As Rick Carlisle sat in an ESPN studio discussing basketball, I worked myself up to the point of near hysteria. Carlisle had been with ESPN for the better part of a year after taking a job with the network as an analyst. In a way, the gig was a lifeline. Carlisle left his role as the head coach and executive vice president of the Indiana Pacers the previous year, in the summer of 2007. Now, sitting there as I watched him beam through a TV screen, I knew that he needed to return to coaching. And I knew what team needed him.
The 2007-08 season ended like so many others in the history of the Dallas Mavericks—with disappointment. After reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history two seasons prior, the Mavericks hadn’t been able to make it out of the first round since. Avery Johnson, who took over the coaching reins from Don Nelson in 2005, had once looked like the man that would bring validity to the franchise. That initial luster faded fast.
Make no mistake, Dallas accomplished a great many things during Johnson’s tenure. He coached the team to an overall record of 194-70 during the regular season, named the 2006 NBA Coach of the Year, helped Dirk Nowitzki become league MVP, and led the team to the Finals. There are many coaches and franchises that have never seen the levels of success that Johnson achieved with the Mavericks. The thing that hurt him was that he couldn’t win when it mattered.
There are a lot of reasons the Mavericks lost the 2006 NBA Finals after taking a 2-0 series lead. I won’t go into all of them here, but Johnson played a part in the team’s collapse. Wed to his system, Johnson got rattled and didn’t make the proper adjustments when Miami Heat coach Pat Riley started tinkering and playing mind games. Johnson, infamously, had the Mavericks change hotels during the team’s three-game stint in Miami in an attempt to reassert his authority. It didn’t work.
The following season, after the Mavericks won a franchise record 67 games, their playoff run ended as unceremoniously as the Finals appearance. This time, it was even more embarrassing. The “We Believe” Golden State Warriors, a team that barely squeaked into the eighth seed in the Western Conference, knocked off Dallas in the first round. Their coach was Johnson’s mentor, Don Nelson.
When Dallas was once again fell in the first round a year later to the likes of the New Orleans Hornets, after making a blockbuster trade to acquire Jason Kidd, it was clear that Johnson’s time with the organization was growing short. Many had already been clamoring for his ouster before then. The playoff losses were too much to bear for a team continually flirting with the league’s luxury tax. On April 30, 2008, the Mavericks dismissed Johnson.
A number of names were rumored as possible replacement candidates for Johnson long before the Mavericks fired him. They included Larry Brown, Del Harris, Jeff Van Gundy, and Paul Westphal, among others. Phoenix Suns coach Mike D’Antoni even got mentioned as an option if the Suns were to part ways with him. Carlisle’s name was in that group as well. Since buying the Mavericks in 2000, owner Mark Cuban had never looked outside the organization for a new head coach. He inherited Nelson and Nelson brought Johnson under his wing as an assistant.
Before joining ESPN, Carlisle made a name for himself as one of the NBA’s premier coaches on the rise. He helped build the Detroit Pistons into what would become an Eastern Conference juggernaut during the 2000s and was the 2002 NBA Coach of the Year. After two seasons, he was fired and replaced by Larry Brown. From there, he was re-hired by the Indiana Pacers, where he had previously been an assistant coach under Larry Bird, to be the new head coach. Carlisle led the organization to some of its best—and most infamous—seasons from 2003-07.
Dallas didn’t take long to decide. The team hired Carlisle as its new head coach on May 9, 2008. But hiring Carlisle was never a guarantee. What would the Mavericks look like if they had decided to hire someone else?
I don’t have the answers to that question. Only Christopher Bosh travels the Multiverse and its infinite dimensions. Of the coaches rumored to be on the Mavericks’ short list, Brown’s name certainly sticks out. While proven to be a winner everywhere he’s coached, Brown also carries a bit of baggage. He tends to pack up and leave when he feels like it or just before things begin to hit the fan. He did eventually make his way to the Dallas-area, coaching the men’s basketball team at Southern Methodist University, helping turn the program around. However, when he left SMU, he did so in his signature fashion.
But Brown couldn’t have been Dallas’ head coach. The Charlotte Bobcats hired him days before the Mavericks fired Johnson. Van Gundy then? I can’t think of an odder pairing than Nowitzki and Van Gundy. That’s not to say that it couldn’t work. He spent years as a successful coach in the league. Yet, his style at the time might have been too similar to that of Johnson’s. And that’s exactly what the Mavericks were trying to avoid.
The same day that the Mavericks announced Carlisle as their new head coach, the New York Knicks offered D’Antoni a job. He accepted it the following day, leaving the Phoenix Suns after five seasons. The possibilities of D’Antoni’s spread offense with like likes of Nowitzki, Kidd, and Jason Terry are enough to make fans salivate, for sure. At the time, though, his methods of space-and-pace and high pink-and-rolls were widely questioned. D’Antoni was thinking far outside the box in which most NBA punditry lived. As such, his approach and style were derided as not being able to win in the playoffs. Although he helped usher in the modern era, he has yet to take a team to the NBA Finals.
D’Antoni and the Mavericks could have worked well. While not as athletic as Amar’e Stoudemire, using Nowitzki as a pick-and-pop option—or in any other capacity—would have been an effective new wrinkle in D’Antoni’s four-out schemes. It just wasn’t meant to be.
As for Westphal and Harris, neither had found head coaching success in great measure since the turn of the millennium. Westphal’s last winning season came with the Seattle Supersonics in 1999-2000. Harris, a longtime member of the Mavericks’ organization in various capacities, hadn’t sat in the big chair since the 1998-99 season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Carlisle is now the winningest coach in Mavericks history with 510 regular season wins and 28 postseason wins—also the most with the club. In 2011, he reached the pinnacle of his coaching achievement by guiding the team to its first and only NBA Championship. You know all that.
At 23, watching TV on a random couch in Denton, Texas, I knew Carlisle was the right choice to replace Johnson before he was gone. I told everyone who would listen that the Mavericks needed to hire Carlisle and they needed to do it yesterday. I was a fanatic. I’m happy that he validated that opinion. Dallas could have taken another path, but the organization is better because it plucked Carlisle from that ESPN set 12 years ago.