Pacers Fire O’Brien – Stay Tuned
Larry Bird said it was his decision.
Frank Vogel said he was excited and ready for the challenge, but wished it was under different circumstances.
Bob Kravitz said that Bird was telling us a story, and that this move was driven by owner Herb Simon. How much of that is true, and how much of that is a self-serving attempt to show the prescience of his recent diatribe, it’s difficult to tell. Watching Bird’s presser through several times did cause me to wonder if Bird was feeling the heat.
Bird clearly outlined enough of his own complaints about Jim O’Brien – mostly surrounding his use of the younger players (Tyler Hansbrough, Paul George, and Lance Stephenson mentioned by name) and O’Brien’s critical style (particularly in regards to Roy Hibbert) – to justify the termination, so there’s valid reason to believe that Bird was speaking true when he said that it was his call. However, there was just enough discomfort and subtext of desperation when talking about the roster and future player moves to make a conspiracy theorist wonder whether he was explaining his decision, or rationalizing someone else’s.
Frank Vogel takes over, and when asked if he planned to make immediate changes, he responded with an emphatic, “Yes.” When asked to elaborate, he said, “Stay tuned.” Perhaps he was being coy, but if you watch the presser and the interview with Conrad Brunner linked above, you’ll see a guy who for all the world looks like he’s drinking from a fire hose.
Of course, that’s perfectly understandable. This is a huge challenge for him, and the next three months could very well make or break his career in the NBA. Only a fool wouldn’t be at least a little agog. However, I suspect the changes he’s already decided to make will be the ones articulated earlier by Larry Bird. We’ll see more of Tyler and Paul, and we’ll get a chance to see Lance Stephenson play. There will be minor stylistic changes, but both Bird and Vogel pointed out how hard it was to change styles in the middle of the season.
It seems relatively obvious to me that Frank Vogel will be his own man, but that man will have an astounding number of opinions that are in perfect sync with Larry Bird.
A few days ago, I had basically said that while O’Brien was a problem, he wasn’t the problem. I can understand the firing of O’Brien, and it’s impossible to make a full-throated – or even half-hearted – case that he should have been allowed to finish the year. However, I still believe he wasn’t the problem, he was just a problem that Bird or Simon or whoever you want to believe was pulling the strings thought they could solve.
O’Brien’s firing removes a great deal of chaos and noise from the situation. He was being booed in pre-game introductions and skewered in the local radio talk shows and forums. No doubt these issues made the lives of the Pacers’ front office miserable. So those are now gone, and the focus should move…to where?
First, it will come to Larry Bird. This was his team – his coach and his players. By firing O’Brien, he’s removed one of his and his players’ biggest shields. There won’t be any more random hip-shot quotes to distract from the basic questions that haunt this roster. Vogel and his inexperience may create some deflection, but the fact of the matter now is that it’s all about Bird and his players now.
And, really, it’s about no player more than Roy Hibbert. Remember how I said that O’Brien wasn’t the problem? That’s because I believe that Roy Hibbert is the problem. Just as he was key to the early success, he was the author of the team’s decline. I have rarely seen a player respond so poorly to the challenges posed by a more attentive defense. I have rarely seen a player decline so precipitously.
And the vast majority of the Pacers’ problems have flowed from this – at both ends. It’s robbed the team of any semblance of an inside presence, and made the entire structure of first the offense, and now the defense, unstable.
Much of the benefits of removing O’Brien will be around the edges. You’ll see more young players, and (I hope) you see more stable rotations. However, I’ve said before, and continue to maintain, that the Pacer season rises and falls based on the core – Danny Granger, Darren Collison, and Roy Hibbert. While fans may like seeing more McRoberts and Hansbrough, and less Posey, it won’t make any meaningful difference if those three, and especially Hibbert, don’t play well.
Of course, there has been/is/will be a rush to lay Hibbert’s problems at O’Brien’s feet. Bird alluded to it in his press conference, and even Hibbert himself seemed to be positioning for it according to Mike Wells’ Tweets.
Hibbert on O’Brien firing, “It’ll be a different atmosphere. Hopefully it’ll re-energize us to move forward.”
More Hibbert, “I hate to see anybody lose their job. It’s going to be on all of us to get this thing turned around.”
Well, maybe it’s true. Maybe O’Brien was crushing Hibbert’s soul. I’m not in the locker room, so I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out. I can only say that the comments by O’Brien of which so much hay has been made weren’t anywhere near harsh enough to justify this. In fact, they were relatively mild and 100% accurate. Of course, O’Brien was of no help in the situation and was failing in his responsibility to help Hibbert work through his issues. However, I still believe that Hibbert’s issues – and the team’s issues – were caused by Hibbert himself.
So, now, this becomes Vogel’s biggest job. He must get Hibbert back to not being a detriment to the team – at the very least – and if they want to make the playoffs, then Hibbert must become productive again.
I’d feel much better about this possibility if in watching Vogel, I wasn’t strongly reminded of this scene from The Candidate: