Once More, With Feeling: The Coach

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 27, 2009 under Previews | 3 Comments to Read

This is a part of the multi-part season preview, Once More, With Feeling. To read an explanation, click here. To read Act I (the Network preview), click here. To read Act II (the Four Factors), click here.

Heading into the off-season, the Mavs made a conscious effort to improve their depth. Adding starting caliber players like Shawn Marion and Drew Gooden helped to solidify back-ups into their roles, and the additions of Quinton Ross, Kris Humphries, Rodrigue Beaubois, and Tim Thomas helped to round out the bottom of the rotation. But in spite of all of the moves (not to mention the departure of Brandon Bass and the would-be addition of Marcin Gortat) Dallas has made to thrust itself into contention, one position has always been solidified: the head of the bench.

To some, that’s Jason Terry, a virtual starter and the Mavs’ most effective scorer not named Dirk. But to others, it points to head honcho Rick Carlisle.

Carlisle is, in many ways, unspectacular. He lacks the flair of D’Antoni, the culture of Popovich, and the smugness of Jackson. But that’s not to say that Rick doesn’t have style, a system, or confidence. All three would have to be considered staples of his coaching repertoire. Though Rick Carlisle isn’t instantly recognized and revered among the league’s coaching crop, he damn well should be. This isn’t just a competent coach, but an excellent one.

Carlisle knows his X’s and O’s, but his strength beyond strength is his willingness to accept change. Too many head coaches are headstrong to a fault; their stubbornness and refusal to change their system to fit the available personnel creates a clear divide between potential and actual success. Rick is just the opposite. His game plan is always fluid, whether it be a starting lineup, the first man off the bench, or the primary offensive option. All of this spells trouble for opposing coaches looking to battle Carlisle in a chess match. How do you plan three moves ahead when your opponent is willing to scrap his game plan in favor of the particular strengths of the pieces at his disposal?

Photo by AP Photo.

An excellent case study in Carlisle’s brilliance is his work with the Pacers during the 2004-’05 season. Due to a largely unknown incident that sidelined Indy’s three best players for a total of 131 games (not to mention only half a season from his starting point guard), Carlisle was essentially handed scraps of the team he expected coach. But rather than fall back on the lowered expectations in the aftermath of the Brawl, Carlisle and the Pacers rallied. Anthony Johnson, Austin Croshere, and Fred Jones all played significant roles on the new-look Pacers, and somehow, some way, it worked.

A championship contender stripped to bare bones still managed an impressive 44 wins, and the Pacers rode their resiliency to a first round victory over the Boston Celtics. They even took the arch enemy Detroit Pistons, who would go on to be the Eastern Conference champs, to six games. Not bad for a team decimated by injury and suspensions, with no time to find a rhythm or establish chemistry in the frenetically paced NBA regular season. Not too shabby.

Fast forward to 2008-’09, and Carlisle is still maintains the same coaching fluidity. His early experiment with a Princeton-style offense suited to fit Jason Kidd’s strengths ended up in the scrap heap, in large part because the team didn’t take to the scheme as anticipated. For other, more inflexible coaches, that could spell a half season of offensive mediocrity (or more). But Rick defaulted to the tried and true offensive sets of Avery Johnson, integrating plays familiar to Dirk and the Maverick mainstays into his arsenal to build a comfort zone. And it worked, as Carlisle’s tinkering so often does.

When all else fails, having a coach like Rick Carlisle functions as a hell of a safety net. He puts players in a position to succeed without fear of the bottom falling out, and that’s a powerful thing.

So powerful, in fact, that several of ESPN.com’s experts predicted Carlisle to come home home with the Coach of the Year Award this season. Among those experts were Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz. When I asked Henry and Kevin for the rationale behind their selections,  both credited Carlisle with the ability to coach teams above and beyond reasonable expectations. From Henry:

Wayne Winston brainwashed me. That’s the main thing.

But also, this award usually goes to the coach of the team people think will be mediocre but turns out to be elite-or-close.

The Mavs are excellent contenders to be that team.

Two big obstacles: Jerry Sloan is in the Hall of Fame already and is long overdue. And, if the Lakers totally roll with Artest, Phil Jackson may deserve both coach of the year and the Nobel Prize.

Kevin offered the following explanation:

First and foremost, let’s be honest about what Coach of the Year means:

The head coach who presides over the postseason team that most exceeds expectations.

Given my faith that the Mavericks can contend in the West, Rick Carlisle was the natural choice. But my belief that the Mavs will surprise the prognosticators actually has a lot to do with Carlisle.

Whether it’s because he’s coached traditionally defensive-minded teams or it’s just his personality, Carlisle has been unfairly tarred as rigid over the course of his career, which I find baffling. I think back to the 2004 Eastern Conference finals, when Detroit’s defenders were stifling the Pacers’ big men down low. Carlisle responded in Game 4 of that series by starting Austin Croshere (who hadn’t gotten off the bench in the series) over Jeff Foster, thereby creating more space inside. That’s the very definition of flexibility – and it worked.

Last Christmas, Dallas played a road game in Portland, and it was nip and tuck the entire way, with the Mavs having mixed success running isolations up high. Then, at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Carlisle realized something: The Trail Blazers were adequately defending the perimeter, and they were doing a pretty decent job at anticipating those underneath cuts/passes Kidd likes to execute. But what Portland couldn’t do was defend a super-speedy and agile pick-and-roll combo. So Carlisle rode J.J. Barea and Brandon Bass the entire fourth quarter, during which the Mavs outscored Portland 25-14.

How many coaches are confident and adaptable enough to design an impromptu offense around their 7th and 8th guys on the road against one of the league’s better home teams?

This season, Carlisle has a fascinating collection of offensive and defensive pieces to work with, and I can’t wait to see how he mixes things up in the frontcourt.

The Mavs-Blazers affair cited by Kevin is especially vivid to me. Two former D-Leaguers completely took Portland’s defense to task, and it’s truly a credit to Carlisle that he kept going back to the Bass-Barea pick and roll time and time again.

But Dr. Arnovitz’s anecdotes also illustrate a pretty incredible point: these stories are a dime a dozen when it comes to Carlisle. Whether it’s tales of late season rallies in the months following the Malice at the Palace, well-timed rotation alterations during the playoffs, or effective play calling in a “meaningless” regular season game in December, Carlisle’s brilliance is defined by a seemingly endless stream of sound, flexible coaching decisions. That track record speaks for itself, even if his reputation does not.