There are coaches who can take a random group of players and turn them into winners. And there are coaches who can take a collection of great talent and turn them into champions.
Rick Carlisle can do both.
The Mavericks head coach is just starting his fifth season in Dallas. This past off-season, Carlisle was given a collection of players who either never reached their potential or whose best days were behind them. Or guys whose best days were never that good to begin with. And most of them have one-year contracts. And they had Delonte West.
It should have been a combustible mix.
Instead, Carlisle has this random group of players off to a 4-1 start despite coping without their one, stable, unifying force -- injured superstar Dirk Nowitzki. It's too early to make any determinations about this season, but Carlisle's body of work indicates this is not a fluke. Coming into the season, Carlisle had spent 10 years as an NBA head coach. Nine of his teams have made the playoffs, six of them have won 50 games, and only one has finished a season with a losign record. And he has coached an NBA Champion.
This is what separates Carlisle from Don Nelson, Mike D'Antoni, and other coaches like them. Those guys can take struggling teams and turn them into winners. SMU's football coach June Jones is like this too; he has a system and a coaching ability that can improve any team and turn it into a winner. These are great coaches, and their ability should not be discounted. But there seems to be a limit to the winning.
On the flip side, you have some all-time great coaches like Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson, who take teams loaded with talent and crank out championships, and this is not as simple as it appears either. Doug Collins coached Michael Jordan and the Bulls before Jackson took over and began winning titles. Del Harris got his chance with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in the late 90's before giving way to Jackson and his championship touch. Current Lakes' coach Mike Brown is showing us right now how "not easy" it is to coach a loaded team.
And that is why Carlisle is so great. He took a great Mavericks team to a championship a couple years ago. But since then, the Mavs have been "flying by the seat of their pants" as Carlisle likes to say sometimes. This year alone, Dirk Nowitzki hasn't played at all, Chris Kaman missed the first two games, Elton Brand and Shawn Marion missed the Toronto game, Eddie Curry actually played in two games before being waived. The schedule has been good to the Mavericks after a tough start in LA and Utah, but this is what Carlisle does. He improvises, he adapts, and he gets his players to buy what he's selling.
Whether Carlisle is widely regarded as an elite NBA coach doesn't really matter, because if he isn't yet, it's just a matter of time. He ranks 11th all-time for winning percentage among coaches with at least 500 games.
And while the Mavericks organization attempts to execute their win-now-while-staying-financially-flexible plan, they couldn't have a better coach in place.
If and when the Mavericks do land a big free agent, and if and when they do again become a team loaded with talent, Carlisle will be the best coach for that too.
For more thoughts on basketball, life and election night, follow Ted Madden on Twitter at @tedmadden