Rarefied Air

Posted by Brian Rubaie on February 13, 2013 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment


In a season rife with inconsistency, disappointment has been the lone constant for the 2012-2013 Dallas Mavericks.  Dallas is experiencing its least successful season of 21st century. The losses have taken a frustrating toll on devoted fans, players and coaches alike.

No one seems more bothered by the team’s performance than Rick Carlisle, who rarely allows himself the pleasure of celebrating or accepting credit for victories but often makes it a point to take personal responsibility when losses mount. The accountability Carlisle displays speaks well to his character but is also misleading. As much as Dallas has struggled, Carlisle has masterfully captained a ship that could’ve easily sunk long ago.

That point was strongly reinforced in Carlisle’s 500th victory one week ago against the Portland Trailblazers. The fans and players awarded Carlisle a standing ovation, an act which Carlisle predictably greeted with the same modesty he’s displayed throughout. Dubbed the “Baller of the Week” by our own Bryan Gutierrez in this week’s Rundown, Carlisle remarked that “It’s meaningful, but I’m not into those kinds of things. … One relief I have is I think after tomorrow I won’t have to hear about it again for a while, so that’s good.”

Carlisle doesn’t want the attention, but his achievement marks the season’s single most impressive feat in Dallas. With few other causes for celebration, win number 500 provides an appropriate moment for basketball fans to pause and appreciate this great coach’s work. One week later, the magnitude of the event, and the thought of all the work that it took to achieve it, is still a challenge to fully appreciate.

With the Mavericks struggling to reach their own .500 mark, Carlisle’s accomplishment puts him among rarified air. With a lifetime record of 501-354, Dallas Morning News reporter Brad Townsend noted that the accomplishment puts Carlisle among the top 9.4 percent of his profession and, more impressively, makes Carlisle the 11th-fastest coach to reach that mark. In a season where the Dallas Mavericks produced no All-Stars, the New York Times reports that Carlisle is one of only five active coaches in the 500 club, joining Denver’s George Karl, Minnesota’s Rick Adelman, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Boston’s Doc Rivers.

The story of how Carlisle got this far usually highlights his talent for strategic design, and he is indeed a masterful manager of X’s and O’s. Win number 500 is most impressive, though, because it took much more than a mastery of the game to become possible.  It took creativity, discipline, persistence, leadership and a devotion to his players that few other coaches could match.

An old saying suggests that good things don’t come easy, and the march to Carlisle’s 500th victory confirms the wisdom of that reasoning. To provide a brief glimpse of what Carlisle has navigated this season, consider just a few of the obstacles he has been forced to confront before the team even hits the All-Star break.

Before the season began, the team witnessed the departures of veteran stalwarts Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Both players knew the offense well and were trusted to execute it with little assistance from the sideline. These two wizards of Carlisle’s system were replaced with the promising but unsteady combination of O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison, two young players who arrived to a new and difficult environment with little time to prepare.

It hasn’t always been pretty and there have been times where the play of Collison and Mayo has been downright ugly. Instead of abandoning the duo or throwing them under the bus, Carlisle has simply let the playing time do the talking publicly and imparted his wishes, forcefully, to the duo behind closed doors. Tough love isn’t always an easy thing to do with a young player who you’ve worked with for less than half a year but Carlisle’s challenging management style has helped each player mature.

Dirk Nowitzki summarized their development well in comments to Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas, noting that “(Carlisle) has been hard when he needed to. … He needed to be tougher on those younger guys and he definitely did.” Encouraged by Carlisle’s demanding attitude, new arrival Elton Brand echoed Dirk in noting that “When your leader’s doing that, it makes you want to step up.”

It is especially impressive that Carlisle marshaled these two young players given how little margin for error he has with his backup guards. Carlisle managed to successfully and immediately incorporate Derek Fisher into a lineup that rattled off several impressive wins. When Fisher unexpectedly departed, Carlisle worked tirelessly to fashion Rodrigue Beaubois, Mike James and Dominique Jones into as effective a backup trio as any coach could.

The shifting lineup of young guards (and a few very old ones) would be enough to flummox any coach, but Carlisle has also been greeted with a barrage of injuries to key players. Yes, all teams face injuries that require creativity from their coach. Few face what Carlisle has and he has scraped the barrel to field a competitive squad this year. With Dirk Nowitzki out for the first two months of the season, Carlisle was forced to fashion large roles for newcomers Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, youngsters Brandan Wright and Bernard James and even the since-released Troy Murphy and Eddy Curry.

Carlisle is not without his critics. Detractors note that Carlisle hasn’t demonstrated the capacity in his time in Dallas to develop young talent from within, instead relying on veteran comfort blankets that come at the expense of playing time for young fan-favorites like Rodrigue Beabois and Brandan Wright.

This season has offered a compelling reply to this criticism, with the development of Collison and Mayo reflecting only part of the story. Brandan Wright has played some of his best basketball this season and rookies Bernard James and Jae Crowder have filled minutes in spots. That they have done so in such a shifting and uncertain environment is more testimony to Carlisle’s ability to break the game down and develop effective roles for players with all levels of experience.

To be fair, the critics aren’t entirely wrong: Carlisle does admire what veterans bring to the game and expresses a strong preference for them when given a choice. His bias towards veterans is justified by his unique ability to attract buy-in from older players, establishing discipline and trust in a way few coaches can. The previous Elton Brand quote demonstrates that even veteran newcomers, desperate to earn as much playing time as possible, feel strongly accountable to Carlisle and accept their roles within his system.

Consider the case of players like Vince Carter, veteran journeymen who have seen their play lifted boosted by Carlisle’s prompting. In a year where his name has been floated frequently in trade talks, Carter’s play hasn’t wavered. He has willingly embraced any role Carlisle creates and turned in some of the most inspired performances of his career. Veteran counterpart Shawn Marion has done the same. This year’s vets are so motivated that even the eligible bachelors among them have foresworn shaving until they get back to that elusive .500 winning percentage. Part of the credit is certainly owed to Carter and Marion for playing with so much heart. Don’t forget the role that Carlisle has played, though, for inspiring a level of buy-in from the duo (and countless other veterans like Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry) that other coaches couldn’t.

That appreciation was summed up well in a quote from DeShawn Stevenson to the Dallas Morning News‘ Eddie Sefko. Stevenson offered remarkable praise for the organization and coaching staff he left behind, remarking “I’d love to play my last two, three seasons here … This was the best franchise I ever played for, here and Washington. They handle things and treat people great. They do everything the right way.” Few former employees in any profession speak so highly of their former workplace.

The thing that I admire most about Carlisle is his ability to cultivate an unwavering devotion to winning and professionalism from players during trying times. His post-timeout sets are remarkable and I constantly marvel at his in-game strategy. But I am most impressed with how he manages personalities and roles so effectively, even in the face of all the events above and countless others which were not mentioned. The team hasn’t been winning of late, but they’ve stuck together and remain singularly focused on the task at hand. Carlisle may want the rest of us to quit discussing win number 500, but it deserves appropriate attention for all it represents about the good Carlisle has done for the Mavericks and every NBA stop prior. There isn’t much about this season that’s been memorable but hopefully Dallas fans don’t forget just how much work their coach did to earn them the few wins they have.

Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.