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A surprise only to outsiders
by Marc Narducci / December 25, 2007

Jim O'Brien - Icon Sports MediaJim O’Brien collected plenty of literature this preseason and then dispensed to his players on the Indiana Pacers.

O’Brien took over a Pacers franchise that generated mostly low expectations after a 35-47 season. One publication picked the Pacers to be the 29th best team in the 30-team NBA. So O’Brien was busy on the copy machine before training camp began on Oct. 2, making duplicates of several predictions that were less than flattering to the Pacers.

“You have to tell your guys what the world thinks of them,” O’Brien said, not failing to take advantage of the motivational fodder the preseason predictions provided.

And his message to the Pacers was that they were a lot better than the prognosticators suggested. In fact, when he was hired, O’Brien even came out and said that he expected the Pacers to be a playoff team.

While skeptics shrugged that off as false bravado, O’Brien truly believed in what he was saying. And now others are following.

Freed from the regimented half-court system under former coach Rick Carlisle, the Pacers are running, scoring and more importantly winning under O’Brien.

Indiana was 15-13 in its first 28 games.

“I think Rick Carlisle is a great coach and I had great success under him but it’s a lot different now,” said six-time All-Star Jermaine O’Neal. “It was more of a control system and now it’s like run and score, but you have to run back once you score and play defense.”

With more than one third of the season completed, the Pacers are being called one of the pleasant surprises in the NBA. The only people who don’t seemed surprise are the Pacers themselves.

“As a matter of fact I’m disappointed in our record because I thought we let a number of wins slip away,” O’Brien said.

And the players feel the same way.

“We feel like we’ve given up at least eight games,” O’Neal said. “We knew we would be a lot better than the 29th best team in the league.”

From the outside, O’Brien seemed like a curious choice, not because of his coaching, but due to fractured relationships with previous front office personnel.

He resigned from his first head-coaching job in Boston because of clashing with executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge.

From a coaching standpoint, O’Brien had a lot of success in Boston. During his first full year there in 2001-02, he guided the Celtics to their first playoff appearance since the 1994-95 season. The Celtics reached the Eastern Conference finals that season. Boston earned a playoff spot the next season before being eliminated in the second round.

Then O’Brien lasted just one year in his hometown of Philadelphia, despite guiding the 76ers to a 43-39 record, a 10-win improvement from the previous season. The Sixers also earned a playoff spot, losing in five games to Detroit in the first round.

It was no secret that O’Brien didn’t get along with then Sixers president and general manager Billy King.

The team fired O’Brien with two years left on his contract. During the previous two seasons, O’Brien earned $8 million from the Sixers for not coaching.

O’Brien, who entered this year with a 182-158 career record, retreated to Florida, enjoyed spending time with his family, and even writing a basketball column for ESPN.com, but being out of coaching left a void.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my two years off, but I also missed coaching terribly,” O’Brien said.

And he used his free time to prepare himself for another potential opportunity.

“Certainly there was no guarantee I would get another crack at being a head coach,” O’Brien said. “I studied very hard the last two years and tried to be as ready as I could for the next opportunity.”

That chance came in Indiana, which was looking for a different style.

“We wanted to see the team go up and down the court and so do our fans,” said Pacers director of basketball operations Larry Bird.

Bird knew of O’Brien’s free-wheeling style and felt it would be the right fit.

“I couldn’t be more happy with the job Jim has done,” Bird said. “The players like his system and have really bought into it.”

One reason why the Pacers don’t seem to be a fluke is O’Neal, who had offseason arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, and is still working his way back.

Even at under 100 percent, O’Neal has averaged nearly 16 points and more than seven rebounds per game.

“I’m still a work I progress,” O’Neal said.

Mike Dunleavy has probably benefited the most from O’Brien’s system. Dunleavy entered the season with a career scoring average of 11 points, but he was averaging more than 17.

The Pacers have a team with a number of offensive options. Danny Granger is averaging more than 17 points per game, while Troy Murphy is averaging nearly 11 points.

One of the biggest differences has been the play of Jamaal Tinsley, who had been inconsistent during his first six season. He has flourished in O’Brien’s system, averaging 14 points and nearly nine assists.

Most of all, the players have succeeded not only because they like O’Brien’s system, but there is great admiration for the coach himself.

“I like him a lot because he reminds me of a coach when you are coming through rec league and high school, where they care more about the person than the basketball player,” O’Neal said. "I will go to war for this guy any night and I think the guys in the locker room feel that way also.”

Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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