January 31, 2011
At 17-27, the team had been sliding terribly. Obie's crew had lost more coin-flip games than was to be expected, but the group's strength of schedule was in the middle of the pack, and the offense wasn't getting any better. Not the best news for a coach that had been brought in to amp up the Indiana offense, and try to teach some defense along the way.
O'Brien's Pacers had developed a defensive edge over the last season and a half, ranking eighth among 30 teams in defensive efficiency, a point often lost because the team ran so much offensively, which skewed the way its defensive aptitude was regarded. Indiana's offense this season, despite a rotation seemingly made up entirely of shoot-first types, had stunk on Indianapolis ice. The Pacers ranked 24th of 30 teams, and not all that great even when semi-franchise guy Danny Granger(notes) wasn't slumping and Roy Hibbert(notes) wasn't thinking twice about every half-hearted hook he tossed up.
Pointing out those go-to men helps O'Brien's case moving forward, as he searches for perhaps one more head-coaching gig (the longtime assistant took over for Rick Pitino when the former Kentucky coach flamed out in Boston 10 years ago, and had presided over a rough turn leading the Philadelphia 76ers a few years later). Bird has not been good as a personnel man. He's made some sound moves in the draft, but by and large his trades haven't worked out, and Indiana has been stuck in a nebulous not-rebuilding/not-winning strata for years.
And while handing Danny Granger (at best, your second-best player on a pretty good team) over to a coach as the go-to guy seems like an invitation to fail, understand that even the most well-meaning of Pacers fans had lost faith in Obie as a guy to trust on the sideline.
His rotations seemed curious at best. The Pacers continuously let games slip away late in the proceedings, and while you have to cast a dubious eye on the players first, second and 14th for letting a close game get out of hand, you'd also like to think the coach could take over for at least a few of those close contests and make a difference. Granger, Tyler Hansbrough(notes), Josh McRoberts(notes) and Brandon Rush(notes) have seemingly rose to the ranks of good-to-passable under O'Brien's tutelage, but you also get the feeling that this group would have ended up there regardless of a coach's influence. And Hibbert's confidence issues under Obie cannot be dismissed.
Indiana's struggles may not have been O'Brien's fault, but it's clear that at the midpoint of the 2010-11 season, he certainly wasn't helping either.
The Pacers will move forward with Frank Vogel at the helm, and by all accounts he's a tape-watching son of a gun. A real 'X's and 'O's guy, though at first glance it doesn't appear as if the Pacers need any help in the "here's-what-the-Bucks-like-to-run-in-this-situation" category, as this crew needs guidance and a steadying hand more than anything.
Adrian Wojnarowski points to the idea that the Pacers could be leaning towards trying to pick up former Cavalier coach Mike Brown as the team's new head man, which sounds about as typical and obvious and boring and as uninspired as many of Bird's moves in his 7 1/2-year run as personnel boss.
Brown is another game-tape guru, but he also wasn't great shakes as Cleveland's head man. It probably wasn't much of a picnic in Cleveland as LeBron James(notes) ignored every bit of guidance tossed his way, but dealing with superstars properly is what sets top NBA coaches apart, and even though the Pacers don't have a star to call their own (which, again, isn't a good thing), it doesn't seem wise to tie your fortunes to a man who just reeks of a top-level assistant, and little else. Brown doesn't really have the same whiff that Rick Carlisle or Tom Thibodeau ran with before they took over their first head-coaching gigs.
Worse? Though the Pacers will have cap space this offseason, nobody knows what this offseason will look like after the NBA's labor issues sort themselves out, and the (available to sign, at least) free-agent crop isn't much to get excited about. Nor should Pacer fans hold out much hope for Bird in that regard, even as he takes to his first chunk of cap space without Donnie Walsh's guidance (sign Al Harrington(notes)!) helping run things.
In all, these can't be good times for Pacer fans, as they spiral toward the lottery. And even a clean slate on the sideline and impending cap space this summer can't make up for what has been a wasted half-decade in the franchise's five-year playoff drought.