A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Dissecting Jim O’Brien’s 2010-2011 Pacers failure

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This morning the Indiana Pacers fired Jim O’Brien. O’Brien had a target on his back for years by Pacer fans and their collapse out of a playoff spot the last few months after a good start finally did it.

Much of the O’Brien criticism were based on inconsistent rotations involving players like Darren Collision and Josh McRoberts. But I’d criticize O’Brien more for a stubborn coaching strategy, shown by some team contradictory team peripherals which caught my eye:

First of all, the Pacers are a defensive orientated team. They have one of the largest gaps between defensive rebounding % (6th) and offensive rebounding % (25th) in the league. The low ORB% indicates leaving players back for transition defense instead of sending them to grab offensive rebounds. The high DRB% indicates sending everyone to grab defensive rebounds instead of having leakouts for fastbreak points. Defense first coaches like Scott Skiles, Larry Brown and Tom Thibodeau have their teams play a similar way. The idea is that while they give away these high efficiency shots at the rim from fastbreak and putback shots, they prevent the other team from getting them just as much. This pushes their DRTGs up and their ORTGs down. Unsurprisingly, the Pacers are 9th in DRTG and 24th in ORTG.

But here’s the contradictory part: The Pacers are 7th in pace as of this morning. Usually defense first teams play at a snail’s pace, especially the ones emphazing DRB% over leaking out. With their defensive rebounding focus the Pacers aren’t scoring a ton of easy fastbreak points, so what explains the fast pace? Rather, rushing the ball up the court and taking quick 3s. The Pacers have one of the largest disparities between shots made from 3pt and at the rim, ranking 7th in 3PM and 27th in FGs made at the rim, according to hoopdata.com. The Pacers ranking 29th in FTs per FGA according to basketball-reference.com also shows their lack of offense inside. This 3pt heavy offense is no surprise for those who’ve followed O’Brien’s career.

Despite the 3 being a great shot, this is not a sound strategy. It leaves nobody in position to grab an offensive rebound which further explains Indy’s awful ORB%, and their reliance of 3s combined with sacrificing putbacks and fastbreak scores for defense leads to the beforementioned awful inside scoring. I also suspect the Pacers high offensive TOV% (20th) is related to needlessly rushing the pace when the team is not in an uptempo position after the defensive rebound.

What’s most illogical about this is the Pacers are built to play well in the halfcourt. Darren Collision, Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert gives the team a PG, SF and C who can all score at the rim, and the combination of Collision’s underutilized playmaking and 3pt shooting from Rush, Dunleavy, and Granger provide the spacing and efficient shots needed for any good halfcourt offense. With this talent it’s hard to imagine their offense wouldn’t be better with standard sets based on drive and kick from Collision and the shooters, Granger’s scoring, and Hibbert’s post play. This would greatly increase their scores at the rim and free throw line and their offensive rebounding, while maintaining their good defense.

The reason for such a flawed offensive gameplan is it’s just how O’Brien teams play. Which is a failure on his part. A coach’s job is to maximize the ability of his roster, not to force a particular strategy on them, especially one as flawed as this.

I don’t think O’Brien is a valueless coach – I’d admired the Pacers high effort level the last handful of years and players like Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert have developed as draft steals under him. This type of offense could make sense for a team without halfcourt talent such as the Cavaliers. But it has an extremely limited ceiling. You need inside scoring, free throw line points and offensive rebounding to have anything above a mediocore offense regardless of your talent level. Perhaps this is why in 9 seasons, Jim O’Brien has never coached a team with an ORTG higher than 17th in the league. The proof is in the pudding that O’Brien’s quick 3s offense will not take a team above offensive mediocrity.

For this reason, I believe O’Brien’s firing is a sound decision – and one of the few instances where the blaming of a coach’s decisions for a team’s inadequecies is justified.

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Written by jr.

January 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm

One Response

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  1. Interesting analysis Julien.

    So, let’s say you’re charged with the team’s strategy going forward, what would be your vision?

    Matt Johnson

    February 5, 2011 at 1:07 pm


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