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Rick Carlisle: When Nature Calls

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(Writers note: Forgive me for the Jim Carrey pun, but come on, I wasn't really left with much of a choice. Some honorable title mentions: Rick Carlisle: Basketball Detective. The Stare. Smart and Smarter. Rick Almighty. The Carlisle Show. Rick, Myself and Dirk. I'll stop now before your eyeballs explode.)


Basketball continues to move rapidly into advanced statistics and measures, this is no secret. The game is being put under a microscope, and now information that was usually only seen in scouting reports in an NBA locker room are now spilling out into the web. We know where players shoot, how they shoot there, how efficient they are in transition, how good a playmaker they are on the pick and roll, the percentage of rebounds a player collects, how a player defends the post in isolation and so on and so forth. The point is, we know a ton about NBA players. It's getting to the point that I wouldn't be surprised if listed the tendencies for how players sleep in their hotel beds for road games (Derrick Rose is an inefficient sleeper on the road, tossing and turning 45 percent of the time.)

But, we know so little about coaches. Sure, we have their records, we can break down game tape to watch their sets and rotation patterns but there really isn't a definitive way to define how great a coach is besides something the coach, in the end, has no physical control over -- how his players play.

Perhaps the biggest evidence for this is the recent Coach of the Year curse: Since our beloved Avery Johnson won the award in 2006, every award winner has been fired since then, except for Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City and recent winner Tom Thibodeau. Even elite coaches can fall off in just a short year because the players on the court fail to produce. Sure, it's the coaches responsibility to get their players in the right spots but after that, it's a crap shoot. There's so much riding for a coach in something that he ultimately can't grasp. A coach's success is only tangible in wins. Despite whatever foundations a coach may put down or however likable he is to the media, wins are the only thing that can drive a coach from mediocre to legendary. It's why the remarkable careers of Red Aurbach and Phill Jackson are so memorizing -- think about the amount of talent, skill and luck those men had in their coaching careers. A coach is almost nothing without the players implementing their teachings. Red is nothing without Russell and Bird. Jackson is nothing without Jordan and Kobe and vice versa.

Which brings us to Rick Carlise, a prime example of how talent and skill in the coaching area can still be unrecognized because of the random variables that determine a coach's success. Leading the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back 50-win seasons from 2001 to 2003, Carlisle was given the boot after Detroit was swept in the Conference Finals in 2003 to the New Jersey Nets. Some spats between Carlisle and management ended his tenure there, but not before Carlisle laid the foundation of the Pistons run through the Eastern Conference in the early-to-mid 2000s. Carlisle then led the Indiana Pacers to 61 wins in 2003-2004 before cruel fate would have the team that he molded, he brought back to prominence, the Pistons, knock them out of the playoffs. 

Carlisle's run with the Pistons and Pacers exemplified the random variables that coaches deal with. In Detroit, he was let go before the final puzzle that was missing from the roster (Rasheed Wallace) was acquired that led the team Carlisle built to a title in June of 2004. The Pacers ran into the Piston teams that Carlisle created. A rash of suspensions (the Malice in the Palace of 2004) and injuries (Jermaine O'Neal, come on down!) prevented the roster from ever being optimal. Carlisle, through some sort of black magic and witchcraft, kept the Pacers franchise afloat in those dark times. The Pacers weren't ever able to reach the summit, but Carlisle made sure the team did not fall completely off the mountain. 

I'm sure that's what Mark Cuban saw from Carlisle before he hired him in 2008. Much like Carlisle, Cuban had been labeled as an "all regular season, no playoff success" type of guy. A twist of the fates had them together, as they jointly looked to shed any poorly judged labels that doubted their basketball minds because of playoff disappointment. Unlike his time in Detroit and Indiana, Carlisle wouldn't be held back by circumstance or lack of patience from the management. 

That isn't to say the road wasn't filled with bumps. The sudden exits in 2008 and 2009 tested Cuban and Carlisle's trust, especially with the controversy surronding the playing of Rodrigue Beaubois against the Spurs in the playoffs of 2009. But Carlisle's plan was in place. Despite the playoff lapses, the Mavericks were rising in defensive efficiency under Carlisle and Dwayne Casey's system and rotations. The offense had signs of being elite with Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki anchoring the playmaking and signal calling. With Tyson Chandler in place to potentially be the defensive anchor needed for the nessecary rotations (and to make up the ground on Dirk's declining rebounding), Carlisle was able to display his true prowess as a head coach. Despite the opportunity for random circumstance to once again derail a season (Caron Butler's knee injury) Carlisle no doubt remembered the stress and pressure he faced while coaching during the troubled times in Indiana. His steadiness and unwavering outlook on the team and its goals translated to how the Mavericks played. Even in the downfall stretch following Butler's injury, the team never appeared in panic mode. There was never any dissension or ill-will toward fellow teammates or coaches.

The coaching clinic was never highlighted any better than the Mavericks playoff run just a few short months ago. His adjustments in getting Tyson Chandler involved swung the Portland series. His ability to milk the bench and match ups at key moments buried the Lakers and made Phil Jackson resort to physical teaching tools. His ability to adjust where his superstar operated on the court made sure Oklahoma City could never bear completely down on Dirk Nowitzki. And in the NBA Finals, Carlisle realized the team needed to a finish sprint, not a marathon, and dethroned incumbent starter DeShawn Stevenson for better ball-movement and early offense from J.J. Barea. 

Many casual fans around the league began to notice the coach with the perfectly placed timeouts along with that unusual buzz cut. For locked in NBA followers, what Carlisle was doing wasn't anything new. Celtics fans watched in horror as Carlisle sprinted laps around Doc Rivers with a depleted Indiana roster to knock off the Celtics in 2005. Writers took notice of the Pistons alarming 18-win turnaround in the 2001-2002 season.

In June though, Carlisle, like many other Mavericks, was rectified. There would be no freak suspensions or sudden firings. No random variables to derail a strong coaching mind. The only thing surprising about Carlisle this season was that, quite frankly, I did not know the man could actually smile that much.