“It is your understanding I seek – and not your enmity!” – Galactus, Devourer of Worlds
Today starts the first of a three part series on management, ownership, and coaching. I’ve spent some time this season looking at the players, but I would like to write about the people off the court who are significant to the team’s overall and long term success.
Unlike some sports that require constant management and play calling, a good basketball team can mostly handle itself on the court. The exceptions might be in clock management situations, determining lineups, minutes played, and keeping players from embarrassing themselves. I remember a segment on 60 Minutes where Phil Jackson was sprinkling incense throughout the locker room. And to most people, I think this is the perception of what a coach does. They sprinkle magical “win” dust on the players and encourage them to do great things. Jackson had more “win” dust than others, but he also had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. I would be curious to see how his magic would work on the Charlotte Bobcats or Washington Wizards.
Yes, coaches call plays. They run practice. They confer with the general manager and owner about the state of the team. They are the spokesperson for the team, before, during, and after each game. They manage the locker room. They are a teacher, a father figure, a savior, and a drill sergeant. And the expectations placed on coaches make them easy targets for being fired. If the roster is full of talented players, then it must be the coach’s fault. Right? Remember earlier this season when Mike Brown was fired from the Lakers after only five games? Harsh.
All that to ask, how do we know when a coach is good? Coaches with vastly different styles and approaches have each had success, depending on the situation they’re in. And some players, and some teams, are nearly uncoachable. Coaches have sometimes benefitted from the hard work of the prior coach. When the Detroit Pistons won the 2004 NBA Championship, it was with Larry Brown as the coach. But with all due respect, that was Rick Carlisle’s team. Likewise, Dirk Nowitzki’s ascendency happened with Avery Johnson prodding him to become a more complete player—not with Rick Carlisle or Don Nelson.
Let me tangent onto the subject on Avery Johnson for a paragraph or two. I’m not a fan of Johnson. And yet, he led the Mavericks to the 2006 Finals. He’s the only coach to be awarded “Coach of the Year” while with the Mavericks. He also has the highest win percentage of any Mavs head coach during the regular season at .735. Something about his demeanor did not inspire faith among Mavs players, the front office, or the fans. It shouldn’t be surprising that he was fired from the newly revamped Nets with a 14-14 record. Apparently, Johnson has to be perfect in order to keep his job. (Pay no mind to his 60-116 record with the New Jersey version of that team.)
In his own words: “Being a coach is not always fair. I think it’s kinda like the fine print. You’re not gonna always get a fair shake. And since we don’t own the teams we coach, I’m not coach, president, and owner. You know, if I was owning the team, I wouldn’t have gotten fired today. I wouldn’t have fired myself.”
In contrast, Rick Carlisle might be one of the most beloved Mavs coaches since Dick Motta. He did, after all, help bring the Mavericks their first championship. He has the second highest win percentage during the playoffs at .561 in 41 games–second to John MacLeod who was 10-7 in the playoffs (.588). Add in one or two losing seasons and we’ll see how well Carlisle holds up. However, I think he’s earned the respect of Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban.
Carlisle is also wonderfully quotable. I saved my three favorite quotes from this season:
“I’m tired of hearing about 19 starting lineups being a lot. I had 31 one year, so you guys can all go f— yourselves and I mean that in the most endearing way.”
“You can’t throw the ball through the nose of a defender and then have it come out the ass to a teammate. That’s a Dick Harter quote, by the way. I want to give credit to the departed.”
(Also, regarding turnovers) “Yes, yes, yes and yes. It’s everything. We’re doing it every way you can do it. If we were a sex manual, it’d be a best-seller.’’
And of course, there’s this moment.
Maybe coaches are so easily terminated, because we all think we know better?
Well, obviously I’d play Brandan Wright more (but whose minutes do you reduce?). The Mavs should have a stronger start. And why isn’t Darren Collison starting and finishing the games? Shouldn’t he pass more? Dirk shouldn’t ever pass if he’s open. I would make O.J. Mayo turn over the ball less. I would make Jae Crowder take fewer, better shots. Why aren’t the rookies playing more minutes? I thought Jared Cunningham was our top draft pick. What is going on with Beaubois? Why can’t he just develop these players?
And on and on. We can coach from our couch, but it ignores the nuances and idiosyncrasies of handling a group of well-paid professionals. We sound like fans with opinions. I admire Carlisle for his matter-of-fact commentary, his ability to maintain composure on the sideline and to get angry when necessary, the way he shows respect for his players, the smirk and the shrug, the emphasis on defense, and a free-flowing offense.
It’s easy to blame the coach when things go badly, but I trust Carlisle. Whenever we predict doom and gloom for the Mavericks and their future, I still trust Carlisle. Plus, he doesn’t seem like the type of person to sprinkle incense in a locker room. I can appreciate that.
David Hopkins is a freelance writer – a regular contributor to D Magazine and Smart Pop Books. His Dallas Observer feature on Coach Larry Brown will be available tomorrow. Finally. Follow David on Twitter at @davidhopkins.