Chandler Parsons lounged on the couch in the living room of his rented Beverly Hills mansion, hanging out with a celebrity he'd been dating and his new coach, days after signing his three-year, $46 million contract a couple of summers ago.
Rick Carlisle, apparently not enthralled by the "Saved by the Bell" episode playing on the flat screen, attempted to strike up a conversation.
"So," Carlisle said, "are you two exclusive?"
Um, there's been a little awkwardness in the relationship between the Dallas Mavericks coach and the first player signed to be a post-Dirk foundation piece since Carlisle's getting-to-know-you stay at Parsons' place. But there's a lot of love between the player-coach odd couple, too.
Parsons describes the vibe as "kind of like father-son," which causes a look of flattery to cross Carlisle's face when the comment is passed on to him. Parsons' playboy lifestyle and charming, quick-witted personality fascinate and amuse Carlisle, who calls the combo forward "one of the most likable people I've ever been around in basketball."
Carlisle and Parsons, who can look out the windows of their posh apartments in Uptown Dallas high-rises and see each other's balconies, spend an inordinate amount of time together. Most of it is basketball-based, as Parsons often shoots and watches film with Carlisle in one-on-one sessions. But they also socialize some, having attended concerts together and shared many meals, occasionally with Carlisle's wife and daughter and Parsons' parents and/or longtime best friend/personal assistant, Pausha Haghighi. They've also played late-night pingpong on the table in the Mavs' locker room. (Parsons and Carlisle both swear they won the three-game set, and Carlisle complains that "my table tennis brethren would be disappointed with his [illegal] serve.")
Yearning to play when it matters most
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.
"I have the utmost confidence and respect for him," Parsons told ESPN.com the afternoon after being benched in crunch time of a loss to the Miami Heat. "I just hope it's reciprocated and he feels the same way towards my game and how I can help this team win games. We have to somehow find a way to get on the same page if we're both going to be here for a long time and he's the coach and I'm a foundation piece.
"If I'm going to be a foundation piece and a centerpiece, we need to figure out how we can be on the same page and have the same belief and respect for one another."
"If I'm going to be a foundation piece and a centerpiece, we need to figure out how we can be on the same page and have the same belief and respect for one another. I just would hope my coach would have the same confidence and respect in my abilities that I do."
Parsons believes he can be one of the NBA's premier point forwards. He certainly hasn't been shy about saying so since leaving the Houston Rockets to come to Dallas as a restricted free agent in 2014.
Plans to use Parsons as a primary facilitator were discussed in detail during the recruiting process, but that featured role has yet to come to fruition on a consistent basis a season and a half into his Mavs tenure. That's in part because of a poor fit with Monta Ellis last season and the issues presented early this season by coming back from hybrid microfracture surgery on his right knee. But Parsons craves more responsibilities and opportunities in Carlisle's offensive scheme.
Slow your roll: Carlisle's cautious approach
"Sometimes I have to manage his expectations a little bit, but that doesn't mean I don't see greatness in this kid," Carlisle told ESPN.com this week in his American Airlines Center office, where a picture of him posing with Parsons in front of the player's recently purchased Rolls-Royce Ghost during that L.A. visit is taped to the door.
Carlisle made managing expectations for Parsons a priority, attempting to protect the 27-year-old by originally saying Parsons shouldn't be expected to return to form on a regular basis before January, then pushing the timeline back to the All-Star break.
His struggles in the first six weeks of the season, when Parsons felt more like a patient than a player while dealing with strict minutes restrictions, physical limitations, six months of rust and -- he now admits -- a dose of self-doubt, made Parsons' recent sensational stretch that much more satisfying.
"I've got to push him to be great. I've got to be somebody that brings him the cold-blooded truth every day, including on days that he deserves the highest praise."Rick Carlisle
"It's almost like I fell back in love with basketball again," Parsons said of the nine-game stretch in which he averaged 22.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 54.3 percent from the floor and 52.8 percent from 3-point range.
That sizzling streak was interrupted Wednesday night, when Parsons went scoreless after pouring in 12 points in the first quarter, and Carlisle pulled the plug on him for crunch time during the loss to Miami. Sitting Parsons from the 6:05 mark until he checked in as a defensive substitution with 17.9 seconds remaining sent a strong message, whether it was intended or not, about Carlisle's lack of confidence in him.
Stars in the NBA finish close games regardless of their performance up to that point. Carlisle hasn't committed to giving Parsons unconditional clutch playing time, even since the minutes restrictions were lifted, prompting questions about whether Carlisle considers Parsons to be the caliber of player worthy of his large contract.
"I worked harder than anybody coming back from this injury that no one thought I'd come back from," said Parsons, who can opt out of the final season of his contract this summer but has indicated he hopes to be in Dallas for years to come. "Now it's time to let me do my job. I want my coach to have the same confidence and belief in me that my owner does."
Mark Cuban's starry-eyed view of Parsons' future
There is no question about how the man who pays their salaries feels about the matter. Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who locked up Carlisle to a five-year contract extension that Parsons lobbied for this fall, makes it clear that he plans to build around Parsons for the foreseeable future.
Cuban, who famously flew to Parsons' hometown of Orlando and had him sign his offer sheet while partying together in a club, treats his $46 million prize like a franchise player.
Parsons gets input on personnel decisions, such as replacing moody, ball-dominant shooting guard Ellis with team-first, 3-and-D guy Wesley Matthews. They constantly communicated during the summer shopping period, often while traveling back and forth to Los Angeles on Cuban's private jet. They co-chaired the Mavs' recruiting committee that chased the dream -- and damn near closed the deal -- of creating a DeAndre Jordan-Parsons-Matthews trio.
Jordan ultimately jilted the Mavs, but Cuban loves his high-priced wing duo, even as Parsons and Matthews deal with the difficulties of coming back from major injuries.
"What I see 100 percent is we're going to keep those guys together for a long, long time," Cuban told ESPN.com this week. "When they're both 100 percent and have all their explosiveness, that's a crushing tandem on the wing and we'll fill in around them."
"The day he becomes a knockdown, 40 percent-plus 3-point shooter, he's an All-Star."Mavericks owner Mark Cuban
Matthews, whom Dallas signed to a four-year, $70 million max deal despite him rupturing his left Achilles tendon in March, was appealing to the Mavs because his game theoretically complements Parsons' so well. He addressed the Mavs' need to become bigger and better defensively in the backcourt, and Matthews' terrific track record as a perimeter shooter would help create space for Parsons to showcase his ability to create.
Cuban is convinced that Parsons is the kind of versatile playmaker and scorer that the Mavs can run their offense through for years to come.
"The day he becomes a knockdown, 40 percent-plus 3-point shooter, he's an All-Star," Cuban said. "I won't call him 'knockdown' yet, but he's getting there. His confidence has been there, but there's still that variability on his shot. But it's disappearing. When everybody on the bench is standing up every time he takes a shot [in anticipation of it going in], he's an All-Star.
"His explosiveness isn't 100 percent there for his drives to the basket, and his floater's not there, but they're coming. And you can just see the writing on the wall. It's too late for this year, but certainly I think if he's healthy next year, there's no reason that he's not [an All-Star]."
Parsons starting to feel it
There have been many glimpses over the last month of Parsons' progress toward being the go-to guy the Mavs hoped they were getting when they gave him the offer that the Rockets declined to match.
Parsons has averaged an efficient 16.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists since the calendar flipped to 2016, numbers that compare favorably to his career norms, even though they fall shy of his increased expectations.
"I'm starting to feel like myself again and settling in as the player the Mavs envisioned me as," Parsons said. "I'm not out of the woods yet, but I think it'd be shortchanging myself to think that this is the best I can be."
Carlisle has been calling more plays for Parsons and has provided him chances to expand his game. The most significant development has been using Parsons as the primary option at power forward when Dirk Nowitzki rests.
Parsons' hope to play that role last season led to perhaps the most famous Parsons-Carlisle flap. Parsons bulked up to prepare for the pounding of banging with power forwards, but Carlisle thought he got too heavy and called him out on the subject after a preseason game. Parsons responded the next day on Instagram by posting a picture of himself posing shirtless on his apartment balcony, with a pig emoji as the only text. Carlisle publicly apologized to Parsons, but his point had been made. Parsons shed about 10 pounds to get down to his normal playing weight.
Parsons proved to Carlisle that he could handle the backup power forward role, which had been a problem area for the Mavs, by playing solid post defense and responding to the rebounding challenge that comes with the position. Utilizing Parsons at that spot allows him to be the offensive focal point of the second unit, exploiting mismatches against bigger, slower foes.
Unlimited praise but not unlimited minutes
"I think he's a very special player," Carlisle said. "I mean, look around the league. How many 6-9 ½ guys can do the things he can do with the basketball? Who can make plays off the dribble, can handle like a point guard, can finish at the rim, make runners, make midrange shots and make 3s?
"I defy you to come up with five other guys that can do it, 6-9 ½ guys. I think he's very unique. I never want to put limitations on where guys can go with their games. It's just a matter of health and continuing to work to ramp things up in all areas."
That's a classic Carlisle compliment to Parsons, punctuated with a reminder that he needs to improve in every facet of the game.
As much as the coach enjoys Parsons' company, Carlisle doesn't want him to be comfortable. As far as Carlisle is concerned, Parsons has plenty of people who kiss his butt on a regular basis. He needs a coach to kick his butt.
"I've got to push him to be great," said Carlisle, who was particularly proud of the way Parsons attacked his rehab. "I've got to be somebody that brings him the cold-blooded truth every day, including on days that he deserves the highest praise."
Great players grind all the time, according to Carlisle, who uses former teammate Larry Bird as one example. Carlisle says Parsons hasn't reached that point yet.
In the next breath, Carlisle provides what could be considered an excuse for Parsons, saying it's "unfair" to expect him to be a full-time, full-force grinder while he's still in the process of recovering from surgery. (Doctors told Parsons he probably wouldn't be at full strength for a year after the May 1 operation.)
"But that's the direction that I want him to move in," Carlisle said. "Because if you're going to be that guy for a franchise, there are an unusual set of expectations involved. I don't want anybody under the blanket of our operation to have any kind of expectations that that's going to be easy. It's just not. But I love the path that he's on. I love the relationship that we have."
Parsons estimates that his basketball conversations with Carlisle are "90 percent criticism, 10 percent complimentary." Parsons says it's a good thing that Carlisle "won't be stroking my ego," although he doesn't always seem to appreciate when that shows up in the substitution pattern or when Carlisle publicly criticizes a poor plus-minus outing for Parsons even when he was brilliant offensively.
"The criticisms are reducing all the time as he continues to grow and get better, but he's got enough people around him telling him all the things he wants to hear," Carlisle said. "He's got to have some filters. I consider it not only my responsibility but a privilege to try to help this kid be great.
"I really do like him as a person tremendously. He's one of the most likable people I've ever been around in basketball, but I'm not going to let him con me into just giving him compliments all the time. That's just not the way our world works.
"When I stop riding him, that's when he should be concerned. Because it'll mean I don't care, and I don't see that happening."
That's fine with Parsons. He wants to be pushed. He knows he needs to be pushed.
Parsons doesn't mind being called out in front of the team, which Carlisle often does to make an example out of one of his highest-paid players. He knows the nitpicking film sessions are for his own good. So are the suggestions -- demands? -- that Parsons tweak his shooting technique to improve his balance and the arc on his shot.
Of course, Parsons also expects a lot of play calls and consistent clutch playing time to be part of the package.
"He challenges me," Parsons said. "He's never going to let me get away with anything. I'm a very hard worker, but sometimes I need to be pushed. He's not one of these guys that are just going to be blowing smoke up my ass. He's going to tell me how it is and be real with me, and that's something I respect about him.
"But deep down, I think he thinks I can carry a team."