Playing patsy with the Pacers

The 2001-2002 Coach of the Year is stepping down. Rick Carlisle – the one man that made sense out of three disastrous Pacers seasons – is no longer coaching.

The report says he’s stepping down. I have a hard time believing it was that easy. We all know he was being pushed out. Welcome to the NBA Coaching Carousel.

I don’t care what reports say. Rick Carlisle isn’t stepping down on his own accord. I don’t know anyone as young as Carlisle and with as much bad luck as Carlisle has had that doesn’t think they can keep going. I don’t know any coaches who, this early in a coaching career, hang it up, who can afford to miss the paychecks and are willing walk away from coaching under a good friend, where the coach/GM relationship is as tight as could be.

Or maybe we’ve been lied to all these years. Maybe Bird has soured on Carlisle. Maybe Donnie Walsh let Carlisle come on as a favor to Bird. Maybe Carlisle has felt enough pressure to succeed with some of the least talented rosters in all of sports, rosters that have been driven by potential, not results; the future, not current success.

Here’s what I know. I know that Rick Carlisle took a talented Indiana Pacers team to the brink of the Finals during his first year of service, where he came up against the team he had just left – a juggernaught Detroit Pistons team that no one believed in but everyone feared. I know that the next year his plans were torn apart because of the hot-tempered screwball that many know as Ron Artest, thanks to a brawl that threw the lineup out of whack, causing Carlisle to use about 16,000 starting lineups throughout the year.

And the year after that, Carlisle found himself staring down the barrel at another Artest blow-up, this time a self-induced team suspension as a result of a trade request. He was traded, eventually, and a gimped-up Peja Stojakovic was brought in on a rental basis. All of us Pacers fans rejoiced for a month or so, happy to have the Artest Train Wreck out of town, then watched Peja take his services elsewhere – to New Orleans, of all places.

And then this year. We trade to get Al Harrington – a player we let go on free agency just a year before, giving up our draft pick in the process. And then we trade him again, along with gun-brandishing Stephen Jackson, to Golden State. In the meantime, we get two horrible contracts and two of the whitest players in the league. We lose 11 straight. If we could go three games without someone being a complete and utter distraction, we might have hit .500.

Has more bad luck ever happened to a good coach? What’s next? Jermaine O’Neal breaks his leg two games into the season? Mike Dunleavy snaps and starts waving a gun at mid-court? Jamaal Tinsley misses half of the Pacers’ games? (Whoops – that last one hits a little too close to home for him.)

Really, does anyone out there actually think that any of this was Carlisle’s fault – that after four years of trying to coach the crap that Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird had thrown together like some kind of has-been player casserole, Carlisle was somehow to blame?

Through a year of adversity, Carlisle coached a playoff team that somehow made it to the Conference semi-finals. Carlisle made Eastern Conference contenders of a team without its second best player and no viable scoring options. Through injuries, Carlisle kept the Pacers competitive.

And though boneheaded moves, horrible judgment and moronic choices, Walsh and Bird threw it all away, every time. Now, we have one bright spot: Danny Granger. That’s it. Everyone else has worn out their welcome or proven worthless to the team, unable to pull teammates together in some semblance of a professional outfit.

Jermaine O’Neal needs to go. Jeff Foster needs to go. Jamal Tinsley needs to go. Everyone on the team not named Danny needs to go. After four years of steady decline – prompted by the brutes and scrubs that upper management has put together – Larry Bird needs to go. Donny Walsh needs to sell the team to someone competent – someone willing to spend and choose great players and attempt to create a great team again.

Out of everyone, there’s one person who really DIDN’T need to go.

Rick Carlisle. He’s the only thing that kept the team together. And now he’s being shoved into the role of patsy.

It’s too bad. I had high hopes for the next season – a cleared out roster and a new direction, a focus on the young players Indiana could get and a sharp drive from the old days of boring, brutal basketball.

Now I can’t. I’ve been let down again. I’ve lost nearly all respect I had for my favorite team. I’m ready to jump off of the ship, to swim to better luxury liners – the ones that cater to the fans while fielding a competitive team. Because I’m starting to have a hard time recognizing this team – my favorite team in all of sports.

None of that was Rick Carlisle’s fault. But he’s stepping down anyway. I’d be surprised if it was of his own accord. All I know is that some team is going to pick up a great coach. And the Pacers are going to regret letting him go.

This was lovingly handwritten on April 25th, 2007