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March 28, 2019

Sixers elevate assistant Jim O'Brien to fill Billy Lange's spot on the bench

Sixers NBA

With Billy Lange's move to St. Joe's official, the Sixers looked to be short a defensive coordinator heading into the playoffs. Not a position you want to find yourself in with Finals aspirations internally and high expectations externally.

But rather than scrambling to find someone externally to step into Lange's shoes before the season ends, the Sixers are looking inward. Jim O'Brien, a former head coach who has been an assistant under Brett Brown and stepped back into a "special advisor" role this season, is the man who will step forward and help organize the back end.

For most of this season, O'Brien has had the privilege of watching games away from the sideline, sitting in the back with a delayed monitor. That has allowed him to provide counsel to Brown and the team behind-the-scenes all season, lending insight at halftime, throughout games, and in the coaches meetings he has been a part of all season.

Rather than feeling upset that his colleague left at an inconvenient time, the head coach views Lange's move to St. Joe's as a great move for one of his closest confidants that the Sixers are also prepared to cope with immediately.

"To have Jim O'Brien still with me in a conciliatory type role, has been with me all season, to be able to take a former NBA head coach and a man of his experience that knows me and the system and the players and [put him back on the front of the bench], assuming that leadership area of our defense, it all fits," Brown told reporters on Thursday.

O'Brien was a front of the bench assistant for Brown in years past, and his move into a role as "special advisor" to Brown that took place last summer was prompted by O'Brien himself. That move was made for several reasons, both out of a desire to spend more time with his family and an understanding that younger assistants underneath him were working to move up the coaching ladder.

But O'Brien, a graduate of St. Joe's himself, was a natural fit to step back into a larger role with the Sixers on a temporary basis, helping a group he knows well to hold down the fort.

"He's a wealth of knowledge, he's different than anybody that's on my staff, he's a man's man," Brown said. "I think that with this situation happening at his alma mater, Billy has been with me from [my second day], and coach has been with me for the last few years, it was natural that he would come in with eight games left and carry the flag, help us get into the playoffs and keep the train moving. And the train moving we will keep — I believe we will hit the ground running."

Rarely do you see a backroom change for a contending team this late in the season, which will put a larger spotlight on O'Brien (and thus, the defense) than is typical for an assistant coach in the league. But anyone expecting this to cause a massive shake-up in the team's defensive approach is living in fantasy land. The Sixers did not spend an offseason studying their defensive path forward to abandon it in game 75 of the regular season.

In fact, the topic on switching pick-and-rolls and the team's difficulty in defending them came up during Brown's pre-game availability Thursday. Brown made sure to note there were many combinations of players where the Sixers would like to avoid switching — the Sixers don't want Joel Embiid hounding guards around all night — the defense remains geared toward forcing the contested, long-range two.

"This is our sport, this is our holy grail, we don't have to complicate it. If you can have Jo back [at the rim] and you can have 6'10" Ben Simmons or 6'9" Tobias Harris chasing and bother D'Angelo [Russell's] shot, there may be a bunch of makes for long two's, but it's contested," Brown said.

In other words, the song remains the same.

The overarching message is all about simplicity. Business will continue as usual for the Sixers, with a man who knows what they're all about taking over for one of Brown's original assistant coaches. Nobody is coming to redraw the defensive scheme or come waltzing in like they own the place.

This remains Brown's show, for better or worse. Any upgrades or changes the Sixers need to make with the coaching staff will wait until the offseason, and this late in the game, that's the right call.

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