Published January 30, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS – Jim O'Brien's future as the Indiana Pacers' coach was in question heading into a four-game trip, and team president Larry Bird didn't get the answers he wanted.
Bird fired O'Brien on Sunday after the team squandered a promising start to the season by losing seven of its past eight games.
Bird had discussed the team's coaching options with owner Herb Simon, saying he wanted to see how the team performed on a Western swing against the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, Portland and Denver.
The Pacers lost all four games.
"We were in three of the games, and the Denver game, we didn't really have a chance," Bird said.
The Pacers returned to Indiana to play the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night, with O'Brien's status tenuous. Orlando won 111-96, and Bird had seen enough.
"We came home to Orlando, and really, the game was over in the first three minutes," Bird said. "So that's when I really started thinking that we really probably needed to do something. I called Mr. Simon up and he said, 'whatever you want to do' and so, here we are."
The Pacers went 121-169 under O'Brien in 3½ seasons and are 17-27 this season. O'Brien was ejected in his final game, a 110-89 loss to Chicago on Saturday night.
Assistant coach Frank Vogel will take over for the rest of the season. He has been a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards, and served as an assistant coach for O'Brien in Philadelphia and Boston.
Bird was bothered by O'Brien's refusal to give more minutes to the team's young players. Bird said he'd like to see rookie Paul George play more, and he was frustrated with how little forward Tyler Hansbrough played early in the season. He felt that O'Brien's public berating of center Roy Hibbert damaged the 7-foot-2 center's confidence. Bird and Vogel agreed that Hibbert is an important piece of the team's future.
Bird also said he would like to see rookie Lance Stephenson get onto the court. The second-round draft pick has not played this season.
Many fans criticized O'Brien because he constantly changed lineups, at times leaving players inactive, then suddenly making them starters and sometimes leaving players who were performing well on the bench for long stretches.
Vogel said continuity is important, but he'll be careful.
"You want to have a steady rotation, but if you're losing games, how do you stick with a steady rotation?" Vogel said. "We're trying to find combinations that work, and you'll see that play out over the next few weeks."
The Pacers were one of the league's leaders in field-goal percentage defense early in the season, but Indiana allowed more than 110 points four times during its six game skid.
"You are what you work on," Vogel said. "The first half of the year, we were a defensive-minded team. We got so good on defense, and we were winning games with it. But our offense was killing us, so we made a dramatic shift to improve our offensive execution in practice. That has come and that has improved, but the defense has slipped. We have to find a balance."
The 37-year-old Vogel hasn't been a head coach in the league. Bird doesn't think that will hinder his relationship with the players.
"They will respond," Bird said. "I've already talked to a couple of them, and they're going to do everything they can to help Frank out. The players will react."
Bird said he expects Vogel to lead the Pacers to the playoffs this season.
"I said that three years ago, that I think in the third year, this team should make the playoffs," he said. "We're 10 games under .500. I'm not saying we're going to win a championship, but this team should make the playoffs."
Bird said the team's overall plan is on track. He said the team already has a solid group of young players and will have significant salary cap space in the offseason.
"We have a three-year plan and we're right on it," he said. "I looked the other day and we're going to have more money than anybody in the summer to go out and either trade one of our expiring contracts or go into the free agency market and get the pieces we need."