The Detroit Pistons took a p.r. hit last week for firing Rick
Carlisle, who won 50 games in each of the last two seasons with a
franchise that had averaged 34 in the previous three and who took
his team to the 2003 Eastern Conference finals. The fallout would
have been worse if the decision hadn't been made by respected
general manager Joe Dumars, and if he wasn't replacing Carlisle
with Larry Brown, the NBA's Obi-Wan Kenobi. Last week Brown
agreed to a five-year, $25 million deal with Detroit.
In the NBA if you can get Brown, you drop your coach faster than
first-period trig--even if he's a former coach of the year like
Carlisle. As of Monday seven teams were in the market for a
coach, even after Brown joined Detroit and Paul Silas signed with
Cleveland. But the most extraordinary aspect of this coaching
churn is that an overtraveled 62-year-old remains the one to whom
everyone turns. Brown's announcement that he was quitting the
76ers after six seasons (the longest he's stayed with any of his
six NBA teams) triggered Pavlovian salivation around the league.
Had Brown not become available, Carlisle would positively not
have been fired. Why do so many teams see Brown in their future?
--Though the NBA is a players' league, execs cling to the idea
that players can be taught, and Brown is rightly considered the
ultimate teacher. Phil Jackson is a psychologist who gets guys to
buy into his system; Brown teaches skills. Even Allen Iverson
listened and learned...sort of.
--Brown is the league's best bench coach--drawing up plays on the
fly, managing the clock, exploiting matchups--in the final two
minutes. Rivals who grumble that he hasn't won a championship
(his lone trip to the Finals was in 2001, when Philly lost in
five to the Lakers) concede that they hate to see him with
clipboard in hand.
--Though he's a bit of a tortured soul on the sideline, a man who
needs his own greatness reaffirmed, Brown generally gets along
with those around him. Had another coach been in the Sixers'
cauldron for the last six years, there would've been much less
harmony. By contrast, insiders say Carlisle antagonized players
(by dishing out uneven playing time), upper management (by not
giving youngsters such as Tayshaun Prince and Mehmet Okur
sufficient opportunity) and employees (by rude put-downs).
Still, Detroit is less happy to be rid of Carlisle than it is
rapturous to have Brown. The challenge is formidable, though, for
this master fixer-upper is now being asked to save a franchise
that to a large extent has already been saved.