For several years, probably dating back to 2011 when the Dallas Mavericks became one of the most unlikely champions in NBA history, Rick Carlisle has been compared favorably to Gregg Popovich, the best coach in the league. Both men are superior strategists and in-game coaches, and both take little credit for their excellence.
Popovich, who is in his 20th season as the Spurs head coach, has never allowed anyone to lose sight of the primary reason for his success. When praised for implementing a system that has produced 18 consecutive winning seasons, a winning percentage of .677 and five championships, Popovich says simply: “If you had Tim Duncan, your system would work, too.”
When Carlisle recently signed a five-year extension for a reported $35 million – an impressive achievement considering owner Mark Cuban’s aversion to renewing contracts before they expire – he was quick to divert attention from himself.
“Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and Dirk Nowitzki are the reason an extension like this is possible,” Carlisle said. “I have best owner and general manager in sports, and one of the greatest players in NBA history to thank for this opportunity. There is much work to be done as we move forward.”
In a sports world driven by ego, the attribute of humility is not only rare, but something to be celebrated.
Both coaches, however, understate their importance. No doubt they’ve had franchise players, but they’ve also had to integrate supporting casts. Not one player on Duncan’s first championship team in 1999 was on his fifth championship team in 2014. Popovich seamlessly incorporated new players into his team every year.
Carlisle has done the same thing. Since winning the NBA title in 2011, Carlisle is the one who has had to cover for a good plan gone bad. Unlike most championship teams, the Mavericks sought to build a dynasty by not re-signing veterans in order to bid for premier free agents Deron Williams and Dwight Howard. They even fantasized about LeBron James joining Nowitzki.
But every star player they targeted signed somewhere else. It became the norm for Carlisle to integrate as many as nine new players on the team. Dallas made the playoffs every year, but it was no longer a contender.
In preseason, the Mavericks weren’t even an afterthought. The discussion of Western Conference power began, rightfully so, with the Warriors. With the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs would be a threat. The Clippers, Rockets and Grizzlies were led by playoff-savvy veterans. Kevin Durant had returned from injury to boost the Thunder.
The Mavericks had starred in another offseason tragicomedy in July when DeAndre Jordan announced he would come to Dallas, but famously changed his mind and returned to the Clippers. That left the Mavericks with Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee at center – unless you want to count rookie Salah Mejri from Tunisia (maybe not) — and left them out of any championship discussion. With young and improving teams in New Orleans, Phoenix and Utah, there was doubt the Mavericks were even a playoff team.
Fifteen games do not a season make, but with eight new players on the team – including three members of the starting lineup – Carlisle has worked his magic again. The Mavericks were jump-started by a six-game streak with wins over the Clippers, Lakers, Rockets, Sixers, Celtics and Jazz. While the Clippers and Rockets surprisingly struggled early, the Mavericks have built the third best record in the West at 9-6. And Carlisle deserves a lot of the credit.
“Rick is a huge asset and players respect him,” Cuban said on KRLD-FM in Dallas. “Rick is one of the top two X’s-and-O’s guys. And I would take him over Pop for in-game. I still think Pop’s the best coach and his results prove it. But, when it comes to actual in-game making a decision and drawing up a play, I would take Rick.”
The Mavericks are still led on the floor by Nowitzki, who turned 38 in June. He is no longer the dominant franchise player he was during his peak years, but he’s still pretty good. In the first 15 games, he has averaged 17.7 points while shooting .522 from the field. When he had 34 points and 11 rebounds while making 11-of-14 field goals in 24 minutes in a 118-108 victory over the Clippers, he looked like 28-year-old Dirk.
Nowitzki’s unselfishness also helps new players feel comfortable. Although he is the leading scorer on the team, the next three – Williams, who belatedly joined the team after receiving a buyout from Brooklyn, Wesley Matthews and Pachulia – are newcomers. And Dwight Powell, the fifth leading scorer – was considered a throw-in when the Mavericks acquired Rajon Rondo from Boston last season. But he is averaging 9.9 points off the bench, and Rondo is in Sacramento.
Chandler Parsons, who started slowly while still recovering from knee surgery, said the team has come together quickly.
“We have such a balanced attack,” Parsons said. “We’re being more solid defensively, and we’re not gambling on defense. When we keep our turnovers low, our offense is tough to guard. As long as we’re not getting stagnant moving the ball, we’re going to play unselfish. I’m still waiting on the night when we all hit shots, but we can win games even when we’re not.”
Williams, who went to high school in the Dallas area, is not the same player who was once considered one of the top two point guards in the league along with Chris Paul. But he has responded to Carlisle’s coaching and he definitely is an upgrade over Rondo, who was suspended once by the Mavericks last season and finally was told to stay away from the team — in the middle of their first-round playoff series against Houston.
“Everything’s coming together,” Williams said. “It’s still early. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But I definitely feel more comfortable out there. I’m getting opportunities in the fourth. I’ve had a chance to have the ball in my hands at the ends of games, and I can make plays not only for myself and others.”
The most pleasant surprise for Dallas has been Pachulia, who like the Mavericks was an afterthought. He was acquired only after Jordan reneged on his deal and Tyson Chandler left for Phoenix. Pachulia has impressed Carlisle with his basketball acumen and contributes 10.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
Again, it obviously early. But it’s worth noting that in 2010-11, no one was talking about the Mavericks. In the playoffs, some analysts picked against them in all four rounds. But with Carlisle pulling the strings – and, admittedly, Jason Kidd playing like the coach he would soon be – the Mavericks won their only title.
They may not be thought of as a contender this year. But the early message is clear: Never overlook an unselfish team with solid veterans and a great head coach.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.