Going old school
In some ways Jim O'Brien's hiring as Pacers coach comes as a bit of a shocker. The veteran coach, who replaces Rick Carlisle, was not among the names mentioned early in the Indiana hiring process. Sam Mitchell, Stan Van Gundy, Mark Jackson and a group of assistants that included Chicago's Jim Boylan, L.A.'s Brian Shaw and Indiana's own Chuck Person were considered the front-runners.
But as one Pacers insider said Thursday: "That's Larry Bird."
Bird, who runs the show in Indiana along with Donnie Walsh, does things his way.
After searching for several weeks, Bird finally decided to turn back to his old Boston connections and go with the guy who led the Celtics to their last conference finals appearance (2002).
More important, he felt O'Brien fit his desire for a veteran coach who would hold players accountable. After three seasons of turmoil, the Pacers needed a steady hand with a touch of old-school discipline.
"He has the complete package," Bird said at Thursday's media conference to announce the move. "He has coaching experience. After talking to him about how he'd structure practice, handle players, game strategy ... I liked all of it."
It's too early to say what kind of style O'Brien will employ in Indiana. The Pacers might decide to blow up the roster and trade Jermaine O'Neal. (Bird didn't deny it Thursday, joking that if the Lakers wanted to offer Kobe Bryant, they should give him a call). Even if Indiana doesn't make such a radical change, it almost certainly will look to move Jamaal Tinsley and start over with another point guard.
Either way, O'Brien will emphasize defense as the cornerstone of his team. In Boston and Philadelphia, his teams loaded up one side of the court and used a big man in the middle to block shots and protect the rim. O'Brien also talked openly Thursday about bringing in former longtime NBA assistant Dick Harter, a defensive specialist who served under Bird with the Pacers.
The question is whether that grind-it-out defensive style will be as effective in today's NBA, where rules changes have eliminated the contact for which Harter's defenses were known.
Offensively, O'Brien's teams in the past have emphasized the three-point shot. In Boston, he often talked about openly encouraging his shooters to launch early in the shot clock. But it remains to be seen how well that will work in Indiana, since the Pacers don't appear to have a lot of great outside shooters right now other than power forward Troy Murphy.
O'Brien said Thursday he was flexible enough to adjust his style to fit the personnel. He didn't specify anything about tempo, other than to point out that the teams still alive in these NBA playoffs all have the ability to play fast and slow. The important thing, he said, is that he will instill discipline and get everybody on the same page.
"Discipline and organization is the cornerstone of any basketball team at any level," O'Brien said. "Our guys will come to the court knowing what we want of them. They will execute offensively and defensively. They will be prepared."
If they can stay out of trouble, it would be nice, too. O'Brien can't afford to have any more of the kind of off-court incidents that derailed the team the past few seasons. Bird can only hope the old-school coach can bring a fresh new scent in the locker room as well as on the basketball court.