Rick Carlisle’s Unfinished Business in Indiana

Rick Carlisle returns to Indiana with unfinished business in mind. Chad Smith looks at why he decided to come back and how he could finish what he started nearly two decades ago.

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When Rick Carlisle stepped down as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, the speculation began about where he was headed next. After 13 years in Dallas that included a championship in 2011, Carlisle would undoubtedly have plenty of suitors in terms of his next stop. The two organizations that were the favorites to land him were the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. The Celtics hired Ime Udoka and it appears that Mike Budenholzer’s job in Milwaukee is safe after the Bucks defeated the Brooklyn Nets in their seven-game playoff series.

Among the teams with coaching vacancies, the Indiana Pacers were well down the list of desired destinations. The New Orleans Pelicans have a bright future with Zion Williamson and company. The Portland Trail Blazers have Damian Lillard who is in a win-now mode. The Washington Wizards have the dynamic backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. Even the Orlando Magic has some young pieces that would be intriguing to develop.

In the end, it was a return to Indiana that Carlisle ultimately decided was the right fit. He served as an assistant to Larry Bird for three seasons before taking over as head coach of the Pacers from 2003 until 2007, going 181-74 overall during his time there.

The Pacers were looking for an established veteran coach after their gamble on Nate Bjorkgren did not go as planned. The four-year, $29 million contract that Carlisle landed is another factor here, which demonstrates just how much Indiana wanted to bring him back.

The decision to leave Dallas and MVP candidate Luka Doncic for a team without a superstar player on the roster is a bold one, especially considering he had two years remaining on his contract. The Mavericks earned the fifth seed in the Western Conference where they lost to the Los Angeles Clippers in an epic seven-game series. They finished seventh the previous season and 14th the year before that.

The consistency was there, but the Mavericks have not advanced past the first round since their championship season. The departure of longtime executive Donnie Nelson was the first sign of a new regime being constructed in Dallas.

Reports of a power struggle and turmoil in the front office were likely a major reason for Carlisle deciding to move on. The uncertainty of the roster aside from Doncic is another reason why he may have left. The Kristaps Porzingis trade has not panned out very well and they have some key free agency decisions looming this offseason. Taking Doncic out of the equation, Indiana has the better roster, especially considering the competition they will be facing in the East.

In the end, it was just time for Carlisle to move on. Only Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra have been with their teams longer, and they both have won championships more recently than Carlisle. After nine playoff appearances in Dallas, the 2001-2002 Coach of the Year will now turn his attention to getting the Pacers over the proverbial hump.

Indiana welcomes Carlisle back with open arms. The fans and media alike have already labeled this as a home run hire for both sides. It seems like a match made in heaven, but there will be plenty of questions to answer before the start of next season.

In terms of the roster, the elephant in the room here is the big man pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. The experiment has had mixed results, and odds are that one of them will be moved in the offseason. While Turner will yield a higher return in a trade, he is also the kind of player that would seemingly thrive under Carlisle. By his own words, he is no longer a believer in the post-up game.

In a postgame interview on December 27, 2019, he went into great detail about that aspect of the game. “The post-up just isn’t a good play anymore. It just isn’t a good play. It’s not a good play for a 7-3 guy. It’s a low-value situation.” He focused more on Porzingis specifically. “The value of those situations has plummeted. We’ve got to realize that this game has changed. It’s changed. It’s just a fact.”

Carlisle has repeatedly praised Porzingis for his outside shooting, rim protection, and ability to drive more and make the right pass. The latter is something that Turner developed last season, and was a tremendous asset for Indiana’s offense. It is a stark contrast from Sabonis, who feasted on opponents with his back to the basket.

That being said, it was a career year for Sabonis, who recorded nine triple-doubles during the regular season. Only Westbrook, Doncic, Nikola Jokic and James Harden had more. His 48 double-doubles trailed only Jokic, Westbrook, Rudy Gobert and Jonas Valanciunas.

The Pacers used Sabonis as the hub of their offense, which generated much of their success on that end of the floor. Double teams were a frequent sight for the All-Star this past season. Without his vision to make the right pass and his ability to score near the basket, Indiana would have been one of the more futile teams in the league. The front office could ultimately decide to keep both, but they will likely have to choose one or the other this summer.

Another position in question with this team going forward is point guard. When Indiana made the deal to acquire Malcolm Brogdon from Milwaukee, it came with a risk. The 28-year old has had his fair share of injuries throughout his career, and this season was another reminder of that. He played in just 56 games this season, which was only two more than the year before.

Carlisle’s history with point guards is somewhat rocky, most notably his rift with Rajon Rondo during his brief stint in Dallas. There was also speculation that he and Doncic didn’t always get along, and if Brogdon is not able to get on the same page, his time in Indiana could also be short-lived.

In a recent interview with ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Carlisle expressed his thoughts on the current Pacers roster. “It’s a team of skilled, unselfish guys that play hard,” he said. “It’s always possible that moves could be made before the season, but I think Kevin Pritchard and I are both very excited about getting the roster healthy and seeing what this team can be.”

Indiana was one of the more injury-plagued teams this season, with so many of their guys missing time. TJ Warren essentially missed the entire season and Turner’s impressive year was cut short by 25 games. Jeremy Lamb missed half of the season, Brogdon missed 16 games and Sabonis missed ten due to injuries as well. Adding to that was the absence of Victor Oladipo after his trade, then having to wait until March to see Caris LeVert play.

Looking at their own free agents, the list is short. TJ McConnell, Doug McDermott and JaKarr Sampson are all unrestricted free agents. McConnell and McDermott both had career years with the Pacers. TJ led the league in steals and Doug expanded his offensive game and was scoring from all different areas of the floor. The Pacers also have the 13th overall pick in the NBA Draft next month. They have not selected in the single digits since 1989 but could do so should they desire to move up.

Carlisle’s 100-64 record with the Detroit Pistons and 555-478 record in Dallas is further proof that he wins no matter where he coaches. Don’t expect that to change in Indiana, where he has all of the ingredients needed to build a winner. “It’s an exciting situation because there’s upside here,” said Carlisle. “Getting back healthy is going to be a big part of that.”

With 836 career wins as a head coach, Carlisle ranks 15th in history. His presence alone will not be enough to get this team over the hump though. The players need to hold themselves accountable and be willing to be coached.

The Pacers suffered a first-round exit in 2003 under head coach Isiah Thomas. When Carlisle took over the team, the Pacers won 61 games and lost in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games to the Pistons, who went on to win the championship.

The following season looked promising but the infamous “Malice at the Palace” brawl between the Pacers and Pistons ruined their season. With their top players suspended, the Pacers finished 44-38 and lost to Detroit in the postseason. Reggie Miller retired, Ron Artest demanded a trade and the team was never the same. The roster was retooled and players were dealt to restore the team’s image. After Carlisle and the Pacers parted ways, Indiana missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons.

By the time Carlisle’s contract is up, it will have been 20 years since that dark day in Detroit. Call it unfinished business, running it back, or simply a second chance. A lot has changed for both the Pacers and Carlisle over the past 14 years. Now they are reuniting to finish what they started.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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