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Analysis: Thunder players had tuned out Carlesimo

By Art Garcia,
Posted Nov 22 2008 8:33PM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- If the Hornets' return to Oklahoma City didn't have enough built-in drama already, Friday night will always be remembered as a turning point for a Thunder franchise that now has had more head coaches than victories.

P.J. Carlesimo officially lost his job after New Orleans embarrassed the Thunder before its home fans ... again. Realistically, Carlesimo's fate was sealed two nights earlier against the equally dismal Clippers.

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In a slap fight between one-win teams, the Thunder squandered a 15-point lead and lost by 20. The team, especially its young stable of lottery picks, had clearly given up on Carlesimo. For the last two weeks, they were merely going through the motions.

The body language from Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and others on the sidelines during timeouts spoke volumes. They had tuned out a coach who also wore out welcomes in Golden State and Portland.

No one had any illusions of the Thunder winning this season. It's a team in rebuilding mode. Two of its building blocks -- Durant and Russell Westbrook -- aren't old enough to drink.

Thunder owner Clay Bennett and general manager Sam Presti were prepared to take their lumps this season and likely for a few more. But the lack of effort and the disturbing pattern of giving up became intolerable, especially for a team trying to connect in a community that fell in love with the Hornets.

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The Thunder (1-12) were actually competitive at one point during the current 10-game losing skid. The first four losses in the streak were by eight points or less. OKC actually had a shot to pull out wins against Boston, Atlanta and Indiana.

There's been no shot since. The last six defeats are by double-digit margins, with half at 20 points or more. Despite packing the Ford Center on a nightly basis, Thunder fans had seen enough Wednesday and booed the team for the first time this season.

In the loss to New Orleans, the Thunder had a season-high 26 turnovers and the league's worst-shooting team connected on only 37 percent from the floor. Offensive possessions were rendered futile by either too much passing, leading to rushed attempts before the shot clock expired, or bad shots taken too early.

Carlesimo, recognized around the league as an excellent X&O's guy, wasn't the one taking bad shots or not playing defense. His responsibility goes only so far, but Presti felt compelled to make the first coaching change of the season and his brief tenure.

It's no secret around the league that Presti, a first-time GM hired 17 months ago, considered firing Carlesimo this summer after just one season on the job. Coaching the Sonics during their final season in Seattle, Carlesimo never built a strong rapport with Durant. The reigning Rookie of the Year and face of the franchise looks as if he's taken a step back this season along with the rest of the team.

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It's a players' league and if a team's best player doesn't completely buy into what the coach is preaching, the coach almost always takes the fall. Magic Johnson effectively had Paul Westhead fired after the Lakers won a title.

Carlesimo, at 21-74 with the Sonics/Thunder, had no chance. Westhead, coincidentally, was an assistant on Carlesimo's staff and was also let go.

Taking over on an interim basis is Scott Brooks, the former scrappy point guard who's a head coach for the first time. Presti can only hope that Brooks, 42, can relate better to a young team looking for direction.

Whether Brooks can keep the gig will likely depend on what kind of progress the Thunder can make and/or who else is available. Former Dallas coach and current ESPN analyst Avery Johnson could be considered. Presti and Johnson do share San Antonio ties. Presti's front-office career began with the Spurs, but he may be reluctant to go back to the San Antonio well after plucking Carlesimo off Gregg Popovich's staff.

Reached on a hunting trip, Johnson told that he's "not interested in the Oklahoma job right now." Johnson added that he plans to be "hunting for the rest of the year." Another name with strong local ties is Kelvin Sampson, the former coach at the University of Oklahoma who's currently an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The next move is critical for Presti, easily the league's youngest GM at 31, and the franchise. The team owns two first-round picks next summer and perhaps $30 million in cap space. If Presti doesn't find the right man, he may not be able to afford another coaching casualty.

Brooks doesn't have to wait long to make a first impression, as the Thunder complete a back-to-back with the Hornets tonight in New Orleans.

The Hornets, as fans in Oklahoma City know well, were once where the Thunder are now. There's no promise the Thunder can turn themselves into contenders, as the Hornets have, but it has to start somewhere.

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