Homecoming Made Perfect Sense for Carlisle, Pacers

Rick Carlisle's return to the Pacers is, in many ways, a family reunion.

Indiana is where Carlisle served as an assistant under Larry Bird from 1997-2000, winning an Eastern Conference championship and preparing to become a head coach, which he did in Detroit in 2001.

It's where he returned as a head coach from 2003-07, leading the team to a franchise-record 61 wins in his first season, then navigating the team through a tumultuous chapter in the ensuing years.

But Carlisle's connection to Indiana is more than just what he has accomplished as a basketball coach. As Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard told the media during Carlisle's introductory press conference on Wednesday, Carlisle built "deep relationships, marrow-deep" with the people in the Pacers organization.

When he won an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, Carlisle made sure to send replica rings to Pacers executive Donnie Walsh and Pacers owner Herb Simon (but not Larry Bird because "Larry has enough rings," as Carlisle joked on Wednesday).

Carlisle's daughter, Abby, was born in Indianapolis on May 7, 2004 — serendipitously arriving on the day between Games 1 and 2 of Indiana's second-round playoff series with Miami. Carlisle said he can't wait to see the reaction of Pacers staffers that held her as a baby when they're reunited with Abby, now 17 and armed with a driver's license.

And speaking of babies, Carlisle even has a lifelong connection to the Pacers' current All-Star, Domantas Sabonis. He's literally witnessed his birth. Yes, really. We'll come back to that.

The reunion between the Pacers and Carlisle made so much sense that it didn't take very long to come together. After deciding to part ways with first-year coach Nate Bjorkgren on June 9 after a 34-38 campaign that saw Indiana miss the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, Pritchard and the Pacers front office identified characteristics they wanted in the next head coach. At the top of the list were multi-year experience as a head coach and championship pedigree.

On June 17, Carlisle and the Mavericks parted ways. Experience? Check. Championship pedigree? Check. Comfort in Indiana? Check.

A week later, the Pacers and Carlisle agreed to terms.

"We were working on a pretty big and wide search," Pritchard said. "But Rick and I had a couple conversations. There was definitely mutual interest from the very beginning and quite frankly once Rick was interested in us and (we were) interested in him, things moved pretty quickly."

For the Pacers, hiring Carlisle was a no-brainer. But Carlisle had options. He could have taken a year off and worked as a television analyst, something he did for a year after both of his previous stints in Indiana. He also could have pursued another of the many coach openings across the league.

But ultimately, his relationships in Indiana and the young talent on the Pacers' roster won him over.

"I see a group of guys that to me are at the right age," Carlisle said. "They've gone through some pretty wide-ranging experiences over the last two or three years."

Carlisle said the Pacers' core of Sabonis, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, and T.J. Warren — all between 25 and 28 years old — reminds him of the group he took over in Detroit. He led those Pistons teams, which featured the likes of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Ben Wallace, to a pair of 50-win seasons before Larry Brown guided them to the 2004 NBA championship.

By Wednesday, he had spoken with every member of the Pacers' roster and had multiple conversations with several of them. Carlisle's hiring (and his four-year, $29-million contract) sends a clear statement to those players about the direction of the franchise.

Pritchard cited the core of the roster's "timeline" as a key factor in adding a coach of Carlisle's caliber and said the team is in "win-now" mode.

"It sends a message to our players that we're in this," Pritchard said. "We want to get back to the playoffs and making some noise in the playoffs...Herb was all on board with this."

"We need to get back in the playoffs and we need to find a way to win in the playoffs," Carlisle said. "It's pretty clear that that's what the mandate is."

When it comes to accomplishing those goals, Carlisle said his first emphasis will be on the defensive end. The Pacers have long been one of the league's best defensive teams, but slipped significantly last season. Bjorkgren was able to bring the Pacers into the modern era offensively, increasing their pace and 3-point attempts, but the defense suffered as a result.

"Even though the scores are higher, the pace is faster, more shots are going in, the better defensive teams are still going to have an advantage," Carlisle said Wednesday.

Offensively, Carlisle preached "balance" on Wednesday. While Jermaine O'Neal finished third in MVP voting under Carlisle's tutelage in 2004, he more recently decried post-ups as not the most effective play in the modern NBA.

Of course, his All-Star player now is someone that excels operating out of the post. Carlisle clarified that he definitely planned to continue to utilize Sabonis' ability to operate on the low block, but wants to make sure that all of Indiana's capable scoring threats also have the ball in their hands.

"Domas is a guy that's effective in the paint...But there's a real balance these days between the post game and the spacing game," Carlisle said. "With this group, we're going to have to really work to find an effective balance."

As for the age-old question about the pairing of Sabonis and Turner, two talented 25-year-old big men, Carlisle insisted that they can play together. Sabonis is now a two-time All-Star, Turner has led the league in blocks per game twice, and the two enjoy playing with each other, even if it is a somewhat unorthodox look to start two 6-11 players in the modern game.

"I really like both guys," Carlisle said. "When my teams have played them over the last few years, we've always felt like it was a physical beating that we were taking with them, both defensively and offensively...I'm looking forward to the challenge of making it work."

While he knows many staff members from his previous stint with the Pacers, this will be Carlisle's first time coaching most of the current Pacers roster (he did coach Doug McDermott, who will be a free agent this summer, for the final months of the 2017-18 season). Over his time in Dallas, Carlisle built deep-rooted relationships with players like Dirk Nowitzki, something he hopes to replicate in Indiana.

"I think it's the most important aspect of our job," Carlisle said. "As I've spoken to all of our players here, I'm doing a lot of listening. It's important to me to understand how these guys see the game. The relationships that you build are really the greatest source of fulfillment in coaching."

The player Carlisle has known the longest is Sabonis. Before he joined Bird's staff, Carlisle served as an assistant in Portland from 1994-97, where he coached Sabonis' father, Arvydas. Domantas was actually born during the 1996 playoffs and Carlisle went over to the Sabonis household on an off day shortly after the birth to congratulate Arvydas.

"Arvydas had always been a guy who was very, very reserved," Carlisle recalled. "He didn't say a whole lot. But he was so emotionally happy that day. He gave me a big bear hug. We had a few drinks. He even showed me a video of the birth, which may have been a little too much information at the time.

"But I've always felt a connection with Domas because of that experience. It's amazing how time flies."

Now 25 years later, Carlisle is set to coach Arvydas' son in Indiana. Could that story one day be retold at a championship parade? That's certainly the hope.

Late in Wednesday's press conference, Carlisle was asked if he felt like he had "unfinished business" returning to a Pacers organization where he had great success previously but never achieved the ultimate goal.

"Unless you've won a championship, I think there's always unfinished business," he replied. "We're a small-market team. We're a humble organization. But we've got to think big."