Yes, I said it last week on Galloway & Co.: Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle deserves to be on the short list of NBA Coach of the Year candidates.
And I'm sticking to it.
In his third season, Carlisle has the club at a record of 40-16 and positioned in the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. How he's gotten them to this point is what I find to be impressive.
First, consider how last season ended in San Antonio. Shawn Marion had his minutes slashed in the first-round series and left for the offseason seemingly confused and uncertain of his role. Caron Butler was benched for an entire half and, like Marion, had to wonder how he fit moving forward. Center Brendan Haywood and Carlisle didn't seem to see eye-to-eye (at the time, Haywood figured to be the best option as this season's starting center if he wasn't lost in free agency).
Jason Kidd, who had an awful playoff series, didn't show for the team's final day when players clear out their lockers, meet with coaches and then give a parting interview to the media. Carlisle played down Kidd's absence due to him being ill. Every other player attended.
Then there was the Roddy Beaubois imbroglio. Carlisle, already being criticized for not playing Beaubois more during the regular season, was being roasted after Game 6 for removing Beaubois before the fourth quarter in favor of the cold-shooting Jason Terry. Beaubois nearly single-handedly rescued the Mavs from an embarrassing beginning to the game, and then Carlisle's trust in his veterans didn't pay off.
So why should Carlisle be among this season's candidates for Coach of the Year?
He's been criticized every which way for being somewhat aloof, perhaps a bit odd and mostly a poor communicator with players, which then rubs guys wrong and causes problems. That seemed to be what was bubbling with at least Marion and Butler. Well, if communication was Carlisle's Achilles' heel in the past, this season it has been his saving grace.
During the offseason, Carlisle visited with Marion and Butler on their turf, provided his vision for this season and got both players to buy into unaccustomed roles. Marion has been terrific coming off the bench while playing about 27 minutes a game. Butler, up until his knee injury on Jan. 1, was emerging as a major offensive threat despite often not playing at all in the fourth quarter.
Carlisle listened to Kidd, Terry and Dirk Nowitzki when they went to him early in the season and told him DeShawn Stevenson could do the job as the starting shooting guard. He listened and the move paid off.
Throughout the season, Carlisle has managed to get his team to buy into a defensive mentality and he's fostered a genuine one-for-all mentality on the team, which, to no small degree, has been hammered home by center Tyson Chandler in his first season with the team.
When Nowitzki went down on Dec. 27 with a sprained right knee and Butler followed two games later, the team went into a tailspin, losing six in a row and 10 of 14 all-in-all. Throughout, Carlisle remained positive, pumped up his guys and they responded, with Nowitkzki continually improving, to win 13 of 14 heading into the All-Star break.
For some media members -- and no need to embarrass anyone here -- who may have predicted a greater chance of an implosion situation than an emerging Western Conference contender, the record, the communication, the good vibe in the locker room can all in some way be attributed to Carlisle.
Here's my top candidates for Coach of the Year:
1. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago: The first-year head coach has the Bulls at 38-16, three wins from matching last season's total. They've done it despite Carlos Boozer missing 18 games because of injury and Joakim Noah hasn't played since Dec. 15. Known as the defensive brains as an assistant under Doc Rivers at Boston, the Bulls rank second in both scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense. Of course, the Bulls are led by my leading MVP candidate Derrick Rose.
2. Erik Spoelstra, Miami: The greatest team supposedly ever assembled (but hardly to coach) stumbled out of the gates to a 9-8 record, dropping to that mark after another embarrassing loss at Dallas that included the LeBron James (accidental?) body bump on his coach, then a closed-door team meeting. The next day reports surfaced that players didn't have confidence in their 40-year-old coach. But, Spoelstra never flinched, never got intimidated and has the Heat at 41-15 at the break.
3. Rick Carlisle, Dallas: See above.
4. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio: Blessed with good health this season, Popovich has the Spurs at 46-10, the franchise's best mark to this point and the best record in basketball. He has successfully transitioned the focal point of the offense from Tim Duncan to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, plus heavy doses of 3-point shooting, as the once-offensivelyboring Spurs are sixth in the league in scoring (103.5).
5. Doc Rivers, Boston: The Celtics might be oldies, but they're goodies. Rivers shunned retirement to come back for at least one more season and has his team playing great defense again (despite losing Thibodeau off his bench) and bearing down on a third trip to the NBA Finals in four seasons.
5a. Nate McMillan, Portland: To have that depleted roster sitting fifth in the West at 32-24 -- having won six in a row at the break -- is nothing short of miraculous, and he should probably be much further up on this list.