The Pistons essentially fired Rick Carlisle in order to hire a coach they believed capable of winning a title.
Eight years later, Carlisle proved he could.
Carlisle’s transformation from bright, focused coach who wore on those around him into bright, focused coach who pushed all the right buttons during this year’s playoff has been remarkable. He left Detroit a good coach, and today, he’s a much better one.
Maybe Carlisle could have taken the Pistons to a title. Even when the Pistons fired him, I think everyone realized he would continue to improve as a coach. He had held the job for just two years, and his second season was better than his first — and he won the Coach of the Year that first year.
But championship windows stay don’t stay open long, and if you’re a contender that can get Larry Brown, you do it. So, Joe Dumars fired a coach with a 100-64 record and three playoff series victories in two years. It was bold, and it was wise. The Pistons won the title the next year.
Carlisle understood. That’s why he sat next to Joe Dumars at a press conference announcing his own firing. Who does that? He showed no resentment. He thanked Dumars for giving him his first chance at becoming a head coach. He promised that Dumars would bring in a great coach behind him. I’m not sure anyone who has ever been fired has left in a classier way.
But, unfortunately, that meant Carlisle couldn’t reap the rewards of his labor. Although he was a necessary casualty on the Pistons’ road to a title, don’t diminish his contributions toward getting them there. He took over a hapless team with limited talent that won 32 games the year before his arrival, convinced Jerry Stackhouse to stop shooting so much and use some of that energy on defense, created one of the league’s best benches and worked the whole team into a defensive force that won 50 games. He gave the Pistons the defensive identity that carried them through their wonderful run in the mid-2000s.
Carlisle certainly wasn’t perfect in Detroit. His rotations were a bit too rigid, and his offense was a bit too predictable. He was a bit too prickly and squabbled a bit too much with a couple players. But on the whole, he was a heck of a coach. I was shocked the Pistons fired him. A few minor problems usually don’t warrant a change on a team that had played as well as Detroit did under him.
Of course, Carlisle turned out fine. Coaches as talented and driven as him always do. He won 61 games with the Pacers before they fell apart post-brawl. Then, he landed in Dallas, where he improved the Mavericks’ defense without hindering their high-powered offense.
In this year’s playoffs, nobody was better. In the Finals alone, Carlisle changed his starting lineup, gave a bigger role to former Piston Brian Cardinal and set up Dallas’ offense to score without relying just on Dirk Nowitzki. Plus, his dry sense of humor provided the playoff’s best press-conference moment:
Everything came together for Carlisle. He became a better coach after leaving Detroit, and Mark Cuban gave him a better roster than he’s ever had. Fittingly, Carlisle had Jason Kidd on his side this time. After all, Kidd’s Nets swept the Pistons in Carlisle’s final season with Detroit, convincing Dumars that Carlisle wasn’t ready for that level. With Kidd’s help, Carlisle proved he is now.
I wish Carlisle could have won a title in Detroit. He meant as much to the 2004 Pistons as Larry Brown did. Brown just happened to be in charge when the buzzer sounded in Game 5 against the Lakers.
But now Carlisle will have the ring (or something) that separates great coaches from good coaches, and deservedly, he’ll be recognized as elite in his craft. I’m truly happy his star didn’t stop shining after the Pistons fired him. He was a good coach in the wrong situation, and although his firing was obviously an immediate speed bump in his career, I’m glad it didn’t end his trip.
Carlisle coached the Pistons fewer years than he coached the Mavericks or Pacers. But, to me, he’ll always be a Piston. Because this was his first head-coaching job, I view him as a Detroit product. The Pistons brought him into head-coaching, like the dish you bring to a potluck. I don’t mind sharing, but don’t forget Detroit picked him in the first place. I know it’s small and the connection isn’t that strong, but I see Carlisle as the Pistons’ contributions to an incredible playoffs.
Most of all, I’m happy for him. In Detroit, he did the hard work necessary to put a team on a title path. Tonight, he finally received the reward that comes at the end of that journey.
It might not be fair that he had to wait eight years, but I don’t think he’ll complain. This is the guy who scoffed when asked about the fairness of the Pistons firing him:
""You can get into a conversation about what may or not be fair, or you can be excited about being at the peak of your career," Carlisle said."
If he only knew the peaks that would lie ahead for him. The Pistons lost a good one in 2003. I hope the rest of the NBA enjoys his contributions to the game.