DALLAS — When the Mavericks lost top assistant Terry Stotts this summer as he became the new head coach in Portland, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle was left with a big vacancy on his coaching staff. But Carlisle went with someone he knew, both on a personal and professional basis by bringing in Jim O’Brien, the former head coach of the Celtics, Sixers and most recently the Pacers to fill the vacancy left by Stotts’ departure to Rip City.
The veteran 60-year-old coach had most recently been with Indiana, but was fired after 44 games in the 2010-11 season. But other than having an impressive coaching resume at the collegiate and professional levels, the most interesting thing about him being hired by the Mavs is the history he has with Carlisle.
See, back when the Mavs coach was still a player he spent one season with the Knicks, the 1987-88 season. New York was then being coached by Rick Pitino and O’Brien was an assistant on Pitino’s staff. He and Carlisle became close and have maintained a close friendship ever since, so when the opportunity to work with him in Big D arose, he took it with little to no hesitation.
“Well, I kind of felt I was retired but Rick called and I go back 25 years with Rick. I coached him when he was the Knicks. We developed a relationship and continued that relationship as rivals the last 25 years and I have a great deal of respect and he’s a friend,” O’Brien said. “For him to ask me to come to this organization was special and something I couldn’t pass up.”
One ironic aspect about the history between him and Carlisle is that when the current Mavs coach was fired in Indiana, it was his current top assistant who replaced him at the helm for the Pacers, who fired him in 2011.
But even though he once replaced his current boss in the Hoosier State, that doesn’t make working with him again the least bit weird. “No, I think what I knew is that I had my work cut out because Rick is a great coach and his last year, my years there we were in the midst of a rebuilding project. So it wasn’t weird. It is what it is,” O’Brien said.
His first head coaching job was in Boston, starting with the 2000-01 season. All told, he led the C’s for four seasons, guiding them to the playoffs twice, including a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2003. His next stop was a one-year stint in Philadelphia before spending several years away from the league doing TV for ESPN.
And it might sound cliché, but that time behind the microphone actually gave him a very accurate look at what it takes to work in the media, something he had never really considered during his time as an NBA head coach.
“I think that it’s hard to work in the media if you still have coaching your blood because I think coaches that work in the media that still potentially could be on the bench, you can’t be as objective as it calls for you to be in the media. I enjoyed it. I was surprised at how hard it is,” O’Brien said. “When you’re a coach and you’re dealing with the media all the time, you take them for granted. People say how hard is it to be a coach? You roll out the balls. Well, how hard is it to be in the media? It’s plenty hard.”
He then had several seasons with the Pacers, who were in a full-blown rebuild after Carlisle was fired. Those Indiana teams did not make the playoffs and O’Brien too was let go by the same organization that had also cut loose his good friend and colleague.
However, as he looks back on an impressive coaching career, whether it’s been as an assistant or as a head coach, he takes great pride in being able to earn a nice living in the game he so dearly loves for such a long period of time.
“I’ve been blessed to have done the job of coaching my entire adult life, both in college and professional basketball. To be able to be on a staff with people that wherever I’ve been I really enjoy the camaraderie of the staff, being in the gym with people of like mind trying to put a successful program or organization on the court is great,” O’Brien said. “What I found out in my time away is I miss the competition and I miss the relationships that you develop being part of a team.”
Some might wonder if his joining the Mavs signals that he might again have an interest in being a head coach in the Association in the near future. But this seasoned professional isn’t worried about such hypotheticals that may or may not present themselves in the future. Instead he’s more focused on the task at hand and how he can help the Mavs bring a retooled roster together and help mold them into a legitimate championship contender.
“It’s not something I even think about,” O’Brien said. “I have never thought about anything in my career and it’s good advice for any young coaches. You concentrate on the job at hand. You do the very, very best job if you’re an assistant coach the best job you possibly can serving the head coach and the future will take care of itself.”
His joining the Dallas staff is a move that makes sense on a number of levels. Not only does he bring a wealth of NBA bench experience to Carlisle and his current group of assistants, but he also has the experience of being part of several rebuilds and this affable assistant knows exactly what it takes to work several new starters into the starting five. He sees the current group of Mavs newcomers consisting of the likes of Elton Brand, Darren Collison and Chris Kaman as presenting some intriguing possibilities in that respect.
“What’s interesting is as a coaching staff, you’re dealt a new hand every year. They had a championship season two years ago. Now they have two people back from two years ago, so things have turned over. The two people back [Marion and Nowitzki] are clearly key people. We have a very interesting group with great experience and we also have youth. Rick is going to develop a plan for this team that is going to take advantage of the experience that we have up front and the speed that we have on the perimeter.”
Mavs swingman Vince Carter knows O’Brien from having played against his teams earlier in his NBA career. And even though this is VC’s first experience playing for him, it’s one he’s eagerly looking forward to. “He still stays in head coaching mode, a very fiery, upbeat guy who wants to win and wants to see precision, plain and simple,” Carter said.
So, while Dallas wishes now former assistant coach Terry Stotts well in his new gig with the Blazers, at least when Portland isn’t playing the Mavs, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle, general manager Donnie Nelson and owner Mark Cuban for that matter have to be quite pleased with who they hired to replace Stotts on Carlisle’s staff, Jim O’Brien. After all, it’s not every day that you can add a guy with nearly a decade of head coaching experience in the Association as an assistant. Plus he and Carlisle have a great history together, so on all fronts the addition of O’Brien to Carlisle’s staff already looks like it will be an addition that could pay huge dividends.