Commentary

Rick Carlisle's title befits winning style

Through highs and lows, underrated path as NBA coach sees the light with Mavericks

Updated: June 22, 2011, 3:32 PM ET
By Art Garcia | For ESPNDallas.com

The congratulations poured in from all corners of Rick Carlisle's life. Phone calls, emails, texts, handshakes and hugs. President Obama even tracked down Carlisle's cell for a nice chat the day after the championship parade.

Rick Carlisle
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty ImagesThe late Chuck Daly (left) remains an inspiration to Rick Carlisle, who took two teams to the brink of the NBA Finals before arriving in Dallas.
The outpouring of support has continued to touch the man who piloted the Dallas Mavericks to the first title in the franchise's often jagged but never boring 31-year existence.

One message didn't reach Carlisle in any tangible form, but its spirit may be the most meaningful. Chuck Daly died more than two years ago.

"It would have meant the world to Chuck to see Rick lead the Mavericks to the NBA championship," said Terry Daly, Chuck's widow. "They formed a tight bond throughout their time working together, and Chuck followed his coaching career every step of the way."

Carlisle, 51, took some of his first coaching steps as an assistant on Daly's staff in New Jersey. He remains an inspiration to Carlisle, who took a short leave from the Mavericks in May 2009 to serve as a pallbearer at his mentor's funeral.

"I'm sure he was looking down on him and we are all very proud of his accomplishments," Terry Daly said.

The accomplishments are many in a career that's witnessed its share of star-crossed success. Carlisle took both the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers to the brink of the NBA Finals, only to suffer a fate not befitting his achievements at each stop.

Despite winning two division titles in Detroit, he was ousted in favor of Larry Brown. His time in Indiana was marred by "The Brawl." That shouldn't minimize what Carlisle did during his first two shots to lead an NBA team.

Still, the credit was fleeting. Brown took the Pistons to a championship the year after Carlisle was gone. His Pacers legacy was holding together the team better than could be expected after one of the ugliest incidents in league history.

Carlisle had high points in Detroit and Indiana, including the 2002 Coach of the Year award with the Pistons, but he wasn't exactly considered to be one of the league's elite. Still, he's in some exclusive company of his own.

The recently crowned Carlisle is one of just 11 people to win an NBA championship as both a coach and player. His old boss in Indiana and former Boston Celtics teammate wasn't surprised by the career achievement, reached June 12 in Miami.

Dobbs Rick has been one of the top coaches in the league for a long time. This validates it. This isn't Rick's last championship. He's going to win more. He'll end up being a Hall of Fame coach.

-- USC coach Kevin O'Neill, a longtime friend of Rick Carlisle's
"I know how Rick coaches. I coached with him. I played with him," Larry Bird told 103.3 FM ESPN's Galloway and Company. "I know his demeanor. I know what he's thinking.

"He's in a perfect situation. He's got a group of guys, most of them are veteran guys that have a goal in mind, and they play the game the way he wants to play. They play together. They play smart. They don't get caught up in all the other stuff and they're coachable. If you have a team like that and you're able to coach them, you're going to have success."

USC coach Kevin O'Neill, one of Carlisle's oldest friends, watched every second of the NBA Finals. The two grew up playing high school basketball against one another in upstate New York. They've been in each other's weddings, and O'Neill served on Carlisle's staffs with Detroit and Indiana.

The championship only cements what O'Neill has always felt about Carlisle.

"Rick has been one of the top coaches in the league for a long time," O'Neill said. "This validates it. This isn't Rick's last championship. He's going to win more. He'll end up being a Hall of Fame coach."

Right fit with Dallas, Cuban

Carlisle was out of coaching for a year after leaving the Pacers before Dallas cropped up. The once-promising Avery Johnson era had come to a crashing halt after another first-round dismissal, creating the kind of opening that doesn't come around often.

Rick Carlisle
Kevin Jairaj/US PresswireRick Carlisle proved to be a good fit with the Mavs and Mark Cuban, whom he embraced at a championship rally.
Perennial 50-win playoff teams aren't usually in the market for coaches. But this wasn't just any job. Sure, the Mavericks had lots to sell, namely former MVP Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Cuban's wallet. On the flip side, there's also Cuban's demands and unpredictable behavior.

Johnson and his predecessor Don Nelson both reached their Cuban limits. It would take the right kind of coach to deal with distractions that weren't going to cease with pleas for the Internet billionaire to watch from a suite. Carlisle embraced the Cuban dynamic but was also able to convince his boss to tone it down for the recent playoff run.

Where others have clashed with the emotional Cuban, the rational Carlisle has forged a partnership based on trust and a common understanding of what's best for the team. One only had to witness their heartfelt embrace at Thursday's championship rally inside American Airlines Center.

"Mark is right there with the best people that you could possibly work for," Carlisle said. "The difference is Mark is more out front. When he travels on the road, he's in the locker room before games, he's in the locker room at halftime, he's in the locker room afterwards. And I like that because I just feel his presence constantly reminding our guys of how committed he is of what we're trying to do. And he puts his money where his mouth is."

General manager Donnie Nelson seriously considered taking the head coaching job himself after Johnson was let go. Nelson, though, went outside the organization for the first time in the Cuban era and zeroed in on Carlisle. The decision paid off three years later with a Finals triumph over the favored Heat and Larry O'Brien gold.

"There were so many reasons [to hire Carlisle] it's hard to point your finger at a couple," Nelson said. "He had skins, he had experience, certainly the right age, one of the smartest guys I've ever been around. He's a tactician. His ability to use the entire roster -- there are very few that really do that and understand the kind of opponent you're going up against.

"A guy like [Brian] Cardinal that doesn't see the light of day and all of the sudden he's playing a significant role, so he definitely knows how to use all his pieces. Blending of the zone to the right calls in the fourth quarter, the after-timeout situations, the crunch-time calls. He's got the whole package."

Ironing out the wrinkles

Not that there weren't speed bumps along the way. Much of Carlisle's first season in Dallas was a feeling-out process with the players that at times felt awkward. Communication issues popped up during the 2008-09 campaign. Personality conflicts arose with several who have long since left the Mavs. The rotation was a constant source of frustration for bench players who never knew from one night to the next when and if they were going to play.

Carlisle even kept the reins on Jason Kidd early in the coach-point guard partnership, calling out the offensive sets until the team's flow on offense took shape. For mostly everyone in uniform, it took a while to get Carlisle.

"His philosophy and understanding what he was trying to get across to us -- when you talk about the Mavs it was more offensive-minded and you didn't really talk about defense -- we finally understood what it was going to take for us to win," Kidd said.

Cuban watched the players' faith in Carlisle develop just a few feet from the Mavericks' bench.

"An inflection point for us is guys finally getting to a point where they understood Rick's decisions and trusted him," Cuban said. "Once they trusted him and bought in, it was a matter of learning to execute his system."

Carlisle, by most accounts, is an acquired taste. As one former Maverick said: "He's a strange bird." He can be viewed as out of place as a classically trained pianist in a hip-hop world, an aloof intellectual swimming in an ocean of ego-driven bravado, relying more on analytics than instinct.

But he trusted his gut throughout the 16-5 sprint to the title, from inserting J.J. Barea into the starting lineup against the Heat to trusting Cardinal to maneuvering around injuries to the numerous of adjustments and tactical moves the untrained eye never sees.

Carlisle isn't all Xs and Os. During the Finals he asked video coordinator Mike Shedd to collect some of the NHL's most vicious hits. In a Heat series that became increasingly testy as it went on, the Mavericks watched the motivating montage of hockey collisions spliced into their normal film session before Game 6.

The fired and fed up Mavs then shed their "soft" label for good by landing the championship-clinching punch with the 105-95 beatdown in Miami.

"He coaches with courage," O'Neill said. "He's not one of those guys who second-guesses himself. He'll make adjustments, he'll make moves, he won't stay static because he knows to win you have to have the courage to coach a bunch of professionals with great leadership. That's what he's always done.

"He gets it. He's one of these guys that gets it. He has a great feel for what each person needs at the right time."

Kidd couldn't agree more.

"As a coach, he couldn't have done any better," he added. "It's as sweet as it gets to take a team in three years and win a championship. People forget he did it quite quickly and that just shows how good he is."

Bird was among the many to pass along their championship congrats. The entire Bird clan caught Carlisle fever during the Finals.

"I told him that I was very proud for him," Bird said. "He makes me proud. Our family's proud for him. My daughter's upstairs, yelling and screaming. My wife's in the bedroom, yelling and screaming. I'm sitting in the living room, nervous as heck. We were pulling for him."

So many of those Carlisle has touched, near and far, were doing the same.

Art Garcia is a reporter for ESPNDallas.com.

Follow Art Garcia on Twitter: @ArtGarcia_NBA

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