Pondering the Pacers: Ranking Pacers Coaches since Larry Bird

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You might not realize it, but the Indiana Pacers have been one of the most stable organizations over the past 20 years when it comes to head coaches.

In the 22 year span from 1997 to 2019, the Pacers have only had six coaches. That's pretty impressive. In light of Nate McMillan's outstanding job last season (still can't believe he wasn't a Coach of the Year nominee) and what he’s done without Vic this year, I've decided to rank all six Pacers coaches, from Larry Bird to McMillan.

Here we go.


6) Jim O'Brien

Pacers tenure: 2007-2011

Overall record with Pacers: 121-169

Playoff appearances: 0

Best regular season record with Pacers: 36-46 (twice, '07-'08 and '08-'09)


This was a pretty easy choice. Want to know why?

No playoff appearances.

Taking over for Rick Carlisle, the hiring of O'Brien was seen as a downgrade amongst Pacers fans. Their skepticism became a reality in O'Brien's first season as the Pacers failed to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1996-97 season.

However, O'Brien did come close to a playoff berth in 2007-08. The Pacers finished one game back of the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Get this: they finished ten games under .500, so it wasn't like they needed to win 50 games to have a shot. During O'Brien's tenure, the Eastern Conference was very top-heavy, with the big boys being the Pierce/Garnett/Allen Celtics, LeBron's Cavs, Billups’ Pistons, and the Dwight Howard Orlando Magic.

After those four teams, the other seeds were pretty much up for grabs. O'Brien was rolling out a lineup of Jamaal Tinsley, Mike Dunleavy, Danny Granger, Troy Murphy, and Jermaine O'Neal until O'Neal was dealt to the Raptors. By 2007 standards, that's pretty respectable.

The following season, '08-'09, the Pacers again finished 36-46. This time, they finished three games back of a playoff spot, even with the same record.

When the '09-'10 season came around, fans were looking forward to possibly making a run to the playoffs. Tinsley had finally been traded away, Granger was coming off a year where he averaged 25.8 points per game (named Most Improved Player in 2009), and Murphy was a double-double machine.

But it wasn't meant to be. The Pacers finished 32-50 that season and Pacers fans were starting to call for O'Brien's job. GM Larry Bird decided to run it back one more year, and O'Brien retained his coaching status for the 2010-11 season.

Following a blowout loss to the Bulls on January 29, 2011, O'Brien was fired by Bird and replaced by Frank Vogel. It turned out to be for the best as Vogel guided the Pacers to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. O'Brien is the only guy on this list to have been fired mid-season.

Jim O'Brien is currently an assistant for the 76ers. As Pacers fans can tell you, that's probably where he belongs.


5) Isiah Thomas

Pacers tenure: 2000-2003

Overall record with Pacers: 131-115

Playoff appearances: 3

Playoff finishes: '01 First Round (lost to 76ers 3-1), '02 First Round (lost to Nets 3-2), '03 First Round (lost to Celtics 4-2)

Best regular season record with Pacers: 48-34 ('02-'03)


Larry Bird's closest friend.

After Larry Legend retired in 2000, Isiah was named as his replacement for the 2000-01 season. The only improvement that Isiah could've made was to win it all, as Bird had taken the Pacers to the Finals the year prior.

The hire was praised by Indiana natives. Isiah's status as an IU icon was and still is unbreakable.

His status as a Pacers coach is a different story.

In 2000-01, Isiah's first season as head coach, the Pacers finished 41-41 but managed to clinch the eighth seed in the playoffs. However, they lost to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, Allen Iverson's 76ers, in four games (the first round used to be best-of-five).

In '01-'02, the Pacers improved by one game and finished 42-40 and again clinched the eighth seed. They suffered the same fate in the postseason, however, this time falling to Jason Kidd and the Nets (who would also go on to win the East). Despite late game heroics from Reggie Miller in Game 5, the Pacers were outmatched, and fell in the deciding game.

Hopes were high heading into the '02-'03 season as the Pacers had come so close to advancing the year before. It proved to be Isiah's best season in Indy, finishing with a 48-34 record and the third seed in the Eastern Conference. It was a monster season for Jermaine O'Neal, who averaged 20.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks. Behind O'Neal and Reggie, the Pacers were poised to be in the Conference Finals.

Instead, they lost to the sixth-seeded Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, and, oddly enough, future Pacers coach Jim O'Brien.

When Larry Bird was introduced as the Pacers' GM following the season, his first order of business was to fire Isiah. He'd go on to coach the Knicks, and even college ball with Florida International. Neither proved to be his forte, as he's now an analyst for NBA TV.


4) Nate McMillan

Pacers tenure: 2016-present

Overall record with Pacers: 90-74

Playoff appearances: 2

Playoff finishes: '16 First Round (lost to Cavaliers 4-0), '17 First Round (lost to Cavaliers 4-3)

Best regular season record with Pacers: 48-34 ('17-'18)


I must admit, I was a little upset when Frank Vogel was let go after the 2015-16 season. I was even more confused when McMillan was retained following his first season as head coach. I wanted him gone.

I can see now that I was wrong. Dead wrong.

In his first season, the Pacers had the Conference Finals on their minds after some big-time moves in the 2016 offseason. They traded for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young and signed Al Jefferson as a free agent. With Teague and Thad in a lineup with Paul George, Monta Ellis, and Myles Turner, an NBA title didn’t seem far fetched.

I can see now that I was wrong. Dead wrong.

Thanks in part to George's constant complaining (not to mention having his sights set on the Lakers) and Ellis's incompetent play, the Pacers stumbled to a 42-40 record and the seventh seed in the East. Matching up against the Cavs, the Pacers surprised a lot of people in Game 1 and even had a chance to win in the final minutes.

We all know what happened. CJ Miles missed a wide-open look and the Pacers lost. After the game, George whined about not getting the last shot. In Game 3, after the Pacers blew a 25-point lead, George got his chance at the last shot and bricked it off the backboard. He didn't even hit rim. Classic.

When George was traded in the 2017 offseason for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, I liked the trade but didn't know if the Pacers would be in playoff discussions.

Thanks to Nate's magnificent coaching job and Victor's All-Star season, the Pacers finished 48-34 and clinched the fifth seed. Again matching up with Cleveland, the Pacers dominated in Game 1 as Nate exploited the Cavs' poor interior defense by having Victor penetrate the lane every chance he got.

After Game 1, the refs made their presence known and LeBron and the Cavs won in seven games. However, Nate did have a chance to help his team win the game in Game 5. LeBron caught the inbounds pass and was immediately guarded by Thad. LeBron hit the shot and won the game.

It turned out that the Pacers had a timeout and a foul to give. Could've used either one, if not both.

But let's not forget that Oladipo's layup before LeBron's shot was goaltended, and the refs didn't even bother to review it.

Nate can still move up on this list. After some quality moves this offseason, the Pacers will probably end up in the Conference Finals, and ESPN will probably act like it's some kind of miracle.

Either way, give it up for Nate.


3) Rick Carlisle

Pacers tenure: 2003-2007

Overall record with Pacers: 181-147

Playoff appearances: 3

Playoff finishes: '04 Conference Finals (lost to Pistons 4-2), '05 Second Round (lost to Pistons 4-2), '06 First Round (lost to Nets 4-2)

Best regular season record with Pacers: 61-21 ('03-'04, best record in franchise history)


There's only one reason that Rick Carlisle isn't number one on this list.

Ron Artest.

Carlisle's best player turned out to be his worst nightmare, and the Pacers-Pistons brawl ended up costing the Pacers a ring. There isn't a doubt in my mind.

Hired by Bird to replace Isiah Thomas in 2003, the Pacers took off under Carlisle's guidance. Led by Miller, O'Neal, Artest, and Tinsley, the Pacers finished with a franchise-record 61 wins and clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They ended up running into the Billups/Rip Hamilton/Rasheed and Ben Wallace Pistons (who would go on to win the title), and lost in the Conference Finals.

In that season, Carlisle helped O'Neal and Artest realize their potentials. O'Neal was voted to the All-NBA Second Team as well as the All-Star game, while Artest was voted to the All-Star game, the All-NBA Third Team, and named Defensive Player of the Year.

The following season, it was championship or bust for the Pacers. Going into the brawl game, the Pacers were the favorite to come out of the East after starting the season hot. Artest was averaging 24.6 points and 6.4 rebounds before he went into the crowd in Detroit to pursue a fight.

After the suspensions were handed out, Carlisle was left without his best player (Artest) as well as O'Neal for a good length of time. Without Artest, the title hopes went out the window and the Pacers ended up finishing with a 44-38 record (pretty good, all things considered).

In the playoffs, the Pacers upset the third-seeded Celtics in the first round but fell again to the Pistons in the second round.

The rest of Carlisle's Pacers career was pretty boring. They made the playoffs one more time in 2006, but lost in the first round. In 2007, they missed out on the postseason and Carlisle was let go.

Honestly, in terms of pure basketball knowledge and coaching ability, Rick Carlisle might be the best coach in Pacers history.

He went on to the Mavericks in 2008 and ended up winning a title in 2011. He's under contract with Dallas through 2020.


2) Frank Vogel

Pacers tenure: 2011-2016

Overall record with Pacers: 250-181

Playoff appearances: 5

Playoff finishes: '11 First Round (lost to Bulls 4-1), '12 Second Round (lost to Heat 4-2), '13 Conference Finals (lost to Heat 4-3), '14 Conference Finals (lost to Heat 4-2), '16 First Round (lost to Raptors 4-3)

Best regular season record with Pacers: 56-26 ('13-'14)


I love Frank Vogel.

He brought the Pacers within one game of the NBA Finals and was a couple of fortuitous bounces away from getting them there. The defense was always top-of-the-line under his guidance.

But he had the misfortune of leading some of the best Pacers teams ever against one of the best players ever: LeBron James.

When Vogel took over for Jim O'Brien in 2011, the Pacers took off and clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2006. Although they lost to the Derrick Rose-led Bulls, the future was bright for the Pacers.

In the '11-'12 season, Vogel led the Pacers to 42 wins in the lockout-shortened 66 game season. It was good enough for the third seed in the Eastern Conference and the Pacers ended up playing the Heat in the second round. Despite taking a 2-1 lead and having Game 4 under control most of the way, the Pacers lost to Miami in six games (they would go on to win the title).

It was in '12-'13, however, that the Pacers put the NBA on notice. With their stifling defense, a budding star in Paul George, and consistent/tough play from David West (one of my all-time favorites), the Pacers won 49 games and advanced all the way to the Conference Finals.

The 2013 Conference Finals still haunt me (Game 1 in particular). After George hit an unreal three-pointer to force overtime, LeBron hit a pretty easy layup to win the game. Vogel was at fault because he had Roy Hibbert take a seat on the bench which virtually left the lane wide open for James to drive in. It was one of two times in my sports fan life that I dropped to my knees in disbelief (the other being Rajai Davis's home run in Game 7 of the World Series against the Cubbies).

It turned out to be the closest the Pacers ever came to the Finals in Vogel’s tenure as they fell to the Heat in seven games.

The following season, the Pacers clinched home court advantage throughout the East playoffs but locker room problems torched any title hopes.

The Pacers barely made it past the first round, beating the Hawks in seven, and got past the Wizards in Round 2, but not very convincingly. Enter the Heat, who tied the series at 1 after the Pacers took Game 1 in Indy. The Heat took a 3-1 lead, and won the series in six. Sad.

In the 2014 offseason, George broke his leg, Lance Stephenson departed for the Hornets, and the season turned out to be a lost one for the Pacers, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010. It was a great coaching job by Vogel, though, as the Pacers only missed the playoffs by one game despite playing without George for most of the year.

In his final season, Vogel led the Pacers back to the postseason but fell to Toronto. Bird decided to fire Vogel and ended up promoting Nate McMillan to head coach (so far so good).

Vogel got a head coaching job with the Magic, but was fired last offseason.


1) Larry Bird

Pacers tenure: 1997-2000

Overall record with Pacers: 147-67

Playoff appearances: 3

Playoff finishes: '98 Conference Finals (lost to Bulls 4-3), '99 Conference Finals (lost to Knicks 4-2), '00 NBA Finals (lost to Lakers 4-2)

Best regular season record with Pacers: 58-24 ('97-'98)


Larry Legend.

When he took the job, Bird said that he'd only coach for three seasons, and he kept his promise.

When it was all said and done, he'd led the Pacers to the Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, culminating in the Pacers' only Finals appearance in 2000. It makes you wonder what could've happened if he had decided to stay on.

In the '98 playoffs, the Pacers advanced to the Conference Finals and came within one game of the NBA Finals. Against Jordan's Bulls (which turned out to be Chicago's final title run), the Pacers pushed Air Jordan to the limit, but ultimately fell in seven games. Had they gotten past the Bulls, I would've liked their chances against Utah in the Finals.

In the lockout-shortened '98-'99 season, which featured only 50 games, Bird led the Pacers to 33 wins. However, they fell to the Knicks in the Conference Finals.

It was in the '99-'00 season, however, that Reggie's Pacers finally took the next step. After getting revenge on New York in the Conference Finals, the Pacers made it to the Finals for the first (and to date, the only) time in franchise history.

Facing off against the Lakers, led by Kobe and Shaq and coached by Phil Jackson, the Pacers were seen as underdogs but came very close to stealing Game 4 and tying the series at two games apiece. They fell to the Lakers in six, becoming the first victims in the Lakers' three-peat from 2000 to 2002.

Bird resigned as coach following the Finals. He returned a few seasons later as GM and eventually became President of Basketball Operations.

He's the only man in NBA history to be named MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year, winning the latter two awards with the Pacers.

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