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Rick Carlisle is not the problem

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Perhaps a part of the problem, but the sole author?

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks’ 2020-21 season is over, as you may have heard. Seasons invariably must end, but when a season ends the way this one did for the Mavericks, with a second straight gut-punch of defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs, there is a natural inclination to try to step back and identify “where things went wrong”; the idea being that in doing so one might then stumble upon some recipe for “how things might change.”

There are certainly plenty of storylines worth examining within the team. There was the January COVID outbreak that sidelined several players (and your guess is as good as mine as to what lingering effects that outbreak might have caused) and nearly threatened to turn the season upside down. There’s also the ongoing roller-coaster that is the Kristaps Porzingis experience, which shows no sign of resolution and will undoubtedly be the biggest immediate question mark facing the franchise this summer.

Then there’s the matter of the coach: Rick Carlisle, highly respected around the league, President of the Coaches Association, 2011 champion and supremely cranky press conference question-answerer. Carlisle’s resume is strong, but as has been pointed out by now, it has been a decade without a single playoff series win. That’s not something many coaches are given the opportunity to survive.

So is it time for the Dallas Mavericks to show Carlisle the door? Well, as my title leaves little room for suspense on this one, my brief answer is no.

Lest you imply I have in some way shackled myself to this man, perhaps still under the spell of championship glory from what feels like eons ago, let’s take a quick look at the list of All-Stars Rick Carlisle has coached in his 13 years in Dallas:

  • Dirk Nowitzki
  • Jason Kidd
  • Luka Doncic

To quote Tony Kornheiser: that’s it. That’s the list. And frankly, Jason Kidd’s selection seems a bit dubious, considering he averaged 10 points per game at age 36 in 2009-10 and was only selected to the All-Star team because Kobe Bryant was hurt. Yes, this coach and franchise have been fortunate enough to enjoy the exploits of two generational stars in Dirk Nowitzki and Luka Doncic, but unlike, say, John Stockton and Karl Malone under Jerry Sloan (the man oft-invoked by Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson when speaking about how they feel toward Carlisle), their careers only barely overlapped. The aggregated headline of the last 20 years of Mavericks basketball is basically “White Euro Drags Middling Roster to Playoffs”.

Speaking of the playoffs, as much as has been made about the lack of playoff series wins since the title team a decade ago, it’s worth pointing out that of those five playoff series defeats:

  • 4 of Dallas’ opponents went to the Western Conference Finals
  • 2 made the NBA Finals
  • 1 won the championship

The one team that didn’t make the Western Conference Finals? Last year’s Clippers squad, who blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in one of the more head-scratching meltdowns of the last few years.

Not once since that banner was raised have the Dallas Mavericks entered the postseason with a roster that wasn’t clearly inferior to their first-round matchup. Maybe this doesn’t mean much to you, but it’s hard to win in the playoffs, especially in the Western Conference, and this is the second time when the Mavericks got REALLY CLOSE to pulling off a major upset in Game 7. In case your memory needs refreshing, that 2013-14 Maverick team was one game away from knocking off one of the best all-around teams in modern history, in the eventual champion Spurs (back then Kawhi was the 22-year-old wunderkind, but he had a lot more help than ours does). It was such a remarkable feat, in fact, that SB Nation’s own Jon Bois and Alex Rubenstein called it The Greatest Coaching Performance in NBA History.

All this is not to say that I think Carlisle is infallible. There are things about Carlisle I would prefer were different, to be sure. The Mavericks had three rookies drafted in the top 36 picks of the 2020 draft, and they combined to play a grand total of 572 minutes this season. That’s not some new trend either. Much has also been made about Carlisle’s tendency to be, shall we say, controlling behind the scenes, an MO that has in the past perhaps rubbed certain players the wrong way. There is an element to all of this that is simply conjecture and guesswork because after all, we can’t know what truly happens behind the scenes on a day-to-day basis. Few would have cause to question Carlisle’s mastery of the technical aspects of the game, but coaching is also a lot about managing relationships, and yes, maybe even coddling players when needed.

If Carlisle’s bedside manner leaves something to be desired, that is a problem, and perhaps it will be one that eventually sees him no longer under the employ of Cuban and the Mavericks organization. But, honestly, and I genuinely mean this with no disrespect personally to the guys on the team (who seem to be for the most part great dudes): fix the roster first, then let’s talk about the coaching staff. Dallas has been playing above their station for some time now, and until I see Rick Carlisle drop the ball with a roster that isn’t obviously mediocre, I’m not terribly interested in casting aside one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the game, just to jump on the roulette wheel that is a coaching search.