O'Brien's job is done in Philly
The dream job lasted a little more than 13 months. And it was probably closer to a nightmare at the end.
To say that Jim O'Brien had it coming in Philadelphia might be a bit of an overstatement. To say he knew it was coming would be a lot closer to the truth. No sooner had the 76ers been eliminated from the playoffs than one of O'Brien's confidants told a friend, ''We're fired." The Sixers made it official yesterday, announcing that O'Brien had been fired and that longtime Philly favorite Maurice Cheeks would replace him as coach.
O'Brien's one season in Philadelphia resulted in 43 victories, 10 more than the Sixers had the year before. They won eight of their last 10 games to claim the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference before losing in five games to the defending champion Detroit Pistons. And 20 days after that last game, O'Brien was toast.
He was said to be arrogant, aloof, inflexible, and unable to get along with some of his players. If even a smidgen of that is true -- and most seem to think it's more than a smidgen -- it can doom any coach, especially one who has to co-exist with Allen Iverson and Chris Webber. Then again, a lot of the same things were said about Rick Carlisle in Detroit, when the Pistons whacked him after successive 50-win seasons.
While O'Brien seemed to sense the inevitable, this also can be seen to some degree as a grab for Cheeks. The Sixers have long had Cheeks in their crosshairs; he's one of the most popular players in franchise history. They sought permission from the Trail Blazers to talk to Cheeks when he was under contract to Portland; the Trail Blazers refused. Cheeks had been an assistant coach in Philadelphia prior to taking the head job in Portland and won't be a difficult sell in Philadelphia.
Cheeks was fired in Portland with 27 games remaining in the 2004-05 season after compiling a 162-139 record over three-plus seasons. O'Brien's overall record is 182-158, and he has never missed the playoffs with any team he coached from the beginning of a season.
Money apparently didn't enter into the equation; the Sixers owed O'Brien an estimated $12 million, and Cheeks won't come cheaply. What remains to be seen is what this firing does to O'Brien's once-sterling reputation around the league. When he quit the Celtics in late January 2004, he left with his reputation intact and his stock high. The Sixers hired him shortly after the end of the 2003-04 season, wasting no time, and it was just the job that the Philadelphia native wanted.
There are still several vacancies in the NBA, including high-profile openings with the Knicks and Lakers. Other teams looking for coaches include the Trail Blazers (general manager John Nash is close with O'Brien) as well as the Timberwolves, Cavaliers, and Magic (who have zeroed in on former Orlando coach Brian Hill). The SuperSonics may need a coach as well; Nate McMillan is a free agent. O'Brien's agent, Lonnie Cooper, referred calls to his firm's public relations division.
''I knew this thing was coming," said former Sixers and current Pistons coach Larry Brown before last night's game against the Heat in Miami. ''And it wasn't easy for anybody. I just think they're trying to get it right and my hope is that this is a special situation for Mo in Philly and I'm hopeful people in the league will recognize the ability of Jimmy O'Brien."
Even with the bumpy ride, which included trying to integrate the unintegrateable Webber, it looked from the outside as if O'Brien had weathered the proverbial storm. The Sixers closed strongly in the regular season, winning eight of their last 10 games. Young players Andre Iguodala, Samuel Dalembert, and Kyle Korver had blossomed. But few gave them any shot against the Pistons.
The Sixers were a game below .500 when they made the February trade for Webber. It was a deal Iverson wholeheartedly endorsed. But almost immediately, Webber had problems with O'Brien's defensive schemes, which require big players to aggressively trap pick-and-rolls. Webber was either unable or unwilling to do it -- and he complained publicly about O'Brien's inflexibility. There were rumors shortly thereafter that O'Brien might not make it through the season.
By that time, young players such as Dalembert and Willie Green had gone through stretches when they struggled with their roles. Brian Skinner, who signed with the Sixers last summer as a free agent, was traded to Sacramento in the Webber deal and, in an interview with the Sacramento Bee, he sounded as if he had just been sprung from the slammer.
''I was looking to get traded," Skinner told the newspaper. ''I didn't say that in Philly because I didn't want to cause any dissension. When you don't play, and you don't know why, you lose something. It's not fun. It couldn't have gotten any worse there. I was at the bottom of the totem pole."
As for the difficult-to-coach Iverson, O'Brien decided early on to move the Answer back to point guard. Iverson seemed to embrace the change and had one of the best seasons of his career, capped by his fourth scoring title. After the Sixers beat the Celtics in the season opener last fall at the FleetCenter, Iverson hugged O'Brien, gave him the game ball, and said there would be many more nights like that one.
At the time, it looked like the perfect fit.