Opening Tip: Title team's underrated strength

This five-day stretch of Mavericks schedule served as a strong reminder of one of the underrated strengths of the 2011 title team: the brainpower on the bench next to coach Rick Carlisle.

The Mavs benefited from one of the best coaching staffs in recent NBA history.

Want proof of that staff’s prowess? Just look at the success the top two assistants from that team are having this season.

Terry Stotts’ Portland Trail Blazers, who blew out the Mavs on Saturday night, have established themselves as a surprise contender in the Western Conference. Dwane Casey’s Toronto Raptors, who host the Mavs on Wednesday night, are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture in a season in which they were expected to compete only for the top overall pick. They've both been named the coach of the month in their conference once this season.

None of this comes as a surprise to Carlisle, who leaned heavily on offensive coordinator Stotts and defensive coordinator Casey during Dallas’ surprise championship season. Carlisle has always credited Stotts and Casey for their strategic input during that title run, when the Mavs’ offense was a free-flowing work of art and the defense managed to slow down Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the last three series.

“They had a lot of responsibility on my staff,” Carlisle said. “Both of them took over situations that were not good situations. There’s a saying that I’ve heard, I think it’s a Lou Holtz saying: ‘There’s no such thing as getting a good job. You’ve got to get a bad job and make it a good job.’ That’s what both of those guys have done. Toronto is a team now that’s really on the rise. Portland’s situation speaks for itself.”

Carlisle lobbied strongly for Casey and Stotts to get shots to be head coaches again. As Carlisle mentioned several times during their Dallas stints, neither got fair chances to succeed in their previous head coaching stints.

Casey spent a season and a half as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ head coach, getting fired when the team was 20-20 midway through 2006-07. The Timberwolves finished 32-50 that year and haven’t won more than 31 games in a season since.

The Raptors are 20-20 right now – and 14-8 since the Rudy Gay deal, which a lot of people perceived as a white-flag trade that meant Toronto was officially in tank mode. Casey left the Mavs the summer after the title run to take over a Toronto team coming off a 22-60 campaign. The Raptors have made progress each season under his watch, going 23-43 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 and 34-48 last season and before leaping to .500 now.

Stotts never got to finish two full seasons in his previous two head coaching stints. He took over as an interim coach in Atlanta during the 2002-03 season, finishing that campaign 24-31, and got fired after going 28-54 the next year. The Hawks, who had a bad roster and an ownership situation in flux at the time, won only 13 games the next season. Stotts got fired before the end of his second season as head coach in Milwaukee, where he had a 63-83 overall record.

The Trail Blazers, a young team with no depth, tailed off in Stotts’ first season to finish 33-49. After a couple of key offseason additions to complement stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Portland has taken off this season, sitting only a game and a half out of the top spot in the West standings with a 31-11 record.

Stotts, an elite offensive innovator whose team leads the league in scoring, insists he owes some of his current success to the time he spent in Dallas on Carlisle’s staff.

“I think it really completed me as a coach,” Stotts said. “All those things really gave me a different view of how to approach your team, how to coach your team. I think it made me more of a complete coach.”

Stotts and Casey were key reasons the Mavs completed a playoff run with a championship parade. Their current success is a source of pride for Carlisle, even if it made his job much tougher during this five-day stretch.