Coach Obie's unhappy return

Updated: April 4, 2005, 4:29 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This story was first published prior to the Sixers game against the Celtics on Sunday. Philadelphia ultimately prevailed 97-93 in Boston.

It is so much different this time. Jim O'Brien's second return to Boston in his latest professional incarnation -- head coach of the 76ers -- comes with his team wobbling and his once-impeccable reputation taking a bit of a hit.

When he last set foot on the parquet floor in the FleetCenter back in November, O'Brien was looked upon as some sort of returning hero. He had made his name in Boston, moving from career lieutenant to Rick Pitino to doing what Pitino could never do -- taking the Celtics to the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. O'Brien was, simply, the best coach the Celtics had seen in a decade.

Jim O'Brien
O'Brien's first season in Philly has been full of questions about his rotations and demeanor.

His reputation in Boston was so solid that when he walked away from a lot of money because he didn't like what was going on, people supported him for taking a stand.

Going home to Philadelphia was supposed to be a good thing for O'Brien, who played his high school ball at Roman Catholic under Speedy Morris and was named the city's top prep player in 1969. He later went on to star at St. Joseph's.

When his 76ers rallied from an 18-point, second-half deficit to beat the Celtics on Opening Night, O'Brien's stature soared even higher. Allen Iverson gave him the game ball as well as a big hug. "Many more to come, babe," Iverson said to his coach.

Unfortunately, there haven't been that many more big wins. As O'Brien put it recently, "You know me. Making the playoffs is all I'm thinking about." But the second visit to Boston for O'Brien comes with his team having lost three in a row (albeit to Western powers Phoenix, Sacramento and Dallas) and barely clinging to the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a sub-.500 record.

Additionally, the 76ers are without Chris Webber, who was acquired at the trading deadline supposedly to be the Ying to Iverson's Yang. They've basically been a .500 team with Webber (9-9 after the Friday loss to Dallas) and some of the losses haven't been pretty.

Meanwhile, the Celtics basically clinched the division title and the No. 3 seed that goes with it.

O'Brien's style and tactics have come into question, from his defensive schemes to his overall demeanor. There was even some chatter that his job might be in jeopardy when the team struggled after the Webber trade.

Recently, when ESPN.com poll its readers about the Sixers, nearly 68,000 responded. One of the questions asked who was the most responsible for the Sixers' struggles. More than 58 percent blamed O'Brien. Only 17.2 percent said O'Brien was doing a good job.

But O'Brien cares as much about a fan poll as he does about wind farms in Nantucket Bay. Actually, he probably cares more about the wind farms.

Off the court, O'Brien's move back to Philadelphia is going fine. There's a new home under construction and a lot of reconnecting with friends and relatives. He was, and is, a Philly guy, even though he coached the hated Celtics and then eliminated the Sixers in the first round of the 2002 playoffs, outcoaching Larry Brown in the process.

What has transpired on the court, however, cannot be remotely satisfying to O'Brien. The Sixers' defense is allowing almost 100 points a game. Opponents are shooting 44 percent and Donyell Marshall might have secured a contract for next season simply by torching O'Brien's team on two occasions from three-point territory. Marshall even hit a record-tying 12 in one game. (Think after the first, oh, five or six, the Sixers should have done something?)

These have to be unacceptable numbers for defense-oriented O'Brien. While his Celtics' teams are most often remembered for their three-point shooting, good and bad, it was defense that got them to the conference finals in 2002. The Sixers are second in the league in steals, thanks to Allen Iverson and the other A.I., rookie Andre Iguodala, but that's about all you can say for the defense.

O'Brien is old enough to remember when Boston vs. Philadelphia was the league's premier rivalry. It was in the 1960s, when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain dominated. It was in the 1980s, when Larry Bird and Julius Erving were the marquee guys and the teams played each other in the playoffs four times in five years. The last playoff meeting between the two was in the first round in 2002, when the Celtics eliminated Philly in a hail of three-pointers in Game 5.

O'Brien was hoping to continue the rivalry this year. It hasn't happened. His team has had issues. Brian Skinner, signed in the offseason as a free agent, had 16 DNPs due to a coaching decision and was dealt to Sacramento in the Webber trade. Samuel Dalembert starts but has had five DNPs due to coaching decisions.

O'Brien's team has had injuries making continuity an elusive concept. Webber's shoulder is merely the latest in a season-long string of injuries. Iverson and Aaron McKie have each missed six games. John Salmons has missed 14. Dalembert has missed five.

O'Brien is 2-0 against the Celtics, but the third meeting between the teams really couldn't come at a worse time for him. The team just came back from a brief Western swing and had virtually no time to prepare for the Mavericks on Friday. It showed. Dallas cruised to a 100-83 victory.

Today's game at Boston was moved to national TV (ABC, 1 ET) a few weeks back. At the time, it looked like a good idea, with the Celtics on a run after the acquisition of Antoine Walker and the Sixers having acquired Webber from Sacramento.

But now Boston has stubbed its toe, losing four in a row before recovering to beat the NBDL Atlanta Hawks on Friday night. The hoped-for "battle" for the division title is no longer. The battle now involves only one team, the Sixers, who are in a three-way race for the Right to Get Blown Out By Miami in the first round. The other two contenders are the Nets and the Magic.

This has to be tough on O'Brien, who, in his two full seasons in Boston, didn't come close to a losing record. He's going to have to rally the troops just to reach .500 in his first year in Philadelphia -- while hoping that it won't be his last if the team dives and goes something like 38-44.

As for his former home, well, there certainly won't be a standing ovation for him this time around. Maybe a polite round of applause. But the real insult to O'Brien will come in the FleetCenter stands.

The Celtics have urged fans attending the game to bring creative signs touting Ricky Davis for the Sixth Man award with the lure of -- ahem -- playoff tickets to the three most imaginative.

Yes, Ricky Davis. When approached by Celtics president Danny Ainge about the prospect of acquiring Davis a year ago December, O'Brien vehemently objected and urged Ainge not to do the deal. Ainge did it anyway.

Five weeks later, O'Brien left the Celtics. Fifteen months later, he'll have to see the Davis signs, all the while trying to keep a teetering team afloat and in contention when many of the signs down the road are flat-out discouraging.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com