[Editor’s note: this piece was submitted before the loss to the Raptors on Sunday, though I still don’t think it changes anything! -RL]
Well, well, well…you spend a couple of years messing around, slumming it in the lottery, having a good time down setting off firecrackers in the old abandoned quarry with your degenerate friends, the Knicks and the Kings, and all of a sudden people forget your pedigree.
Rick Carlisle, after getting no love in the annual preseason NBA GM survey, has his team playing above and beyond what even the most delusional, unhinged fan (hello.) could have feasibly hoped for. As a matter of fact, Rick Carlisle, the Coach of the Year from the 2001-02 season with the Pistons, is rarely mentioned as a top coach by GMs in the survey, historically. Since the 2013-14 season, he has placed as a preseason Coach of the Year candidate only once, in 2016-17.
It may seem strange, then, that in that same length of time, he has been mentioned as the coach who makes the best in-game adjustments three times; never placing lower than third. It’s a strange reputation to have — an elite adjustment-maker, but on the outside looking in when it comes to being a true “top tier” coach.
That’s going to change this season. So far, Carlisle has the Mavericks nicely situated with the league’s second best net rating and a league-leading offensive rating. Dallas has the second best point differential, and Rick’s bench units remain as potent as ever. Even in down years, the bench has typically been a bright spot, as Rick was often able to get the most out of role players. This season, the Dallas reserves are bolstering a quality starting lineup by posting the best bench net rating by a wide margin.
Until recently, doubters might have made the argument that the Mavericks’ success this season has more to do with the MVP-level play from their young phenom, Luka Doncic, and I’m not going to take anything away from how Luka has played so far this season. However, as Dallas got ready to face five of the top Eastern conference teams in what was probably the toughest stretch of games so far this year, the prevailing attitude was that these games would provide a better gauge for what exactly the Mavericks’ ceiling was, as opposed to beating up on teams like Golden State and Cleveland.
Then Luka went down with a sprained ankle in the first quarter of the first game of that five-game slog.
The pessimistic among us may have prepared ourselves to write off the next several games against stiff competition, but then something happened. The Mavericks fought back in the second half of the Miami game after being down by 24 points and forced overtime. They lost, but what a fun game that was, we all thought! Then something even crazier happened. They beat the Bucks. On their floor. A team who had lost just 3 games all season, and only one of them at home. Add in a close loss to Boston and a dominant performance against the 76ers, again on the road, and the Mavericks are 2-2 during their toughest set of games this season, and they’re doing it all without Doncic.
What’s the takeaway? Well, it turns out that the Mavericks are a good team. Like, a team team. Not in a “Luka Doncic and the Mavericks” kind of way, but a “we can beat anyone, anywhere, at any time” kind of way. It turns out Kristaps Porzingis is still a great player, the bench is the best in the league, and role players are maximizing their talent. Half starter/half rotation piece players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry and Maxi Kleber are all taking turns as catalysts for unlikely wins. The Mavericks are the third best in the league against the spread, and the best on the road against the spread. Their performance this year caught just about everyone by surprise, and it is costing Vegas a lot of money.
And the man orchestrating it all is Rick Carlisle.
The same Rick Carlisle who piloted a ragtag team led by the likes of Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and DeJuan Blair to a seven-game first round series against the eventual NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs. The coach who had a team that was starting Jameer Nelson at point guard posting historic offensive numbers. The coach who won a championship with a team that NBA talking heads were discussing as a smart pick to get upset in the first round.
All Rick has proved this season is that he’s the same coach we all thought he was. The only difference now is that the objective has shifted again, from recent years where lottery balls were more of a concern. There’s no more worrying about those lottery balls in Dallas. The Mavericks have a good case to be called the most surprising team this year, and if they’re audacious enough to continue playing like they have been recently, and especially without Luka, they may just find themselves with a home playoff series.
To go from 33 wins to 40, 45, 50(?!) wins is something that approaches exceedingly rare, and it’s not something that can be obtained through the play of a single player, despite how excited we all are about the monstrous step Luka has taken this season. It’s the work of a team that’s playing its best basketball -- better than anyone expected -- because its coach is able to get more than just the sum of its parts.
The job Rick Carlisle has done this season should be reminding people just how good he is. If the season ended today, that would good enough for his second Coach of the Year title.