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Wednesday, January 28, 2004
Updated: January 30, 5:36 PM ET
For better or worse, O'Brien faced change

By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com

Jim O'Brien got nitpicked to death.

O'Brien's desire to coach the Boston Celtics was chipped away, piece by piece, trade by trade, question by incessant question. He never was given the opportunity to stick with the same 12 players for more than a few months during his entire three-year stay in Boston; every six months, somebody traded half his team away. Finally, O'Brien had enough.

He actually went to Danny Ainge on Tuesday, I'm told, and said he wanted to resign at the end of the season, that he would stick around until then for continuity's sake, but that he wanted out. Fine, Ainge responded, you can leave now. (Which, by the way, was the correct response.)

There are no villains here, really. I have no problem with Ainge being proactive. He's getting big loot to do what he thinks is right. But there is a certain baby with the bathwater dynamic here. In being hands-on, I think Ainge made O'Brien feel like his say in the franchise no longer mattered, and forced a pretty good coach out the door.

In one way, maybe it's best that O'Brien quit now. He may have done Ainge a favor. For at the end of the season, the way the Celtics were going, I'm fairly certain Ainge would have fired him. (And let's be frank -- by leaving now, O'Brien can walk away clean, like Jeff Van Gundy, instead of having to explain to his next employer why he got cashiered.) There were legitimate, honest differences of opinion on how to play and who to play, and ultimately, the guy bringing in the players is going to bring in players that fit the system in which he believes. Ainge says that's not so. O'Brien was his guy; look at the contract extension I gave him, he says. Yeah, but you also changed the team's goals in midstream. O'Brien still thought he was coaching a playoff team. Ainge saw a tear-down job. O'Brien was fiercely loyal -- maybe too loyal -- to his players, but his brain only saw what had occurred on his watch.

Let's review, shall we?

O'Brien took over in January 2001, after his longtime friend and boss Rick Pitino resigned. If you recall, at the time Pitino took a powder, the Celtics were a joke, 10 games under .500, with no focus, no life, and, seemingly, no hope. But O'Brien turned it around quickly. Boston went 24-24 the rest of the way -- playing most of the way without two starters -- and missed the playoffs by a game. He empowered Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce to fire away, and if it wasn't aesthetically pleasing at times, it was pretty effective.

O'Brien had the C's seven games above .500 the following season when the Celtics rolled the dice at the trade deadline, bringing in Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. That group went to the Eastern Conference finals, beating Rick Carlisle's Pistons and Larry Brown's Sixers on the way, and went toe-to-toe with the Nets before losing in six games.

Jim O'Brien
Jim O'Brien never had the same 12 players to work with for an entire season.
Of course, we know now that then-owner Paul Gaston laid down the law the following summer, demanding payroll be sliced to avoid being a luxury-tax payer. So free agent Rogers went out the door, and Kenny Anderson and Vitaly Potapenko were sent packing to Seattle for Vin Baker and Shammond Williams. O'Brien did not want that deal, did not like that deal, and soon enough, people knew he didn't like that deal. But he coached what he had, and although Baker gave Boston next to nothing last season, the Celtics went back to the playoffs, upset Indiana in the first round and lost, again, to New Jersey.

By then, Ainge had come aboard, with his own ideas about the franchise. The first, and biggest, decision he made was that he wouldn't give Walker a contract extension. OK, that's his call, and he has every right to believe that Walker wasn't worth maximum dollars. Ainge then moved Walker to Dallas for Raef LaFrentz and Jiri Welsch, and let's be fair -- although I didn't think it was a good deal at the time -- Welsch has looked pretty good so far. But Ainge then told the injured LaFrentz, basically, to take the rest of the season off after knee surgery, subtracting another body from O'Brien's limited big-man rotation.

O'Brien, again, coached what he had, and in late November, the Celtics seemed to have righted their boat, winning five straight. Ainge then dealt Eric Williams and Tony Battie to Cleveland for the talented if, um, mercurial Ricky Davis and Chris Mihm. (I'm not sure I understand Ainge's affinity for Cavaliers from last season's 17-65 squad; he's traded for four of them already.)

That was just the last poke at players with whom O'Brien had gotten close. Which is understandable; no one thought much of any of them, and together, they took Boston deep into the postseason for the first time since the Bird Era. I know that general managers and team presidents have to look at the big picture and can't afford to be sentimental. And Ainge has told me that he thought the Celtics as currently constituted had gone about as far as they could go -- indeed, Ainge thought they had already peaked. And Danny is always going to be aggressive and proactive; it's how he played, how he views the world.

But O'Brien got weary of the constant tinkering. Why are you doing this? Why aren't you doing that? Shouldn't you try this? Let's just say that Ainge and the Grousbecks have a much different managing style than Gaston and Chris Wallace did. Gaston came to maybe three games a year; as long as the spreadsheets looked good, he didn't care. Wallace shared power with O'Brien. Gaston did not want another king with total say after the disastrous Pitino reign, so he split the decision-making authority between his coach and GM. Wallace could recommend, but not force.

Ainge and the Grousbecks? They can force.

So now, Ainge will be able to hand-pick his guy, and it wouldn't surprise me if he looked long and hard at Jerry Sichting in Minnesota or Lionel Hollins in Memphis. (It surprised me that he wouldn't give Lester Conner a shot at the job for the rest of the season; no slight to John Carroll, but Conner's done a pretty good job coaching Boston's summer league teams the last few years, and he's been the guy who took over in regular-season games when O'Brien was ejected. You can pooh-pooh summer ball if you want, but that's how the Nuggets figured out that Jeff Bzdelik might know what he's doing.)

And this curious exercise in team-building will continue. There will now be no impediment to Ainge doing everything he wants to do. Other than Paul Pierce, everything and everyone is subject to change. Somewhere, the Brain Doctor is smiling.

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.