukewarm about extending the contract of coach Jim O'Brien, Bird was just as tepid about the idea of tying up his coach beyond a deal that ends next season.
"When I coached, I went my last year without a deal," team president Bird said at his annual postmortem news conference. "It really didn't matter. Some people, it might affect different than others. But (O'Brien is) under contract and we expect him to fulfill his contract."
Look at it like this: O'Brien isn't in any immediate trouble, isn't operating with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, but Bird wants to see progress, especially on the defensive end, before he's going to commit to O'Brien beyond next year.
It's only unfair if Bird is given an extension while O'Brien's contract future is ignored. In my mind, they are both on the clock. If O'Brien fails and he's let go at the end of next year, that's two coaches in four years under Bird. You can't keep looking at the coaches. Eventually, you've got to look in the mirror.
That said, the team president liked a lot of what O'Brien did this season: He got a breakout year from Danny Granger. He got a career year (we think) from Troy Murphy. He got good development from the rookies, Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert. He oversaw tremendous improvement in Jarrett Jack, who went from being an early-season turnover machine to the team's starting point guard.
Most of all, O'Brien's team played hard and improved steadily throughout the year, playing above .500 basketball (26-25) after Jan. 1.
But 36 victories is 36 victories, and the team's defense was routinely atrocious.
"It's just that defensively we've got to come up with a better plan," Bird said. "We can't give up 106 points a game and expect to win a lot of games. If you notice, every time we were defeated at home, it was from a player who had a monster game. We can't let that happen."
Bird made the point that the Pacers teams he coached didn't have quick-footed or agile individual defenders, but assistant coach Dick Harter cobbled together a group that played solid team defense.
So, with Harter returning to the team this past season, why didn't the same thing happen this past season?
Bird is asking the same question.
"When I coached, we weren't the quickest or most athletic team, and Dick Harter did an excellent job getting those guys to play defense," said Bird, who brought Harter back this year to assist O'Brien. "So I think those guys have more in them than they're giving right now."
Bird was asked if Harter needs to have more input on a staff in which O'Brien insists on being the primary voice.
"I'm not in a lot of their meetings, but with me, obviously Dick had a style and when I coached, I didn't care about offense. I knew we could score," he said. "It was on the defensive end, me and Dick talked all the time, what had to change, the style we wanted to play, what we were going to do in practice, which drills we were going to use. (Harter) is the best I've ever seen and that's why he's here.
"If he doesn't have the input, he'll start to get the input because it's crucial for our team."
The idea of a head coach as a lame duck is a troubling one, especially in the NBA. It was why the Pacers had almost no choice but to extend Rick Carlisle's contract, although that decision backfired when he was dismissed one year later.
The difference now is the Pacers don't have knuckleheads on this roster who will take advantage of their coach's lack of security.
This does, however, have the potential to get thorny: During several late-season interviews, O'Brien made it clear he doesn't have players who can be consistently good on defense. Then Tuesday, Bird said that while he doesn't have any Bill Russells on the roster, he thinks the staff should be getting a better and more coherent defensive effort from the players who currently populate the roster.
Both Bird and O'Brien agree, there's got to be personnel changes this summer. It won't be like last year -- when the Pacers brought in seven new players -- but with several teams scrambling to get under the luxury-tax threshold, the Pacers believe they are positioned to make deals to bring in more youth and athleticism and possibly even more draft picks.
There are still the sticky issues of Jamaal Tinsley's future and Mike Dunleavy's injury, but at least there is a modicum of cap flexibility, and after two more years, the Pacers will be in a fiscal position to chase a big-dollar free agent.
By the time that happens, it's likely Bird will still be here.
As for O'Brien? Stay tuned.