Larry Bird finally pulled the plug on the miserable Jim O’Brien era.
O’Brien, or “Jimmy” as Bird affectionately called him during Sunday’s firing, seemed to have the Indiana Pacers headed in the right direction earlier this season.
Highlighted by eye-opening road wins over the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, Indiana turned some heads in the Eastern Conference with a better-than-expected 11-10 record.
But things quickly went south from there.
The Pacers dropped 17 of their next 23 games. A dismal 0-for-4 western road trip followed by blowout losses to the Magic and Bulls were the final nails in the coach’s coffin. O’Brien’s ejection from Saturday’s loss at Chicago seemed to be a fitting send-off.
With a 121-169 record in three-plus seasons and zero playoff appearances, it’s pretty safe to say O’Brien won’t be joining former coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard with his name hanging from the Conseco Fieldhouse rafters.
But while his mysterious rotations, abrasive personality, and ongoing berating of his players have been a major factor in the Pacers’ failure to escape the East’s cellar, O’Brien shouldn’t absorb all the blame for this mess of a team.
Like most underperforming organizations, disappointing results often stem from the combined effort (or lack thereof) from both management and labor. In the Pacers’ case, the management was held accountable by being shown the door – and rightfully so – but the players should not be let off the hook so easily.
Question O’Brien’s motivational skills, play calling, and substitution methods all you want, but the coach isn’t the one bricking open shots and making ill-advised passes.
The players have to be held accountable, and it starts with Danny Granger.
Two seasons after being named an all-star, Granger has regressed. His scoring average is down to 21 points per game this season, and he’s shooting just 43 percent from the field. That’s unacceptable for a player who’s supposedly the team’s star and No. 1 option on offense. Granger needs to find his shot to prove that he’s more than just a valuable trade chip.
Then there’s the supporting cast.
The slumping Roy Hibbert finally broke out for 24 points and 11 rebounds – his highest scoring total since Nov. 28 – in interim coach Frank Vogel’s winning debut Monday against Toronto. While O’Brien never hesitated to yank a struggling Hibbert from the line-up, it is clear Vogel is going to let the 7-foot-2 center play through the tough times. Whatever confidence issues Hibbert had can no longer be pinned on O’Brien’s public criticism.
In his first season with the Pacers, point guard Darren Collison has obviously had a tough time grasping O’Brien’s offensive style. His assists per game have fallen from 5.7 last season to 4.8, and he often found himself benched late in games in favor of T.J. Ford or A.J. Price.
With O’Brien out, it’s now up to Collison to show whether his regression was the fault of the system, or the point guard.
Last but not least, there’s the issue of O’Brien’s puzzling rotations.
If Bird’s comments during Sunday’s press conference and the box score from Monday’s win are any indication, the young players’ fears of seeing solid play be rewarded with a permanent spot on the bench should be put to rest. Paul George, Tyler Hansbrough, Josh McRoberts, and yes, even Lance Stephenson should see plenty of playing time. It’s up to them to make the best of it.
With its rare (at least for the Pacers) move of canning a coach mid-season, the Indiana front office made it clear that O’Brien doesn’t belong in its continuing rebuilding plans.
Now it’s up to the players to prove that they do.