The bluntness of Pacers coach Jim O'Brien
SI.com|Coaches, Indiana Pacers
Published October 15th 2010
Few NBA coaches regularly say things that make me think, “Holy crap! Did he actually that?” Phil Jackson will tweak his players through the media, but that is all premeditated, and you get the feeling he might even explain his comments gently — and in private — to the player. Jerry Sloan is candid, and Gregg Popovich‘s curt answers to questions he considers unworthy of his time are so renowned that people now look forward to his news conferences.
But no one is quite like Pacers coach Jim O’Brien, whose honesty borders on jarring. Here he is today talking about Brandon Rush‘s place in the rotation in the wake of Rush’s five-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy (via Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star):
“We have three guys — Mike [Dunleavy], Danny [Granger] and Paul [George] — who are our top three guys at the wing spots,” O’Brien said. “Unless something happens, [Rush is] going to have to find a way to move above those three guys in order to get the type of playing time he got in the past.”
On the one hand, this is just a coach discussing his depth chart. On the other hand, O’Brien just told Rush — and Star readers — that a rookie has passed him in the rotation, and that he better work his butt off if he wants to play at all.
And here was O’Brien last week on rookie Lance Stephenson‘s problems on defense:
“If we were playing a game tonight, he wouldn’t get a minute.”
Indy fans know this isn’t the first time O’Brien has slapped a young player around a bit in the newspaper.
Last April, O’Brien dashed the optimism Pacer fans were feeling about rookie point guard A.J. Price, who had stepped into T.J. Ford‘s starting role and looked decent (via Indy Cornrows):
“I don’t think he’s the solution. There’s a reason he was drafted in the 50s. I think a lot of people missed the boat from a standpoint of drafting him earlier than that but he’s got a long way to go. I don’t think we would be real happy to say that he’s necessarily going to be the point guard of the future.”
I mean … wow. O’Brien went on — we’ll get there, I promise — but this is getting to the point of actually hurting a young player’s feelings for no real reason other than to clarify to fans Price’s place within the organization.
A month before the Price comments, Josh McRoberts, then a third-year forward, had played perhaps his finest game as a pro, a 15-point, four-rebound effort in a blowout loss to the Lakers. The game was close after the first half, when McRoberts did the bulk of his scoring. But after the game, O’Brien dismissed McRoberts’ work as “irrelevant,” and said he would wait to see McRoberts “do it in winning effort.”
It’s reasonable to question the relevance of gaudy stats piled up in garbage time. But did O’Brien have to do it publicly and at the expense of a young man’s ego?
There is, of course, context to this stuff. O’Brien is an old-school coach, and perhaps he’s using these comments as teaching tools to keep young players humble and remind them that contributing to victories is what really matters in the NBA. And nasty-sounding quotes could be misleading. For instance, O’Brien added the following to his comments last week about Stephenson’s defense:
“I think he understands the difference between coaching and criticism. I see some growth in his defense. I told him I want him to come in with the goal to get better defensively each day. If he does that every day, it’ll get to the point in time where he’ll be good enough of a defensive player that he’ll be able to get some playing time.”
That sounds a bit better than “he can’t even play a single minute,” doesn’t it? Does it make up for the sting of the first quote — the juicy one any reporter will put up high in the story?
And here are some additional comments O’Brien made about Price in the same interview mentioned above:
“I think frankly, until proven differently, we need to do better at the point guard. And that’s not to say that I’m not very pleased with A.J., I am. I just think he’s going to be a very solid backup the next couple of years and if he can work in with us or with another team and earn a starting job, that might be down the road but it’s not going to be in his second year.”
OK. There are some compliments sprinkled in there, and O’Brien does say Price could be a valuable backup point guard — even if he has to move to another team to win that role. And Indiana’s deal for Darren Collison in the offseason shows O’Brien was being honest when he said the organization was not comfortable with Price as a starting point guard.
O’Brien’s bluntness cuts other ways, too. Here’s what he told the Star last week about Roy Hibbert‘s weight loss over the summer:
“Roy Hibbert has had one of the best summers I’ve ever witnessed in my years of coaching. Here’s a young guy that understands that certainly it’s up to the coaching staff to develop players, but most importantly, it’s up to the individual to develop.”
That’s a huge compliment, if a rare one for a young player in Indiana.
And these Pacers are young, with nine potential rotation players age 25 or younger. O’Brien is a 58-year-old coach in the last year of his contract. He’s had success in the NBA, but it’s worth asking if he’s the right coach for this Pacers team.