In the eyes of Larry Bird, the Indiana Pacers were built to make the playoffs this season and develop their youthful core for the future. Once it became clear that coach Jim O'Brien wasn't doing either one, keeping him on the bench for the rest of the season became an impossible charade to continue.
For the explanation behind O'Brien's firing Sunday as coach of the Pacers, you need look no further than the confidence that's drained out of Roy Hibbert's game, the sporadic minutes awarded to Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George, and the season-long DNP endured by Lance Stephenson. Bird mentioned wanting to see all of them play more in announcing the coaching change Sunday -- meaning the decision was as much about the Pacers' future as it was about the present.
Bird and general manager David Morway have been frustrated for some time with O'Brien's habit of leaning on veterans and publicly castigating his younger core in the hopes of turning the Pacers' season around. In a news conference Sunday on NBA TV, Bird said it became clear Friday night when the Pacers got blown out by the Magic that a change needed to be made.
"I was on the West Coast trip and Mr. [owner Herb] Simon was out there," Bird said. "And I told him at the time that I felt comfortable with Jimmy moving forward, but you never know. I wanted to see how we played on the trip. The Orlando game was over after the first three minutes, and that's when I decided we probably needed to do something."
Enter assistant coach Frank Vogel, who at 37 became the youngest head coach in the NBA on Sunday. Bird said Vogel will have full autonomy, but that they've already talked about some things Bird would like to see and what Vogel would like to change. The mandate is clear: If Vogel hopes to have any chance for this to evolve into more than an interim job, he must give priority to the youngsters like Hibbert, Hansbrough, George and Stephenson.
"I think we're on the same page," Bird said.
As for long-term options, Bird said Vogel will get the first interview if he does a good job. He also said he still expects the Pacers (17-27) to make the playoffs this season -- as was the plan all along for this, the third year of Bird's three-year plan to restore the franchise to respectability. Vogel said he believes he will satisfy both aspects of his marching orders -- develop the kids and win. O'Brien, having lost 17 of 23 while stunting the growth of his young players, particularly Hibbert, was doing neither.
"You look at some of our players, especially Roy, it looks like he's down," Bird said. "He's not running around having a good time like he was earlier. ... He's very important to this franchise and we've got to have him playing on a high level."
Meanwhile, Bird's future with the organization remains an open question, and the Hall of Famer didn't do anything to bring clarity to his own status Sunday. Bird said unequivocally that he did not want to come down from the executive suite and coach the team for the rest of the season, but he shed little light on how long he will remain the Pacers' president.
"I'm going to sit down with Mr. Simon and talk to him," Bird said. "... I know if I'm not here, whoever is will be sitting in a good position."
Having positioned the Pacers with potentially more than $30 million in cap space this summer, Bird nonetheless acknowledged what CBSSports.com reported Friday: He will not hesitate to cash in one of the team's expiring contracts between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline for an appealing asset, rather than wait to find out how much the cap space is worth under a new collective bargaining agreement. The expiring deals of T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster and Mike Dunleavy total more than $26 million.
"Mr. Simon told me, 'If you see a deal and you like the player, go ahead and make the move,' " Bird said.
As for a permanent choice to coach the Pacers, it could very well be Vogel if he plays his cards right. A loyal disciple of O'Brien, Vogel exuded an appealing combination of confidence and naivety Sunday when he said, "I'm taking over a good basketball team and I have a great deal of confidence that this thing will turn around right away. ... I fully expect us to make the playoffs this year."
Vogel's future, like that of Morway, rests in the hands of Bird -- whose departure could lead to a clean sweep in the basketball operations with every contract from Bird's to the trainer's expiring after the season. Former Pacers assistant Mike Brown, whose name will come up with regard to every coaching vacancy this summer, will get serious consideration -- although sources said there have not even been preliminary conversations with Brown as of yet.
Two other names that have been discussed previously at the ownership level in Indiana are broadcaster (and former Pacer) Mark Jackson and Jazz assistant Tyron Corbin. If Bird is involved in the decision, he prefers former players.
Right now, he prefers a coach who will develop his young players and give them a chance to squeeze a playoff berth out of what has been a disastrous season. If Vogel knows what's good for him, he'll do what Bird would've done if he'd decided to come down to the bench and do this himself.