Mac Engel

Rick Carlisle is better than Gregg Popovich

The Mavericks’ victory over the Thunder on Monday was the latest coaching masterpiece by Rick Carlisle.
The Mavericks’ victory over the Thunder on Monday was the latest coaching masterpiece by Rick Carlisle. AP

This will not be taken kindly down on Mark Cuban’s favorite Texas tourist spot — San Antonio’s River Walk — but the best coach in the NBA these days is not Gregg Popovich. The best coach is Rick Carlisle.

Don’t dismiss it — even though Pop has five titles to but one for RC.

This differentiation is splitting the finest of hairs, but the true measure of an NBA coach is the title, and what he can do without talent.

Both have titles. Pop has always had talent. Despite his résumé and credentials, I am not so sure Pop could do what Carlisle is doing with these Mavs.

There are not many coaches ever who could cobble together a playoff win like the Mavs pulled off against the Thunder in Game 2 of their series Monday night. It’s a thin roster to start that is beset by injury and, with eight games remaining, it adapted to a completely different style of basketball in order to have a prayer to win.

The Mavs had no reason to win Game 2; by the Vegas point spread, it was the biggest playoff upset in the last 20 years.

In the players’ league that is the NBA, Carlisle is the best reason the Mavs could potentially win another game or two in a series where they are a Great Dane of underdogs.

Carlisle said Tuesday that Dirk Nowitzki now has a bruised knee, which means he will go on the injury report with Deron Williams, J.J. Barea and Devin Harris. Don’t forget Chandler Parsons is out, too.

Meanwhile, the Spurs’ were 18-point favorites in their Game 2 against the Memphis Grizzlies. That’s the biggest NBA playoff point spread since 1994.

We don’t know what Pop could do outside of San Antonio because he’s never coached anything other than a good to great roster.

The last time Pop didn’t have at least two Hall of Famers on his roster was his first season as an NBA head coach — when he took over for the fired Bob Hill during the lost 1996-97 season. That was the year center David Robinson was injured and played six games.

Other than the arrival of General Santa Anna, that was the most important year in the history of San Antonio. That season the Spurs were 17-47 under Pop, but they won the NBA Draft lottery and drafted Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan.

The next year they won 56 games. The year after they won the NBA title during the lockout season. Funny how that works.

Since the start of the 1997-98 season, the worst winning percentage under Pop has been .610.

Pop deserves all of the credit that comes with winning titles because managing NBA superstars often devours coaches. And Pop deserves all of the accolades for developing guys such as Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and now Kawhi Leonard.

Pop and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford have built the equivalent of the NBA’s version of the New England Patriots — they set the standard and they find and develop players for their system.

But in Pop’s Hall of Fame career, the one time he didn’t have Hall of Famers the team was horrendous.

Between Carlisle’s teams with the Detroit Pistons or the Indiana Pacers, he had one Hall of Famer — Reggie Miller, who was in the final years of his career.

How Carlisle coached the Pacers team that was in the infamous Malice at the Palace — the fight between the Pacers, Pistons and fans — to the second round of the 2005 playoffs remains one of the most least-appreciated coaching feats in league history.

The staple for both men throughout their respective careers is that they have won. The difference is Carlisle won with significantly less.

“The brawl year we had 31 starting lineups; I don’t know how many we’ve had this year,” Carlisle said. “That was a younger team; this is a younger team. It’s all part of it. The great thing for us is we have guys that are into winning and are willing to adapt and adjust.”

With the exception of Dirk Nowitzki, he has never had a Hall of Fame player in the prime of his career. The Mavs won the 2011 NBA title with Dirk in his prime, and point guard Jason Kidd nearing the end of his career.

Before or since, no NBA head coach has consistently gotten more out of less than Carlisle. The only one better was SMU’s Larry Brown. Carlisle is like Brown in that they are, or were, the NBA head coach who could be counted on to make his team competitive.

What Carlisle’s boss has asked of him ever since that 2011 title is absurd. Since winning the title, the Mavs have used 62 players — tied for the third most in the NBA in that time. The only other teams with that much player turnover are the 76ers, Knicks and Cavaliers. You will notice the Cavs have LeBron James, former No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving and All-Star Kevin Love.

Could Pop win with the casts Carlisle has been dealt? We will never know because the realities of Pop’s job never involved the limitations that have followed Carlisle. And at 67, Pop will not coach long enough to know what it’s like to rely on Raymond Felton as his go-to player.

What we know is Rick and Pop win, both are at the top end of the game in terms of strategy, and one has been blessed with loaded rosters whereas the other has not.

You are not going to go wrong with either, but what Carlisle has done is harder and more impressive.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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