Al Harrington has played in 14 NBA seasons, and for a vast majority of that time he’s been a key component of some highly diverse offenses. He’s played in all kinds of systems maintained by all kinds of coaching administrators. He’s played under Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Rick Carlisle, Mike Woodson, Don Nelson, Mike D’Antoni, and most recently, George Karl.
Which makes it very interesting that in his conversation with Henry Abbott on today’s installment of the NBA Today podcast, Harrington chose to gush about Carlisle — who was with Harrington in Indiana first as an assistant under Bird and later as a head coach — over some of the other, very capable coaches (including his current one) on that list:
Henry Abbott: [Which coach that you've played for] does the best game planning, would you say?
Al Harrington: Rick Carlisle, hands down.
Abbott: Why’s that?
Harrington: He’s incredible. As far as X’s and O’s, he was definitely by far the best coach that I ever played with. He had a plan for everything, a scheme for everything. Every situation — he had something for it. He was a high execution coach. I would say him, for sure.
Abbott: So I guess you weren’t surprised to see the Mavericks do what they did last year?
Harrington: I wasn’t surprised. I always felt that he was going to be a coach that would win a couple of championships. He’s got one, so far, and I’m sure he’ll get a couple more.
Abbott: So when you say he has a scheme for everything, could you give me an example? Was there a moment where you were surprised to see he was prepared with something?
Harrington: What he would do is — if you’ve ever watched him coach — he has a blue card in his pocket. So what he does is he watches film on the team before we play them, obviously, and [he] comes up with like eight different plays according to how they play defense or whatever and those are the only plays he would call that night. Whenever he would draw something out of a timeout, whatever shot he wanted us to get, it would always work. So that’s the one thing I always remembered about him. If Rick wanted you to get a shot off, you would get a shot off.
That’s some serious praise, and after a continued discussion about how the Pacers operated with Bird as head coach and Carlisle in an “offensive coordinator” role, Abbott asked a crucial follow-up question about the dynamic between player and coach:
Abbott: Do players want to be coached that intensely?
Harrington: I think so. At the end of the day, if you want to win a championship, you want to be coached that way I feel like as I’ve watched the playoffs for the last 14 years that I’ve been in, the high execution teams are the ones that are always winning. So you’ve gotta want that if you’re trying to win.
All of this makes Carlisle look very, very good, and rightfully so. Carlisle proved throughout last year’s playoff run that he’s often a few steps ahead of some of the NBA’s other excellent coaches; after all, Nate McMillan, Phil Jackson, Scott Brooks, and Erik Spoelstra were made his playoff victims. Dallas’ championship run wouldn’t have been possible without the Mavericks’ willing execution, but it’s always reassuring to hear that players — like Harrington, and certainly like last year’s Mavs — want information that helps them get better.
So many professional basketball players are cast in a light that makes them seem spoiled or entitled, and some certainly are, in a sense. But on the most basic level, many of them are just professionals trying to get better at what they do, and who will readily turn like a man like Carlisle to make that happen.