The most successful era of Dallas Mavericks basketball has ended. With the departure of Rick Carlisle, the last remnant of the 2011 champion Mavericks is gone. Carlisle was signed to a 4 year contract on May 9, 2008 to replace Avery Johnson.
The Mavericks had lost the last 3 playoff series of Johnson’s career. The series which shall not be named, the biggest upset in NBA playoff history, and a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the nascent Chris Paul. Those series losses had one thing in common, the great Dirk Nowitzki was contained.
Dirk had been a force of nature earlier in the playoffs resulting in some lofty comparisons. Starting with the 2006 finals, that all changed. For the final 3 series that Johnson coached him, Dirk averaged 22.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game on ghastly shooting percentages of 41.4 percent from the field and 26.2 percent from behind the arc. The Mavericks went 5 and 12 in individual games and lost all 3 of those series.
Carlisle was brought in to unleash Dirk and he did. Over the next 3 years and 7 playoff series Dirk averaged 27.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on incredible shooting percentages of 50.3 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from behind the arc. The Mavericks went 23 and 14 in individual games and 5 and 2 in series during this time.
The goal of every team is to win the title and they are incredibly rare. Since the NBA/ABA merger only 15 teams have won even 1 title with 7 of those teams only winning 1. Winning a title is hard. The Mavericks did it and that excuses a bunch of institutional sins.
That title is even more special in retrospect when you consider the incredible amount of talent they had to beat to win it. The “Heatles” were famously loaded with Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Oklahoma City Thunder had 3 future MVPs in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Los Angeles Lakers had former MVP and reigning back to back Finals MVP Kobe Bryant. The Portland Trailblazers had Lamarcus Aldridge and a solid supporting cast including pre-injury future Maverick Wesley Matthews.
The Mavericks beat them all and they did it on the strength of Dirk having an absolutely incandescent star run in the spacing Carlisle’s offense created. That will forever make Carlisle the clear cut best coach in team history unless or until someone else wins at least one title here.
After that run the organization made some questionable decisions and wasted the twilight of Dirk’s career. The Mavericks had 2 forgettable seasons going 36 and 30 in the lockout shortened 2012 season and getting swept in the playoffs by the Thunder. The Mavericks then went 41 and 41 in 2013 failing to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
The 2014 season was perhaps the most impressive of Carlisle’s Mavericks career outside of 2011. The Mavericks went 49 and 33 on the backs of Dirk Nowitzki’s ageless shooting and Monta Ellis attacking. They had the 3rd rated offense in the league despite 3(Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Vince Carter) of their 5 best players being 35 or older.
Then they took the eventual champion Spurs to 7 games despite a ridiculous talent disadvantage. The Mavericks switched everything often leaving a big man isolated on Tony Parker but grinding the Spurs “Beautiful Machine” to a halt. And Dirk’s ageless shooting finally failed him with 42.9 percent from the floor, 8.3 percent from beyond the arc and 80.6 percent from the free throw line. Otherwise the Mavericks very likely would have won that series.
The Mavericks signed Chandler Parsons the following offseason and won 50 games for the final time in Carlisle’s career. Unfortunately Parsons began his run of injuries prior to the playoffs and the Mavericks were dispatched in another gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets. The Mavericks continually had roster problems until the arrival of a Slovenian wunderkind resulting in middling results until the past two seasons. Despite all those problems Carlisle still kept the Mavericks competitive with a near .500 record of 393 and 394 from the 2012 through 2021 seasons.
The Mavericks STILL have roster problems despite the presence of Luka Doncic. Like Dirk before him, Luka has been unleashed by Carlisle in the playoffs. His cumulative averages of 33.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game against the Clippers with one of the best wing defensive duos in NBA history do not seem real. The question is how to get the rest of the team to follow Luka’s lead. Unfortunately that problem is someone else’s now.
Carlisle’s understanding of spacing and angles unlocked the absolute best in many players. Perhaps no coach in NBA history has been better able to utilize a rim runner. Tyson Chandler, Brandan Wright and Dwight Powell among others have all spent time as the best rim runner in basketball while being coached by Carlisle.
He got stunning production out of ball handlers who had disappointed elsewhere like Monta Ellis and Oj Mayo. He turned undrafted players like JJ Barea, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith into rotation mainstays on a playoff contender. And yet he also alienated his own guys.
Carlisle is a famously prickly personality. His feud with Rajon Rondo led to the only case in recent memory of a pseudo star player quitting during a playoff series. No current player to my knowledge has come out and said anything positive regarding him since he left. Sometimes in order to get the best out of a player, a coach has to push them in ways the player might not like.
What then is Carlisle’s legacy? Like with Donnie Nelson, whos career is inexorably linked with Carlisle’s, his legacy is complicated. He unquestionably got the most out of some undertalented rosters but his difficult personality likely led to some of the talent deficiencies. His ability to get blood from a stone in the form of undrafted players also likely contributed to Mavericks’ decision not to care about the draft.
No matter the reason for the deficiencies, Carlisle could only coach the rosters he was given. And he unquestionably got the most that anyone could have reasonably expected to get out of those rosters. He reached the absolute summit of basketball in 2011. Carlisle may have been difficult but he was worth it because he was the best coach the Dallas Mavericks have ever had.