DALLAS — Just two seasons after becoming only the 11th person in NBA history to win a championship as both a player and a coach, Rick Carlisle may have just completed his most grueling and taxing campaign in his coaching tenure.
Seeing his superstar Dirk Nowitzki sidelined following preseason arthroscopic knee surgery, Carlisle was dealt a daunting task of leading a young team minus its franchise player for the first 27 games of the 2012-13 season. The coach then helplessly watched as the Mavericks fell 10 games below .500 on Jan. 9 before staging a second-half rally behind Nowitzki and veterans Shawn Marion and Vince Carter to break even with a 41-41 record.
Now, while trying to rebuild a championship-caliber team, Carlisle will play an instrumental role alongside Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson in helping to fill a roster full of holes after finishing the season with nine expiring contracts.
“Look, I want to do the best job that I can do for my owner and I want to do the best that I can do for my veteran guys,” Carlisle said last week during his exit interview after perhaps one of his best coaching seasons. “You know, Mark and Dirk are the two primary guys in my life. I mean, those two guys have given me an unbelievable opportunity here in Dallas to experience the ultimate a couple of years ago and now to continue on with a long-term contract.
“I had a lot of help,” he added. “My staff did a great job this year. Jim O’Brien brought a lot of wisdom and a lot of knowledge. One of the things I pride myself on is I hire guys that I can learn from and I learned a lot from him. The other guys were terrific — Monte (Mathis), Tony (Brown), (Mike) Weinar, (Mike) Shedd. All those guys did a terrific job, and the other guy that was phenomenal this year was Dirk, because of the challenges that he faced really from Day 1 with the knee. You know, I remember being in Europe and the (knee) flared up right before the Barcelona game and [head athletic trainer Casey Smith] came in and said, ‘Hey, this thing is a little swollen and we’re not sure.’ And I said, ‘He’s not playing. You know, we’re not going to risk this. We’re in the middle of nowhere here and we’re just not going to take any chances. We’re going to go home and find out what’s what with this thing.’ But Dirk really hung in. He nurtured along our younger guys who had challenges and he stayed patient and he was a leader. Marion and Carter did the same thing. Those guys were great. And so, look, we got through it, and the great Chuck Daly always said that the job of a head coach is to land the plane safely at the end of the year and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to land the plane, we wanted to end this thing on a positive and we wanted to have some positives that we could build on going forward. I think we have that, but we’re not kidding ourselves into thinking we’re right there. We know we have a lot of work to do. So as always I’m grateful to be here and I’m looking forward to this summer, because once again it’s another pivotal summer and it’s a really important time for us.”
Making several adjustments on the fly and utilizing 23 different starting lineups, Carlisle and his coaching staff seemingly pulled all the right strings down the stretch of the season despite seeing the Mavs’ 12-year stretch of consecutive playoffs come to an end. But, with his team at its lowest during a tough stretch in January, it was Carlisle’s eight-year-old daughter and not his assistant coaches that offered him his greatest advice.
“When you get a team with challenges like we had this year, you know, sometimes there are things that happen along the way that put things in perspective. For example, back in early January, we had a very difficult loss at home and it really upset me. And so I went home that night and my daughter, who is eight years old, knew that this was really upsetting to me,” the coach explained. “So there’s a room downstairs in our house where I keep all of my suits, so I don’t have to (carry) them up and down the stairs. It’s one of the guest bedrooms. So I went in there and I took my stuff with me to kind of empty my suit out in the closet, and she came in and closed the door behind her and she sat on the bed. And I turned around and saw her and said, ‘Hey, Abby. What’s up?’ She goes, ‘Dad, you know in life there’s always going to be bumps along the road?’ Now that’s a true story, and at that moment it was clear to me that my focus had to shift to doing everything possible to engage our staff to figure out exactly what the strengths and weaknesses of our players were and to move forward and find a way to make every day a little bit better if we could.”
Following the encouraging words from his daughter and his team’s valiant close to the season, Carlisle now approaches the offseason still engaged on making next year’s team a contender while concentrating on what it will take to lure a big-name free agent to a team with a strong veteran presence. He will also continue to work tirelessly to add the right supporting cast around Nowitzki, Carter and Marion as the Mavericks try to fill out a roster capable of competing in the ever-changing Western Conference.
“My battery is kind of always going, so I’m going to come in every morning early and find things to do. Again, as part of formulating a plan for the summer, I’m going to be thinking about a lot of those things and anything that I can add to what our ultimate plan is I will. I think right now (the focus is on) evaluating guys that are going to be available in free agency,” Carlisle foreshadowed. “Not just the high-level guys, but the role players. We’ve got to have lists of all the guys that we like from top to bottom, and at the right time we’re going to have to try to pluck those guys and make them Dallas Mavericks when we can. So there’s plenty to do, and this for me, I love the NBA. Next year will be my 30th year in the league, so I’ve been very blessed to have an opportunity to be in this a long time and it’s a great life. This league, it makes you absolutely alive every single day, and so there’s always stuff to be thinking about. Those are the kinds of things that make you better.”