DALLAS – Dirk Nowitzki sees a lot of similarities in Avery Johnson and Rick Carlisle. Despite the Mavs’ bitter divorce with Johnson, the All-Star forward means that as a compliment to both coaches.
Johnson gets credit from Nowitzki and Jason Terry for instilling a defense-intensive culture in Dallas, which Carlisle took to a new level during last year’s championship run. Carlisle and Johnson are both known for long film sessions and their commitment to holding players accountable.
And they’re the only two coaches to lead the Mavs to the Finals. The Mavs flopped after building a 2-0 lead over the Heat in the 2006 Finals, which was at the end of Johnson’s first full season as a head coach. They finally finished the job last season, winning the franchise’s first title in Carlisle’s third season.
“Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out with Avery, but I liked the change of fresh air when he took over, his enthusiasm, his energy,” Nowitzki said. “He definitely started the building block for us winning it all.”
Why has Carlisle survived and sustained success when Johnson couldn’t in Dallas?
Start with the fact that this is Carlisle’s third stop as a head coach, meaning he had plenty of trial-and-error education by the time he arrived in Dallas. Johnson was learning on the job, although he was loathe to admit it at the time.
Perhaps the biggest reason Johnson couldn’t sustain success in Dallas is because he had so much of it so early. An enlarged ego got the best of the Little General, who stopped listening – to players, to assistants, to his boss, to everybody.
In the process, Johnson lost a lot of people, most importantly Dirk and Mark Cuban. That led to him losing his job after the Mavs second consecutive one-and-done playoff appearance in 2008, when the front office tried to save Johnson by trading for Jason Kidd, only to have the need for a new coach confirmed when Avery refused to let go of control.
Johnson, who left Dallas with the best winning percentage in NBA history, returns tonight as the much more humble coach of the talent-deprived 10-25 Nets.
“For me individually as a coach, I’ve grown,” Johnson said. “I would assume that Coach Carlisle too has grown since his first coaching stint with Indiana. I’ve definitely grown, but I think the core beliefs of what I believe in – defense and rebounding and discipline and organization, having great lines of communication with your players and holding them accountable – still stand.
“You learn. The same way I learned when I played in trying to improve my game, I think in the craft of coaching and all of the disciplines of coaching, you’ve got to improve in those areas also.”
Carlisle’s hiring as Johnson’s replacement raised some eyebrows at the time because of their similar styles. Carlisle had a reputation as a brilliant basketball mind whose relationships with players came with an expiration date after stints with the Pistons and Pacers.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Carlisle in Dallas, either. There were some rocky times during his first two seasons, when the Mavs won a total of only one playoff series.
One of the keys to Carlisle’s success with the Mavs has been Carlisle’s willingness to change and adapt. He essentially gave Kidd full control of the offense midway through their first season together and frequently takes input from the Mavs’ veterans on anything from the practice schedule to lineups.
“I’ve definitely become a better listener and my hope is that I’ve become a better communicator,” Carlisle said. “I know all too well the pitfalls if you don’t. I’m vigilant about that.”
Carlisle has also maintained a friction-free relationship with Cuban, which certainly wasn’t the case for Johnson.
Cuban’s involvement, which is unique to say the least for an owner, annoyed Johnson. Carlisle calls it “different,” but has always focused on the benefit of having an owner so emotionally invested in the team.
“The perception from afar is that Mark is a zany guy who is into anything, but the truth is he lets you do your job,” Carlisle said. “I’ve been very open with him about everything that we do. There’s a constant open line of communication. I encourage him to be in the locker room pregame, halftime, postgame, on the road. I want him to see everything that’s going on, and I honestly feel that his presence helps engage our players even more.
“I’m more than fine with that; I encourage it.”
If he had to do it all over again, maybe Johnson would do the same.
As it is, Avery is trying to make the best of it as the Nets prepare for their move to Brooklyn, while Carlisle’s Mavs are trying to get ready for a repeat run. Which hammers home the most important lesson a coach can learn.
Said Carlisle: "The best solution to challenges that come up is good players."