When Jim O'Brien took over as coach of the Boston Celtics after Rick Pitino was fired in 2000, he balanced the egos of all-star forwards Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker well enough to get the club into the Eastern Conference finals. O'Brien finished with a 139-119 record in Boston after inheriting a roster that Pitino led to 35-47 and 19-31 records in the two prior seasons.
As the new coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, O'Brien has to find a way to balance three new starters and an underwhelming cast of supporting players with mercurial all-star guard Allen Iverson, who famously drove coach Larry Brown out of Philadelphia to Detroit — where he quickly turned the Pistons into league champions.
O'Brien appears to have much more work to do. The 76ers are 6-11 and have lost their last five games, including a 96-92 defeat Monday night to the Atlanta Hawks (3-14). That loss followed a 94-86 setback to the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday in which Iverson walked off the court with 0.9 of a second remaining.
"Certainly, every team in the NBA is a work in progress," O'Brien told reporters after a recent loss. "I think it all starts with attitude and work ethic and we have both of those. Any team that I've ever been associated with that had those two ingredients will have a good basketball season."
O'Brien quickly defended Iverson after the Memphis game.
"It didn't matter," O'Brien said. "The game was over."
Since being hired in April, O'Brien has attempted to win over Iverson by returning him to the point guard position, where he has not played since his 1996-97 rookie season. O'Brien also unshackled his star by giving players more freedom to shoot.
The love-fest was on.
Iverson praised O'Brien publicly. Following a victory in the season opener over the Celtics, Iverson presented his coach with the game ball. Iverson embraced O'Brien after victories. He raced around the court hugging coaches and fans after his steal and layup in the Nov. 26 game against the Washington Wizards led the team to a 116-114 overtime win.
But an executive with a Western Conference team (who asked to remain anonymous) cautioned that it's too soon to tell how Iverson will take to O'Brien. He recalled how quickly the relationship between Iverson and 76ers interim coach Chris Ford flamed out last season after Ford fined the former league MVP twice for violating team rules. Things got so bad that Iverson once refused to enter a game in which he wasn't a starter.
"It's early yet," said the executive. "Let's see how Iverson and O'Brien's relationship handles some losses."
When rumors began to circulate last month that Iverson had begun arriving late to practice, O'Brien vouched for his attendance record. And he is effusive about Iverson's contribution to the team this season. "He's been at the same time unselfish and aggressive," said O'Brien, adding that off the court Iverson has shown "great leadership."
"Coach told me it was my team," Iverson said in the preseason. "All the things he talked to me about, they were things that I can control. But saying it and doing it are two different things." The 52-year-old O'Brien has a deft touch with stars, say NBA insiders. Pierce averaged 26.1 and 25.9 points per game in O'Brien's two full seasons as Celtics coach, the best of his career.
"A.I. is going to love playing for O'Brien," said Pierce, who was critical of the Celtics for not doing enough to keep the coach. "Coach O'Brien is going to bring the best out in him."
O'Brien, who resigned from the Celtics a year ago, is playful, loyal, direct and always prepared, say his players. He's as old-school as they come in insisting that his players protect the basket and hustle. On offense, O'Brien is more new age.
Said 76ers forward Kyle Korver: "I'll tell you what: His honesty and the fact that he coaches a fun style, the run and gun, and playing hard on defense, has a lot of guys on this team enjoying his system."
Korver, among the 76ers' three new starters, is one of O'Brien's projects. The budding star is a sharp-shooting second-year player who has averaged 12.9 points and 31.4 minutes this season. Korver finished last season with a lackluster 4.5 points and 11.9 minutes.
A fan favorite in Philadelphia for his resemblance to actor Ashton Kutcher and his dead-eye accuracy from behind the three-point line, Korver says that he respects O'Brien for his willingness to play inexperienced players even if it means benching more established but underperforming stars.
"He knows how he wants the team to play," Korver said. "He's told us that if we don't want to do it that way he doesn't care who we are or how much money we make. We won't play here."
For example, one of the first things O'Brien did after arriving is exile former all-star Glenn Robinson. Last season, Robinson grumbled often about playing time and a declining number of shots. His scoring average fell to 16.6 points a game, a career low. A notoriously poor defender, Robinson this season has not appeared in a game for Philadelphia.
"These guys want to win and they understand, to do that, you have to play great defense," O'Brien said. "They realize it led to success in Boston and that you can't win in this league without it."
O'Brien gets the most out of his roster, but he has little to work with. Philadelphia lacks a strong post presence and is staffed with inconsistent players, such as veteran Kenny Thomas, an undersized power forward at 6 feet 7 who is scoring 7.4 points a game, after posting a 13.6 average last season.
Korver is still learning, as is rookie Andre Iguodala, who has wowed spectators with flashy dunks and is averaging 6.9 points and 5.8 rebounds.
That leaves Iverson. Critics question whether the 29-year-old native of Hampton, Va., is slowing down. His field goal percentage never dipped below 40 percent his first five seasons, but has topped the mark only once in the past four.
Now that he's back at point guard, the hope in Philadelphia is that he can shepherd his young teammates as well as create havoc for opposing defenses.
If not, and if the 76ers become mired in another losing season, O'Brien will likely appeal to Iverson for patience. Said the Western Conference executive: "He's not known as a terribly easy guy to coach when things aren't going well."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company