Xs and groans
Carlisle's systematic approach on offense isn't always popular with players, but it has been a winning formula for Pacers
By Mark Montieth
For the record: Rick Carlisle, in his sixth season of coaching in the NBA, is 272-185 (.595), including 172-121 in three-plus seasons with the Pacers. - ROB GOEBEL / The Star
It has become a ritual, almost a rite of passage for exiting Indiana Pacers.
They gather their belongings. They say goodbye. They take a shot at coach Rick Carlisle.
Ron Artest called his offense "boring," citing it as a reason he asked to be traded.
Anthony Johnson called for "a culture change" at the end of last season, before becoming a victim of one, and he and Austin Croshere indirectly criticized Carlisle for showing favoritism toward star players by emphasizing how their new coach in Dallas, Avery Johnson, holds everyone equally accountable.
Al Harrington lamented the tempo of his offense.
Stephen Jackson says he "didn't see eye-to-eye" with his controlled approach.
Sarunas Jasikevicius said Carlisle played him out of position.
That accounts for seven of the past eight players traded by the Pacers. The lone exception, Josh Powell, wasn't asked for a critique.
Oh, and don't forget Fred Jones, who expressed joy over going to a team that offered more offensive freedom when he signed with Toronto last summer.
Traded players often complain about their former employer, but the refrain of grumbling directed at Carlisle has put one of the most successful coaches in franchise history in a defensive posture in the minds of many who follow the Pacers.
Not his mind, though. Nor, apparently, the minds of his bosses.
Most NBA franchises take the quickest and easiest option when frustrations mount and fire the coach. Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh and president Larry Bird, however, gave Carlisle an offseason contract extension and began tossing sticks of dynamite at the roster.
Just five players who started the 2005-06 season -- Jeff Foster, Danny Granger, David Harrison, Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley -- remain, and more trades could come before the Feb. 22 deadline. It's been a startling turn of events for a franchise noted for its stability, but Carlisle works in the eye of the storm.
He's midway through his fourth season as coach. If he returns next season he'll have the longest coaching tenure in franchise history since Bob "Slick" Leonard was fired in 1980 after nearly 12 full seasons.
Although his style has annoyed some players, Carlisle has accumulated an envious resume as coach in Detroit and Indiana. He hasn't had a losing record, and likely won't this season, either. He led the Pacers to a franchise-record 61 victories in 2003-04 and coached in the All-Star Game.
He was named Coach of the Year with the Pistons in 2002 (though starters there griped about his offense, too, and he was fired a year later after being swept in the conference finals). He is the only coach in league history to finish among the top five vote-getters for the award in each of his first four seasons.
"It's been pretty clear to me that Donnie, Larry, (owners Mel and Herb Simon) and I have a similar vision in how we see this franchise and the kind of basketball we want to play," Carlisle said. "That's one of the reasons this is a great job. You're with people who work toward finding a way to make it work rather than looking for reasons to make negative changes."
Negative changes are in the eye of the beholder, of course, but the eight-player trade with Golden State on Jan. 17 gave the Pacers a refreshed outlook, a calmer personality and renewed hope.
It also took pressure off Carlisle, ridding him of four frustrated players and bringing in four -- Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Ike Diogu and Keith McLeod -- who were equally eager for a fresh start and claim to prefer a system such as his.
Questions related to offensive tempo, play-calling and team discipline rub a raw nerve for Carlisle, who has grown tired of defending himself every time a departed player speaks out.
He chooses his words carefully, however, offering responses that won't insult anyone.
"Trades are difficult," he said. "They can be emotional, especially for players. Things are said and I think it's important as a coach not to overreact."
Carlisle is cerebral and soft-spoken by nature; discipline doesn't come naturally to him.
But he believes the convoluted job title he was given over the summer (executive vice president of basketball operations) has enabled him to be more strict. He made that point by kicking Jackson off the bench in a game at Cleveland in December and suspending him for the next game.
Some players regard Carlisle's offense as complicated, requiring thought processes that impede their instinct and momentum.
O'Neal recently called it "complicated" and said he still fails to execute it properly on occasion, but said it makes the Pacers difficult to prepare for and caters to their individual strengths. Carlisle considers his system fairly typical. He said he simplified it before the season, and simplified it again after the trade.
As for his tendency to call plays on most possessions, he believes that to be a necessary evil for his particular team. He points out he has turned his team loose when appropriate, an example being Game 4 of the 2004 playoff series against Detroit, when he inserted Croshere into the starting lineup, and got a road victory.
"My thing is putting players in position to succeed," he said. "Of course you want the game to be fun. I don't enjoy making a lot of play calls. I don't like it, despite what people think. Every coach would love to have a situation where players could read and react and make the right plays, but as a coach you need to provide direction when it's needed."
Carlisle finds the complaints about tempo particularly annoying. They date to his tenure in Detroit, where players described his half-court sets as too predictable.
After Walsh and Bird made offseason moves to build a more athletic team, Carlisle attempted to install a faster pace of play. In his mind, however, it wasn't working.
His initial frontline of Harrington, O'Neal and Danny Granger wasn't rebounding or defending well. He addressed that by starting Jeff Foster in place of Granger and moving Harrington to small forward. The Pacers were more physical, but according to his calculations, their fastbreak points dropped 25 percent.
Carlisle still wants his players to run off opponents' missed shots, and he still devotes time to it in practice. But players must get defensive stops, rebound and sprint downcourt if they want easy points.
Walsh said that wasn't happening. "I went to practices," Walsh said. "I thought we wanted to run, but I didn't see our players running. It wasn't like I didn't see Rick trying to push it forward. I know there's some idea we should blame it on the coach, but I watched it. I didn't see the players getting out and running."
The Pacers' most energetic player, veteran guard Darrell Armstrong, has played on up-tempo teams and knows the sacrifices that have to be made. He wasn't seeing them, either. Running isn't easy," he said. "Running is a lot of discipline. You have to be willing to hit that sideline (and rest) sometimes. It's one thing to do it in practice, but can you do it when the lights come on?"
The other half of the offensive equation is Carlisle's desire to run the offense through his leading scorer and only All-Star, O'Neal. When the Pacers run, O'Neal tends to get left behind, something he and Carlisle object to strenuously.
"We have a responsibility to play through our franchise player," Carlisle said. "If we're running up and down the court shooting jump shots, Jermaine O'Neal doesn't touch the ball as much."
That's why O'Neal is on board with Carlisle's system, and with the trade. Harrington and Jackson were close friends, but O'Neal is happier with the revised roster.
"The trade is going to benefit me a lot," O'Neal said. "I guess sometimes you have to sacrifice friendships to gain in other areas. (The new players) do a lot of different things we didn't have before."
The Pacers are 6-2 since the trade and appear to be headed for another playoff appearance.
If their traded imports adapt well, they have legitimate hopes for a high seed in the wide-open East. Should that happen, and should they have some success in the playoffs, Carlisle won't have to defend himself any longer.
The record will speak for him.