Bird: O'Brien safe for now
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers don't believe quick fixes and knee-jerk reactions are the way back to the playoffs, so they are giving Jim O'Brien the rare chance to keep guiding an NBA team after back-to-back losing seasons.
In the past five years, just nine other coaches have received the chance O'Brien has been given. During that span, only four -- Mike Woodson, Byron Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Bernie Bickerstaff -- have lasted through at least three consecutive full losing campaigns.
Pacers president Larry Bird plans to stick with O'Brien, and history shows his patience might pay off.
The Pacers are taking the approach that worked for the Portland Trail Blazers with Nate McMillan, New Orleans Hornets with Scott and Atlanta Hawks with Woodson. Each of those teams had at least two straight losing seasons with their current coach before developing a collection of young talent while keeping the coach for stability and then turning the corner. Those three teams are currently in the playoffs, and Bird hopes for the same success with O'Brien.
"That's the situation Jimmy's in," Bird said Tuesday. "I think he needs an opportunity to let these guys grow."
But O'Brien isn't in the clear heading into the final year of his contract. He has led the Pacers to 36-46 records the past two seasons and the team has missed the playoffs both times. Bird wouldn't say O'Brien was under pressure, but he gave no indication that signing O'Brien to an extension would be a priority this summer.
"I haven't really thought about that, but obviously, if Jimmy wants to talk about it, we'll do that," Bird said. "He's under contract, and we expect him to fulfill his contract."
Bird noted that this was the best season for several Indiana players. Danny Granger was a first-time All-Star. Troy Murphy was among the league leaders in 3-point percentage and rebounding. Point guard Jarrett Jack had his best scoring season. Rookies Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert were solid starters in the final month.
Bird believes another year in O'Brien's system for those players will get the team back to the playoffs.
"I believe in the way Jimmy coaches, and I believe he does a lot of good things," Bird said. "He's a player's coach. He works them hard, he practices them hard, and they continue to get better. That's all you can ask."
Many teams weren't so patient this season. The Memphis Grizzlies' Marc Iavaroni, Sacramento Kings' Reggie Theus, Philadelphia 76ers' Maurice Cheeks, Oklahoma City Thunder's P.J. Carlesimo, Washington Wizards' Eddie Jordan, Minnesota Timberwolves' Randy Wittman, Phoenix Suns' Terry Porter and Toronto Raptors' Sam Mitchell were all fired during the season.
There were several reasons the Pacers looked at things differently than those teams.
The Pacers lost high-scoring guard Mike Dunleavy for most of the season with a bone spur in his right knee, something Bird said cost the team a playoff berth. The Pacers brought in seven new players last offseason and struggled with chemistry early before having a winning record after the All-Star break.
"With a lot of new guys, it was pretty difficult for all of us to try to get them integrated in the team and see what we had," Bird said. "I thought overall, he [O'Brien] did a good job."
The Pacers also ranked fifth in the league in scoring with 105.1 points per game and played exciting basketball that led to an increased attendance.
Bird might have given O'Brien a stronger endorsement if the Pacers hadn't allowed 106 points per game, one of the worst totals in the league. O'Brien said last week that the team doesn't have the players to play the level of defense he would like to see. Bird said he believes the current players can do better.
"I think they have more in them than what they're giving right now," he said. "I'll talk to Jimmy about it. We've got to get better. If we're better on the defensive end, we're going to win more games. If we need a stop, we've got to be able to get it. We haven't been able to do that."
If O'Brien can get more out of them next season, he might mirror the success of Woodson, Scott and McMillan.
Woodson had four straight losing seasons before breaking through to finish 47-35 this season. Scott had three straight losing seasons with the Hornets in 2005, 2006 and 2007, but the team has reached the playoffs the past two years. McMillan had losing seasons in 2006 and 2007 but went .500 in 2008 and 54-28 this season.
For now, Bird feels O'Brien has done enough with the offense and the young players to earn the opportunity to turn things around.
"We have a plan," Bird said. "We want to stick to the plan to see this thing through. Obviously, I'd like to see him be a major part of this. He has been up until now. Hopefully, going forward, we can talk about it and do what's right."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press
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