Rick Carlisle is a complex NBA coach. He’s stubborn, but usually willing to apologize for his missteps. He coached the Mavericks to their first-ever NBA championship in 2011, but has missed the playoffs or been booted out in the first round in every other season in Dallas except one. He’s the third-longest tenured coach in the NBA—a consummate professional—but he’s also kind of a sarcastic dude. This duality—though not exclusive to Carlisle in NBA coaching circles—is unique in how it manifests itself in his relationships with his players, but we’ve seen a version of this before.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the model for interpersonal relationships on an NBA team (apart from his proficiency in gently hazing sideline reporters). Part of that is letting us know who’s boss. Since 1996, Popovich has teetered on a thin line of being an absolute but just dictator. Carlisle is—or at least he’s trying to be—a version of Popovich, but let’s call him Pop Lite, because there is no next Gregg Popovich.
Carlisle has adapted to the notion of weathering the grind of the regular season by resting his stars—something that’s been seen as a quirk of the Spurs coach for many seasons, but is now catching on as a trend. More recently, he’s seemingly taken another more esoteric page out of Popovich’s book: He’s begun to truly embrace the tough-love dynamic the Spurs coach employs.
It wasn’t always this way. Much was made of Carlisle’s early tenure with the Mavericks, when the new coach overlapped with former point guard and current Bucks coach Jason Kidd. From an ESPN story last spring:
Kidd’s elite credentials didn’t grant him an exemption from being harshly criticized by the coach in front of his teammates during film sessions or practices. That’s part of the business relationship Carlisle has with every player he coaches, from Dirk Nowitzki on down. Kidd, 35 years old with nine All-Star appearances at the time, found that hard to swallow.
The story had little to do with Kidd, actually; he’d retired and was already on his second coaching job by that point. The point was to point out Carlisle’s strained relationship with another point guard, one whom the Mavericks had traded for midseason: Rajon Rondo. Rondo and Carlisle immediately butted heads, the player ignoring play calls from the bench, and the coach helplessly screaming for the player to speed up the offense. Now gone from Dallas in free agency, it’s obvious Carlisle and Rondo could not coexist. As talented and intelligent as Rondo is, and as suited as he may have been (in theory) for Carlisle’s offense, there was an insurmountable interpersonal relationship gap there.
The Rondo-Carlisle spat prompted a question worth asking: Can Carlisle adapt to roster fluctuations and new personalities? Sure, walking into a situation with an all-timer like Nowitzki already there is simple. What about players adjusting to new situations themselves, ones likely not as proficient or even likable as the affable seven footer?
The answer could lie in the quirks of Carlisle’s relationship with small forward Chandler Parsons. It was rocky at first, just after the Mavericks signed Parsons to a three-year contract before the 2014 season. Early in his first season with Mavericks, Carlisle responded to a crummy game from Parsons by basically calling him fat. “Parsons looked tired out there,” Carlisle told the media. “Tonight was one of those nights where I think the extra weight was a hindrance.”
Parsons took it in stride, posting a shirtless selfie to Instagram, after which Carlisle apologized and stated that his wife and daughter following the clearly very in-shape heartthrob was the coach’s “punishment.” Carlisle clearly took Parsons’ charming rebuttal well.
Parsons missed the first month of this season following microfracture knee surgery during the offseason. When he returned on November 1, Parsons still wasn’t 100 percent, and the Mavericks were strict with his minutes. Parsons, frustrated that he was missing the second half of games because of these restrictions, requested that Carlisle sit him for the entire first half of games, employing him liberally in the second half, like a closer in baseball. Interestingly enough, Carlisle listened to this “dumbass idea,” according to Parsons, and the Hornets promptly destroyed the Mavericks. But the fact that Carlisle even entertained this experiment says a lot about the respect he has for Parsons. Think Popovich would ever do that?
But ever since then, the relationship has been weirdly passive-aggressive. After the Mavericks beat the Celtics in overtime on January 19, a game in which Parsons sat most of the second half until Raymond Felton left with an injury, Carlisle said, “We don’t have any set finishing lineup,” to which Parsons took some umbrage. “Of course, I want to be out there. I want to play,” he said to the media, even though it was really directed toward his head coach.
Five days later, Carlisle praised Parsons’ scoring ability, dragged him on his plus-minus stats, and then reversed course once again and blamed himself. “If a guy scores 31 points and we’re minus-30, I’ve got to coach him better in other areas.” In one sentence, Carlisle gives a backhanded compliment and then blames himself for it all. What message, exactly, is he trying to convey to the presumptive next centerpiece of the franchise?
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon wrote about the relationship recently, and quotes Parsons, who early in the piece describes the relationship as “father-son.” Then the writer questions what that means on an NBA team:
It would be a touching, tough-love relationship, but there’s one potential problem: Parsons and some members of his inner circle wonder whether Carlisle likes the player nearly as much as the person.
This is interesting, mostly because it implies the inverse of the axiomatic nature of the player-coach relationship in professional sports, namely that unlikable players stay on teams and in lineups because they help teams win, which in turn helps coaches remain gainfully employed. Rarely do we read of the lovable loser—fan favorites, “locker room guys,” and Dennis Rodman’s handler notwithstanding—who continues to cash checks and clog an NBA roster simply by appealing to the kindness of his head coach. In short, it’s hard to believe that Carlisle likes Parsons more as a person than a player, mostly because that’s not how the NBA (or any professional league) works, but also because the tough love Carlisle gives Parsons isn’t the same brand someone like Popovich gives his stars. Regardless, Carlisle is a proven winner, and he’s not going anywhere.
In November, Mark Cuban wisely locked in free-agent-to-be Carlisle for five more years. With five coaches fired already this season and certainly more to come, major franchises will be looking to upgrade. Cuban, either sensing trouble was afoot or just prescient in a year when an inordinate amount of coaches were axed midseason, shelled out to extend Carlisle. Fans of the Rockets, Knicks, and Nets, plus the Rockets, Suns, and likely Kings, will watch their teams fight over Tom Thiboedou this offseason, the remaining losers settling for the scrap-heap of discarded NBA lifers or upgrading their interim head coaches to long-timers.
So for now, and at least the next couple years, Carlisle’s tough love will have to do, awkward and puzzling as it may be.