Harry Truman, during his time in the White House, was a considered a poor president. The conventional wisdom of the 1950s viewed him as potentially one of the worst in American history. He was dumb and bad then, but today President Truman is correctly remembered as one of the country’s best chief executives. Truman did nothing to affect this change, passed no new legislation, gave no fresh speeches or military orders. Merely, a lot of people realized a lot of other people were wrong.
It was quite the turnaround.
Certainly, none of that relates in any way to Jim O’Brien’s performance as Pacers head coach, but it is just one of many, many examples in American history, in human history, in universal history, or whatever kind of history you choose, sports history even, of conventional wisdom being wrong.
Want a basketball example? Doc Rivers. Loathed, hated, mocked by Celtics fans, until he took their team to two NBA Finals. Rivers was a dolt, but a coach learns quite a bit, apparently, once Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen dress in his locker room.
The popular sentiment among Indiana fans is to condemn O’Brien, fired Sunday in his fourth season here. In the interests of keeping this column clean, I won’t cull some of the more hateful rhetoric toward our team’s coach, for which the worst offenders should hang their head in shame. He was still the Pacers’ coach, after all.
But I will personalize these remarks somewhat. I like Jim O’Brien. This is fairly well-known. I’m one of the few Pacers fans who refuses to toe the line like a good little sheep and rage against the foibles of "JOB." Quite often, I get categorized as a Jim O’Brien defender, and that’s fine.
I wouldn’t have fired O’Brien today, or at any point this season, and perhaps not even in April, depending on what we saw from our team in the second half of the season.
The lessons of the Indianapolis Colts’ success are many, but the least of them is hardly continuity and stability. When it comes to coaching, especially, I believe many in professional sports are fired too quickly. As soon as a team struggles, boom, talk radio is on the coach’s job status like syrup on a pancake.
That doesn’t mean stability for stability’s sake with an unproven leader or system. But try as they might, no anti-O’Brien fan can make a compelling case that O’Brien or his system never succeeded.
O’Brien knows how to take a team to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Did it twice, in Boston and in Philadelphia. That track record accounted for a large part of my faith in him to do the same in Indiana.
His offensive system, of spacing the court with shooters and using the 3-point shot to open lanes for driving and cutting, works with the right players, and the front office did a decent job tailoring the roster to O’Brien’s pretty-decent concepts. Two years ago, Indiana ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring.
In hindsight, that 2008-’09 season is even more remarkable given that the Pacers didn’t have a Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash, the sort of coach’s-dream facilitator enjoyed by some of the other Top-5 offensive units.
O’Brien’s best four players that year, in terms of the offense, were Danny Granger (his excellent breakout season), Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, and Troy Murphy. One of those guys (Dunleavy) played in only 18 games. Two of them (Ford and Murphy) are held in contempt by some of the same folks who despise O’Brien.
So how on God’s green earth did a team relying heavily upon Marquis Daniels, Jarrett Jack, Stephen Graham, the original deer-in-the-headlights versions of Rush/Hibbert, and Rasho Freaking Nesterovic manufacture one of the NBA’s best offenses?
Given that Daniels, Jack, Graham, and Nesterovic have played only minor roles in other cities after leaving Indianapolis, a rational train of thought might credit O’Brien’s system. But I forgot the part where suggesting competency on the part of O’Brien amounts to treason.
Look, joking aside, of course the man had faults. Few coaches don’t. But accurately pointing out mistakes and weaknesses doesn’t poison the entirety of a coach’s performance.
Fans who represent my beliefs honestly know I’m not an O’Brien apologist (if one accepts the premise that an apology is owed). This hasn’t been O’Brien’s best season in Indiana. I’ll gladly point out the problems, if you’d like.
Obie badly mishandled the power forward position, causing the team to play four-on-five offensively early on with Josh McRoberts, who owns no discernible offensive skill other than dunking ability, and had not done anything in his NBA career to suggest use as a starter. O’Brien played James Posey at the four, despite the veteran’s size and age disadvantages and the fact that other coaches had used Posey exclusively at small forward. Posey had a 3-point shot, which O’Brien liked, but running Posey out there on the 10 percent chance he’d have a game like the Hornets game (Dec. 20, 15 points) didn’t make up for the rest of the nights in which JP was essentially useless. It took O’Brien a ridiculous 32 games to realize Tyler Hansbrough was the best power forward on the roster (as I enjoyed Bird quietly alluding to in yesterday’s press conference).
O’Brien couldn’t settle on a nine-man rotation, which good teams win with. True, O’Brien never had a good team, and most of the so-called rotation issues were driven by the constant string of injuries the past two years, but it certainly was bothersome this season, as I pointed out several times on my Twitter account. Hansbrough’s in, Hansbrough’s out, Jones is in, Jones is out, Foster’s out, Foster’s in, George is in, George is out, and so on.
In Milwaukee, on a last-second play in which the Bucks’ only chance was to get a tip-in, O’Brien used the 7’2 Hibbert to guard the inbounder, rather than the basket. Didn’t like it.
Against San Antonio at home, Posey finally sat for 48 minutes, then with under a second to play, removed his warm-up and took the most important shot of the game ice-cold. Didn’t like it.
In Golden State, on Monta Ellis’ game winning shot, Rush got isolated on Ellis, even though Rush is better defending bigger players and got his ankles broken by a quick crossover that Ford or Collison might’ve contained. Didn’t like it.
The offense, for whatever reason, endured a lot of winnable games shooting under 40 percent. Didn’t like it.
But guess what? Evaluating a coach is tough. Players give us a bunch of statistics. A coach’s performance, other than wins and losses, is subjective, and even wins and losses are contained by high-and-low-end possibilities. For example, O’Brien wasn’t winning 55 games in Indiana. Gregg Popovich or Jerry Sloan wouldn’t have won 55 games in Indiana, either, with O’Brien’s rosters.
So just spouting off 121-169 (Obie’s overall record here) doesn’t do a whole lot. (O’Brien was 182-158 outside of Indy, for those wondering.) Bird said it himself yesterday: "Just because he’s the head coach doesn’t mean he’s the reason we’ve lost all these games."
What’s more, that Indiana record doesn’t come with the injury asterisk that it should. Followers of the Pacers on a game-by-game basis under O’Brien know this is the first healthy team he’s had in three years.
Don’t take my word. When the aforementioned Rivers came through Indianapolis this season, he made a telling remark about our coaching staff: "They’ve had a three-year stretch where you can’t have as many injuries as they’ve had, so [O’Brien] has a chance to actually coach his team for the first time in awhile."
And that’s correct. Even in 2007-’08, O’Brien’s first year, his point guard (Jamaal Tinsley) and best player (Jermaine O’Neal) combined to play in only 70 of a possible 162 games (less than 50 percent). The issues of Dunleavy’s knee and Granger’s foot the next two seasons, among many other ailments, are of such recent importance that they don’t need to be rehashed.
Okay, says the irritated O’Brien basher, what about this year? He had his players in uniform, not in suits. Clearly 17-27 is a bad record. To which an O’Brien defender says: Well, bad teams have bad records.
Coaches, as Pacers analyst Tim Donahue astutely pointed out the other day, are assigned far too much influence by fans. This is a player’s league.
The Pacers lack talent. Enough talent. Seasoned talent. Talent that knows how to win. Star talent. Diverse talent. Consistent talent.
Listening to Frank Vogel try to convince himself otherwise was one of the few comedic highlights yesterday.
"We’ve got a good basketball team," Vogel said. "I’m taking over a good basketball team. I fully expect us to make the playoffs this year. I believe this is a good basketball team."
With all due respect to Coach Vogel (who I hope succeeds early and often, by the way), the standard for use of the word ‘good’ needs to be lowered.
Healthy and good teams don’t end up 17-27.
And that sums up the Jim O’Brien era, in my eyes. He never had a good team, and he had one healthy team, whose season O’Brien didn’t even get to coach to its completion.
That’s a fair chance only in this insane, fire-so-and-so.net age, where fans who couldn’t coach a team if they received Vince Lombardi’s implanted brain decide on an impulse that the guys running their team are idiots and ask for termination.
Had the players quit on O’Brien, as they did Rick Carlisle, I would support the firing, as I did Carlisle’s. But I don’t think our guys ever stopped playing hard.
ESPN’s John Hollinger has a lot of credibility. He talks to scouts and general managers and all sorts of basketball minds. His job is to analyze the NBA.
Hollinger said last week that O’Brien is the "least of [Indy’s] problems."
The view outside of this fan base is, as the Miami Herald reported, that O’Brien is a "respected coach." Bill Simmons, author of The Book of Basketball and famous Celtics fan, has written that Obie is "an underrated coach who worked a borderline miracle with the '02 and '03 Celtics."
I agree with them. I think O’Brien’s a smart guy who knows basketball and deserved better. A better fate. Better players. And, of course, better treatment from fans.
Unfortunately, that means I don’t get to celebrate like so many other Pacer people at news of his demise. You seem to be having fun. My advice: enjoy it while it lasts, because the smart bet is we’re about to find out O’Brien wasn’t the problem.
I said there were a few funny moments at Conseco Sunday. Other than Vogel’s overly-optimistic evaluation, there was the fact that Frank has had but one boss as a coach in the NBA. One boss in Boston, Philadelphia, and Indiana. Jim O’Brien.
"He’s been a mentor to me in every sense of the word, and I wouldn’t be here without him," Vogel said.
The irony of O’Brien-bashers celebrating the promotion of an O’Brien loyalist is almost too much. After all, it’s not like Vogel learned just about everything he knows about the NBA from the awful, bad, terrible O’Brien. Maybe there won’t be much change, after all!
From a standpoint of spacing the court…
At any rate, I appreciate those who read this with an open mind to try to understand my rather lonely point-of-view. I wish Jim well and thank him for working hard to try to win. If nothing else, we ought to be able to agree on that much.