Boston Celtics head coach Jim O'Brien tendered his resignation to President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge yesterday over philosophical differences in the team structure. What were those differences? The surprising answer is inside.
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Boston Celtics head coach Jim O'Brien tendered his resignation to President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge last night over philosophical differences in the team structure. What were those differences?
First and foremost, the differences were not that O'Brien was short-sighted and trying to win every particular game, while Ainge was far-sighted and trying to win the championship in a few years. That couldn't possibly be the reason, though it is the most widely cited one, because that reason applies to every coach and general manager pair in the league. If head coaches were to quit whenever they found they were more concerned about the next game than the general manager was, there would be no head coaches.
Furthermore, despite speculations to the contrary, O'Brien did not resign merely because of differences in opinion over playing time. O'Brien always had final say over who to play, how long, how, and when. This was acknowledged by Danny Ainge earlier in the season. Even if Ainge were to try to influence the style of the game, or the defensive or offensive strategies, it would be virtually impossible for him to do anything about it. He could sit on the sidelines near the coaches and players all he wants to, and he has done that this year. He can even jump up off his seat and yell instructions to the players, a blatant discourtesy to his coach, but he has done that this year, too. Did it help? Of course not. The players obey the coach's order, by default, because they don't like sitting on the bench. Ainge was a head coach at Phoenix, and no doubt remembers that it is nearly impossible to dictate playing time unless the contract with the head coach allows it. And O'Brien's contract, being an extension, almost certainly did not allow it; O'Brien would not have agreed to give up such obvious and important coaching control.
To be sure, there were differences in opinion over playing time. Danny Ainge likely didn't want to see Walter McCarty playing so many minutes, or Marcus Banks so few. But these are not philosophical differences. More importantly, they are not differences to quit over. Ainge gave his input, but the final decision on who to play is O'Brien's. Conversely, Ainge may receive solicited or unsolicited advise from O'Brien on possible trade scenarios, but the final decision on who to trade is Ainge's.
Similarly, O'Brien did not quit because of the old trades. No matter how disappointed he was in losing Antoine Walker (though at the time he said he sided with Ainge in the decision), or how hurt he was in losing Eric Williams and Tony Battie (he did not hide his emotions on that one), the time to quit because of those decisions was past. The trades are over and done with, and the roster is what the roster is. You could make a case that a head coach might quit if the general manager is continually making moves, never leaving the roster alone long enough for you to train them to play as a team, but that is clearly not what was happening here. The roster reshuffled, yes, but it did not signal a frenetic desire for trades for their own sake. Ainge had, and continues to have, a very clear and unwavering vision in mind, and he has shaped the roster to fit that image. He never hid what his vision was, and outlined it repeatedly both early on in the season and surrounding the particular trade decisions.
So O'Brien could not have quit over the old trades, or the disagreements over playing time. Could he have quit after learning of another trade that Ainge was about to pull?
Suppose in their weekly morning meeting yesterday Ainge had informed O'Brien that he was shipping out McCarty, Mark Blount, and Jumaine Jones for Orlando's Drew Gooden and Keith Bogans. Leave aside the discussion of whether Orlando would agree to such a deal: just suppose it did. Ainge would view this in a long-term approach of being a good decision for the long-run nature of the club. Could O'Brien get furious at this move and quit on the spot? Can you imagine him standing up and saying, "Trade Waltah? Absolutely not!"
It's ridiculous. Yes, O'Brien could have disagreed with such a trade, and passionately so. He loves playing McCarty and Blount because they really understand his defensive system and they deny shots in the lane and actively front low-post players. They hustle and they play tough defense. But he wouldn't quit over that. In fact, such a trade, so disagreeable to him, would nevertheless and ironically enough make him want to stay! Such a trade would mean that there was not likely to be any more trades this season at all, because any further tinkering would force Ainge to admit mistakes in earlier trades. With Vin Baker gone, there would be no one left from last year's team except Paul Pierce. O'Brien would have a virtual guarantee on having a stable roster.
That would be the best possible thing for a head coach, because then he has all the leverage. If Ainge at that point doesn't like particular matchups or strategies or minutes allocated, what's he going to do? Keep trading players until he gets what he wants? As long as O'Brien didn't do anything completely unreasonable, and certainly as long as he kept winning, Ainge's hands would be tied. He wouldn't even be able to bring himself to fire O'Brien, no matter how much they disagreed, if his methods were working.
So we know that O'Brien did not quit because of differences of opinion in playing time. He did not quit because of lingering disagreements over past trades. And he did not quit because of immediate disagreements about pending trades. As an aside, if there were pending trades, they would probably be put on hold for now, both by the Celtics and whoever would be on the other side. If the above trade had any legs to it, Orlando would be wise to pull away from the table at least for a day or two to let the situation subside.
Now we get to the crux of the matter. What were the philosophical differences? It was, in a word, their defense.
Ainge came into the team saying he wanted to erase the things that had defined the Celtics for the past few years, namely, ridiculous quantities of three point shots at not very good percentages, and a slow, plodding style of play. He wanted to see some diversity in the action: some three pointers, of course, but mix it in with some low-post play, and some fast breaks.
This year, the number of three pointers the Celtics take has gone down, and trading Antoine Walker away was a major reason for the decline. With Vin Baker healthy, he provided a wonderful low post option. But the Celtics never really ran. Sure, the occasional opportunities presented themselves, but as a whole, no matter how much they tried and how much they practiced, they simply could not make fast break basketball a fixture of their game. Why not?
They couldn't run because they couldn't rebound. Watch the Denver Nuggets play and you will see what is currently the league's best fast breaking team, by far. They look to run every play. Everybody boxes out and once a rebound is snatched, everybody breaks and fills the lanes. Often the rebounder is already looking over his shoulder to see who to outlet the ball to while he is still in the air, sometimes even before he catches the ball. A made shot is snatched out of the net before it even completes the switch, and one-two steps later, the inbounds pass is thrown, and a fast break starts almost as fast as if it were off a missed shot.
Why can't the Celtics do that? If it's so simple, and we know that Jim O'Brien is a respected and excellent coach, why couldn't he run drills or whatever it took to get the Green Team to rebound, outlet, and run?
The answer is subtle. The answer is defense.
The Boston Celtics were unique in the league in running a defensive system that fronted the low post every single time, denying the entry pass. It's a very difficult system to get in place and get your players to learn, so of course O'Brien was heated over the loss to Cleveland of some of his most experienced and best defensive players. And of course that is the reason he plays McCarty and Blount over Mihm and others: they know the system and will execute it correctly. If you see a low post player backing in against the Celtics, you will know that the defense has not worked. A substitution is likely forthcoming, as that is not a scenario O'Brien liked to see.
Part of what makes the fronting defense so difficult to execute is that the weak side defenders must actively help out in preventing lob passes over the fronting defender. When they move to help, all the other players must adjust to guard the open man.
The first and most obvious offensive attack to such a system is to swing the ball around the perimeter. You can see this in the first Boston-Houston game, which the Celtics won. Yao Ming is fronted by McCarty, and as the ball swings around to the weak side to try to get it into the other low post player, suddenly Maurice Taylor is fronted by Chris Mihm. In that game, the Celtics dominated Houston, and the fronting defense was a large part of the reason. The second most obvious way to attack this defensive system is to have the low post player switch posts by walking, and in the process trying to use a screen to get himself clear of his defender and in position to receive a pass with his back to the basket. In these situations, you'd see McCarty fronting Yao all the way across the lane, never for a moment letting Yao get in front of him.
That's the essence of the system, and it is not only a unique but also an intriguing defensive system. It is almost a zone defense, though O'Brien would not like it to be called that, because it forces opponents to take contested jump shots. It denies points in the paint and most passes out of the post to open shooters, as the big men never even have an opportunity to get into good position.
But this system has two fatal flaws. One is that it makes it virtually impossible to get a defensive rebound. Imagine McCarty fronting Yao, with Steve Francis, guarded by Mike James, trying to pass the ball inside. He can't, and the shot clock is winding down, so he does a little one-on-one move and launches a shot. James is there to contest it and make it a low percentage shot, but he can't stop Francis from shooting altogether. Once the shot is in the air, Yao is now in the funny position of having inside rebounding position. Yao is boxing out McCarty! The offensive man is suddenly in the best possible position to rebound.
O'Brien acknowledged this problem, saying in effect that they have come to terms with the fact that they will not be able to outrebound other teams. So, you might be thinking, this is a flaw of the system, but why is it necessarily fatal? The answer is because it kills any chance of a fast break. If you can't get good positioning, you can't get the rebound, and if you can't get the quick rebound, you can't get a fast break.
That's a major philosophical difference, and one that they surely fought over.
The second fatal flaw of such a system is that it is relatively easy to adapt to. As such, it would be horrendous in a playoff situation. Houston played Boston just a few days after losing to them, and easily beat them in the rematch. New Jersey prepared specifically against the fronting defense and beat them handily in what turned out to be O'Brien's last game as head coach.
In fact, New Jersey used a less obvious but more effective attack against the fronting defense. They swung the ball to the wing, ostensibly to feed the ball into the post. The low post player would get fronted, as required by the defense. Then, quickly, two things would happen. The low post player would rotate his body to face the basket and establish his position against the fronting defender, much as if he were boxing out. At the same time, the wingman would pass the ball back to the man at the top of the key, who immediately launches an alley-oop to the post player. The post player now has lots of time to either catch and dunk, or catch and land and wait for the foul and possible three point play. The Nets did that so often to the Celtics that it became routine.
When this is the defense you play in games, it becomes also the defense you play in practice, because that is what takes the most effort and energy and requires the most repetition to play. So what happens when the players face a team that doesn't front them? They don't execute particularly well. When someone as naturally gifted in the post as Vin Baker is happens to be in the game, you can feed him the ball and let him go to work. Otherwise, what ends up happening is a lot of busywork and passing that results in a three point shot, because that's usually all that's available.
It is this unique defensive system that is the source of all of the philosophical differences, from the playing time of certain players, to the poor rebounding, to the continued over-reliance on the three pointer, to the trades that Ainge is forced to do in an attempt to change the system.
What do I think happened in this meeting yesterday morning? I think Ainge realized he has little wiggle room in trading players left. Surely he has some offers on the table, but even if he were to do the hypothetical Orlando deal above, it wouldn't necessarily change anything. O'Brien could just take some time, teach his players how he wants them to play, and then Ainge would be stuck watching Drew Gooden fronting players like Kurt Thomas or Chris Bosh, rather than playing them straight up. And none of the problems would be solved.
What I think happened is that Danny Ainge figured out a solution, a way out of this morass of fronting defense. He decided to fire Dick Harter.
Assistant coach Dick Harter. He is the defensive mastermind who crafted this unique fronting defense. Firing Harter, which is likely well within Ainge's control, would pull the plug on the entire system. It would be worse even than firing Tex Winter, inventor of the triangle offense, from the Lakers coaching staff, because at least Phil Jackson has had some experience running the triangle without having its inventor around. O'Brien had never run Harter's defensive scheme alone, and probably didn't want to.
What choices would O'Brien have in such a situation? He could acquiesce, hope that Harter finds another position, and try to continue to run the same system. That would challenge O'Brien's loyalty to his friend and colleague. It would diminish his respect from his players, much as what happened to Byron Scott after the departure of Eddie Jordan, who was widely viewed as being instrumental in the Nets' up-tempo style of play. It would make him unhappy to say the least.
Another option would be to acquiesce, hope that Harter finds another position, and start running a different system. This would also challenge O'Brien's loyalty to his friend and colleague. It would also make him feel highly unstable. For Ainge to fire one of the head coach's assistants without the agreement of the head coach is stepping too far. It would be like the CEO of a company replacing a middle manager's secretary. The manager would feel slighted for two reasons: one, he would have to retrain a new person, and two, there would be no sense of order. At any moment, a new employee could walk in the door.
O'Brien only had one choice left, and he took it, and that was to resign.
I don't know if Ainge threatened to fire Harter, or was looking for O'Brien's opinion on the matter, or if it never even came up at all. But I know one thing: after Jim O'Brien quit, so did Dick Harter.
There were two resignations yesterday, but reportedly only one person in the meeting with Danny Ainge. So we have to ask ourselves this question: why did Dick Harter resign? Was it to show his support for his friend? If so, why didn't the other assistant coaches, who also presumably feel a loyalty to O'Brien, resign as well? Or was it because he knew he was going to be fired, whether O'Brien liked it or not?
Most reports of O'Brien's resignation make little mention of Harter's resignation as well. Some reports say that he didn't quit but was fired. But beyond a one-line statement of the fact, the significant of Harter leaving simultaneously is never questioned. In fact, as we have seen, it is the most important part of what took place, possibly even more important than O'Brien quitting. If there were a way to retain O'Brien and oust Harter, Ainge would have found it. He was almost certainly looking for it.
Danny Ainge is now in a position where he can shape this team to his exact vision. Whether he starts to coach himself, or if he brings in highly capable former teammate Dennis Johnson (who, let's not forget, Larry Bird called the smartest player he ever played with), or someone else, it is clear we can expect to see a lot more running of the Celtics, and a lot less fronting defense.
As for Jim O'Brien, he will likely soon have another job. He is an immensely talented and dedicated and hard working coach who gets tremendous effort from his players. Before what has turned out to be his last game, O'Brien was still reviewing old video with less than an hour before tipoff. He was writing stats all over the whiteboard from memory. He warned the team to watch out for such-and-such players from three-point range and from such-and-such players in terms of steals. Under Keys to the Game, he put not one but two exclamation marks on the rebounding effort, writing "Glass - Focus!! All 5 get it done." The only part of the whiteboard where he had more exclamation marks was, fittingly enough, for defense, which he emphasized must be "Aggressive!!!" Aggressive it was, but effective in fulfilling Ainge's vision it was not.
Ainge was correct in saying that it's neither his fault nor O'Brien's fault that they parted ways. Ainge had no choice but to try to remove Harter's defense, and O'Brien had no choice but to resign in protest.
So ends a storied career for Jim O'Brien as Boston's head coach. All of Boston wish him the best of luck in his future coaching career, in every single game he coaches, except of course when it's against the new, sleek and svelte, fast-paced Celtics.