By Ian Parfrey @Ianparfrey
Forget Latrell Sprewell. The narrative of P.J. Carlesimo’s career is no longer a cautionary tale about riding a troubled star player too hard in practice one day. Carlesimo, 63 years old and a month into his fourth NBA head coaching job, is the unlikely architect of the Brooklyn Nets’ turnaround. There’s a good chance he’ll ultimately be known as the guy who brought winning basketball to the Barclays Center.
Since Carlesimo took over, the Nets have won 13 of 17, including a 17-point road win in Oklahoma City, and impressive wins over the conference rival Knicks and Pacers. Star point guard Deron Williams has improved his play under Carlesimo, averaging 18.1 ppg and shooting .448/.427 (In 28 games under Avery Johnson, Williams averaged 16.6 points and shot .398/.295). Quite simply, the team is now living up to its expectations, and the offense finally looks cohesive– at times even potent.
What did Carlesimo do to achieve this? For one thing, he simplified the rotation. Reggie Evans became the permanent starter at power forward. He gave Keith Bogans more minutes, saving MarShon Brooks for short bursts of instant offense, and reducing the minutes of Jerry Stackhouse (who appears to have aged 40 years since Jason Kidd tripped him on a close-out in December). Williams and Joe Johnson now look comfortable together, and the offense no longer stalls out in alternating ISO’s for the two guards. Brook Lopez’s role has increased, and the ball spends more time in the paint than on the perimeter. Might some of this have happened anyway? No one wanted to wait long enough to find out.
I will admit I was initially unimpressed with the selection of Carlesimo as interim head coach. The unfortunate postscript to the Sprewell incident was a rejuvenated Spree leading the Knicks to the 1999 Finals, while Carlesimo was fired in December of that year from an awful Warriors team whose best player was a hadn’t-figured-it-out-yet Donyell Marshall.
Sprewell eventually returned to his default setting of angry, clownish, and borderline criminal behavior, but the damage to Carlesimo’s reputation was done, and even a six-year run as an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio (where he got three more rings than Sprewell ever would) failed to completely repair it.
In July of 2007, Carlesimo was hired as the last head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics. A week earlier, the Sonics had drafted forwards Kevin Durant and Jeff Green with the second and fifth overall picks. Carlesimo was given the chance to coach a young player with unlimited potential and unusual maturity, and by all accounts, it didn’t go particularly well. The 2008 Sonics had very little talent beyond their two youngsters– their other starters were Nick Collison, Chris Wilcox, and Earl Watson– and they finished 20-62, 11 games worse than the previous year. Wins weren’t the point, and Seattle’s poor record helped them land Russell Westbrook in the next draft. However, Carlesimo seemed to be a bad fit for a rebuilding team, and reportedly went back to his old ways of screaming first and asking questions later. Jeff Green failed to develop under his watch, and he played Durant mostly at shooting guard. Carlesimo only lasted 13 games into the next season (in Oklahoma City), going 1-12, and starting Earl Watson ahead of Russell Westbrook. Scott Brooks took over for him, and three and a half seasons later, had the Thunder in the Finals.
This only cemented Carlesimo’s reputation as a coach best suited for the college game, who didn’t know how to motivate pro athletes– which admittedly is an uphill battle for any coach, given that the players make much more money, and will never be the first to get fired in a losing situation. Carlesimo had led the Seton Hall Pirates to six NCAA tournament appearances in seven years from 1988-1994, including a one-point loss in the tournament final in 1989. He had done a decent job with the remnants of the Clyde Drexler Trail Blazers from 1995-1997, going 137-109 and making the playoffs all three years. By 2011, he was an assistant coach on a 22-win Toronto Raptor team, and seemed about as employable as Paul Westphal.
Carlesimo got his lucky break when he joined Avery Johnson’s staff for the 2012 season. Both Carlesimo and Johnson had a Popovich connection, as Johnson had been the Spurs’ starting point guard in 1997 when Pop took over the team, and played for him for the next five seasons, winning one championship. Johnson was later an assistant under Don Nelson, before replacing him in Dallas, but Johnson definitely didn’t bring Nelson’s uptempo brand of freewheeling small-ball with him to the Nets. Carlesimo is a little harder to place in terms of his coaching influences. Carlesimo’s father, Peter A., coached basketball and football at the University of Scranton. Carlesimo was a little-used backup guard for Fordham University from 1969-1971, where he played for former NBA guard Ed Conlin. Conlin had played at Fordham for Johnny Bach (later a Phil Jackson assistant in Chicago, and considered an early mastermind of zone defense), and in the pros for Al Cervi, a “relentlessly competitive” coach who emphasized defense. Conlin and Bach, by the way, were both Brooklyn natives, and Cervi was from Buffalo.
If Carlesimo’s roots truly are old-school Brooklyn defense with a little bit of Popovich magic sprinkled in, you might wonder what’s taken him so long to experience success in the NBA. The Nets seem to be the right team at the right time for Carlesimo. They’re a team of talented veterans who would rather win than have their egos massaged (Avery Johnson, it seems, failed at both things). They’ve either played for nothing but losing teams (Lopez, Blatche, Evans), or seen too many early playoff exits. Only Stackhouse has NBA Finals experience. In a league where wins are one of the main currencies, the Nets have bought in to Carlesimo’s system, and so far the results speak for themselves.