In a rotten, inconsistent, playoff-less Dallas Mavericks season, one man’s performance stood head and shoulders above the rest.One guy didn’t let the off-season revolving door drag him down. One guy never lowered the bar or publicly pouted about all the things the 2012-13 Mavericks weren’t.And near the end, after they were eliminated from playoff contention and all had a long-awaited clean shave, he was still standing there doing his job, fighting because he wanted the team to finish with a winning record.In a season filled with frustration, coach Rick Carlisle stood tall time and again.He played the weak hand that his owner had dealt him. He endured the crippling injury to his best player. He bit his tongue — most of the time — and tried to blend the team’s young players with the old.As bad as the Mavericks were sometimes, it almost worked. A 41-41 record in the NBA’s toughest division, despite not having Dirk Nowitzki for 29 games, borders on the remarkable. They remained in the playoff chase until the season’s final week.Carlisle wouldn’t let them quit. His cringe-worthy post-game rant over O.J. Mayo’s play — in Game No. 81 of the season — was a vivid example. He never stopped trying, never stopped teaching.He was saddled with the franchise’s worst team in 13 years, but Carlisle coached it to the season’s final whistle.It was a regular-season finale that the Mavericks won, by the way, unlike the football and baseball teams in town.There were nights, though, when Carlisle’s team couldn’t rebound. There were nights when it couldn’t score. The Mavericks lost to San Antonio one night by 38 points. In one stretch around the holidays, they lost 13 of 15.Yet, more often than not, they showed that they were worthy of your entertainment dollar. They beat the Bulls. They knocked off the Clippers in overtime.Carlisle used 23 different starting lineups. He relentlessly rode young Mayo and Darren Collison, both only 25 years old. He was trying to get them to raise their games and accept new levels of responsibility, Carlisle explained.“Look, I stunk, too,” Carlisle said Monday, after the post-game tirade over Mayo. “But at least I’m passionate when I stink.”Mayo, to his credit, says he understood. He came away from Thursday’s exit interviews with Carlisle and GM Donnie Nelson and talked about seeking a long-term deal with the Mavericks.It’s the eternal NBA question. In a business so abundantly skilled, in a league so overflowing with transcendent players, what impact does a head coach truly have?Gregg Popovich is headed for the Hall of Fame. Mike D’Antoni? Not so much.Carlisle proved his worth here during the Mavericks’ NBA championship season. And though owner Mark Cuban gutted the championship nucleus in the months that followed, Carlisle got last year’s team to the playoffs and kept this one hopeful until the final week.A year after letting Tyson Chandler go to the Knicks in a sign-and-trade deal, the Mavericks lost Jason Terry and Jason Kidd via free agency. Cuban all but apologized for the half-barren pantry he left Carlisle with.Too many new players. Too many poor rebounders. Too many nights when they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — play defense. Too many games when Carlisle and Nowitzki needed somebody to step up, yet no one did.An intriguing off-season awaits Cuban and Nelson. If Dirk has his way, he wished aloud Thursday, the franchise’s next free agent acquisition will be point guard Chris Paul.That’s not likely, of course. But the franchise clearly has a big chair available for somebody willing to be the Mavericks’ next star.There is money — again — available under the salary cap. There is Nowitzki, still great, yet one year older.And there’s Rick Carlisle, one heck of an NBA head coach.After a lousy season, that’s far from the worst place to start.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton