It’s a surprisingly under-reported story. The coach leading the fourth-best team in the Eastern playoff bracket, a coach that owns the sixth-best winning percentage under his time with the team, is still being termed as an “interim” head coach. And, for various reasons, both NBA observers, the Brooklyn Nets, and Brooklyn Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo seem to have no problem with that.
Carlesimo is an NBA lifer, coaching his fourth NBA team amongst several stints as an assistant, following a successful NCAA career. As Nets coach, he weathered an up-and-down season from Deron Williams to take advantage of D-Will’s fantastic end to the campaign, and P.J.’s 35-19 record as coach would round out to a 53-win season over the course of a full year. And yet, the Nets have given him no assurances beyond this season, with rumors long abounding that the team would attempt to go for a higher-profile coach in the offseason.
Stuck in a tough first-round battle with the resilient Chicago Bulls, Carlesimo spoke to the media over a conference call on Tuesday, and professed that his uncertain future with the team really isn’t getting to him. It’s hard not to believe the guy. From the New York Post:
“No, it’s easy,” Carlesimo said on a conference call yesterday of being able to block out the talk about his future. “I don’t read about it, hopefully don’t have to talk about it and, even when you do, it’s doesn’t affect what we do.
“I hope I’m working as hard as I can work. I know our staff is. So, it’s just a way of looking at it, and I’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s usually the same people saying one thing one day and saying something different the next day. You can’t control that.”
It’s a very unique situation, one that reminds of that great Interim Coach Gold Standard: Jeff Van Gundy.
Don Nelson and the 1995-96 New York Knicks were not a very good fit, so the future Hall of Fame coach was jettisoned partway through the year as the Knicks front office put together a series of trades designed to clear cap space for the next offseason, while crippling New York’s depth along the way. Instead of playing out the string, Van Gundy rallied his team to a 13-10 record (again, this was after trades curtailed his potential rotation), including a blowout regular season win over the 72-win Bulls, a first round sweep of the higher-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, and a tough 4-1 loss to Chicago that was closer than the “4-1” mark would indicate.
Van Gundy went on to deserved acclaim as a coach, and he’s usually the best-case scenario brought up when teams drop the mess on an interim midseason.
Carlesimo, unlike Van Gundy back in 1996, is a known quantity. Which makes his time spent with Brooklyn and the media seem rote by comparison. In Tuesday’s conference call, he talked up his team’s need for more physical play against Chicago. From the New York Daily News:
“Matching or exceeding their physicality is always one of the things that we talk about, one of the keys when you’re playing the Bulls,” Carlesimo said. “We did a better job of doing that in Game 1 than we did in Game 2.”
“It’s about protecting your space. It’s about boxing out. It’s about challenging guys when they come to the rim,” Carlesimo said. “Matching or exceeding their physicality is just a day at work when we’re playing them. It’s playing basketball, but at the same time protecting our space and staying between our man and the basket and boxing out when the shot goes up and not letting them get the inside position.”
NBA writers love to talk up hustle, defense, and physical play. Coaches do the same, because it’s an easier sell and quote than pointing toward something less Lombardi-like than actually making shots. The killer on Monday for Brooklyn wasn’t Chicago’s elbows to the chest or burly bashing in the paint. The Nets are an offense-first team designed to feed off its offense-first roster, and that offense-first roster scored just 82 points. That’s the problem, not some trumped-up claim about toughness and grit.
After a year that saw him shoot below 40 percent from the field and make just 46 3-pointers despite hanging out in the corner for most of the game offensively, Nets forward Gerald Wallace missed six of seven shots in Game 2. What was twice as bad were the possessions he didn’t use up — Bulls wings Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng routinely backed off Wallace in order to shade toward Williams on drives, or Joe Johnson as he caught the ball behind the 3-point arc. The results were ridiculously effective, as Deron shot just 1-for-9 thanks in part to Kirk Hinrich’s stellar defense and the help from Butler and Deng. And Johnson (who is suffering from plantar fasciitis and has talked about potentially sitting out Game 3 on Thursday), has taken just four shots in the paint all series.
Couple Wallace’s presence with that of Reggie Evans, and the Bulls were able to load up throughout the win, only failing when Brook Lopez’s impressive touch from 20 feet went splashing through the net. Carlesimo’s only option was to go to reserve forwards Kris Humphries and Andray Blatche, and while they combined for 16 points and 12 rebounds in nearly 38 minutes of play, they needed 16 shots to get those points, and their defense was lacking.
And yet, they were still an improvement on Wallace and Evans. Which is unfortunate, because you’ll be hard-pressed to find two harder workers than Wallace and Evans.
Citing two games in three nights for his Nets, Carlesimo gave his team the day off on Tuesday, so it’s hard to imagine a massive shakeup in the starting lineup for Brooklyn. Even if Wallace and/or Evans are subbed out, though, the length of a 48-minute game makes sure that both will still have to see extensive time off the bench, and unless P.J. is able to drum up a few new wrinkles for both players away from the ball, the results are likely going to be the same. Mainly because the Bulls never give up, and Butler and Deng tend to play a whole lot of minutes.
Worse for Carlesimo, or any future potential coach, is the idea that this lineup could stick for a long, long time.
The only general managers that are going to be in the market to trade for the three years and over $33 million left on Wallace’s contract beyond this year are, frankly, bad GMs. Humphries is a little more tradeable with an expiring deal for $12 million next season, but Johnson still has a jaw-dropping nearly $70 million due to him over the next three seasons after this one, and he’s already feeling the dings and pains of being a heavy-minute, go-to guy during the middle part of the last decade.
This didn’t stop the Nets from giving Billy King a contract extension, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski on Thursday. Apparently the team’s ownership group likes this roster, which is set to pay the luxury tax for the next three seasons, limiting its ability to add new players with exceptions or deals.
With a finally healthy Williams in the lead, the Nets did well over the last few months of the season to grab home-court advantage in the playoffs, even if they did lose it in the first week of the postseason. Carlesimo has the horses to swipe it right back from Chicago, though, and to move on to the second round. And as stated above, his 53-win level of work with the Nets is about what we’d expect from this Nets roster, provided Williams is at his best.
Will that be enough to keep him around? Will potential Nets coaches, scared by the team’s salary situation, sit out this summer in anticipation of better deals with different teams?
Whatever the result, it’s out of Carlesimo’s hands. All he can do is coach, and you get the feeling he’s just fine with that.