Rick Carlisle: Can You Go Home Again?

The Pacers recent hiring of Rick Carlisle as coach fascinates me.  By all accounts, he’s a pretty good coach and, divorced of any backstory, his hiring by the Pacers is totally rational.  He’s a seasoned professional on a team that has struggled to get the most out of relatively solid talent.  What interests me is the fact that Carlisle is a prodigal son returning to town.

By way of quick backstory, Carlisle had an interesting prior reign in Indiana.  In 2003, he was hired to replace Isiah Thomas, who had led the Pacers to a 48-34 record but struggled in the playoffs (also new GM Larry Bird was not really an Isiah fan for a variety of reasons).  Carlisle replaced Thomas and the team jumped from 48-34 to 61-21 and lost a tough playoff series in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual title winning Pistons (remember that crazy Tayshaun Prince block on Reggie Miller?).  It was a tough end to a great season but that Pacers looked like a title contender coming into the 2004-05 season.

Alas, things fell apart for Indy and Carlisle from there mostly because of the infamous Malice at the Palace destroyed their 2004-05 season and, subsequently, the Pacers struggled with injuries and ended up having to trade Ron Artest (who started the riot in Detroit) for a rapidly declining Peja Stojakovic.  The result was that the Pacers declined in wins from 61 to 44 to 41 to 35 wins in each of Carlisle’s four seasons in Indy.

On April 25, 2007, the Pacers and Carlisle mutually parted ways.  At the time, Carlisle told ESPN that the team needed a “new voice.”  The break up was amicable but it was trying as ESPN pointed out that: “the situation was made more difficult because of his close friendship with Bird. Carlisle said he spoke with Bird on Tuesday and they decided that whichever of them dies first, the other will read the eulogy.”  (Great, we will make a mental note on that for the future).

It all ended up working well for Carlisle as he famously had a great run coaching with Dallas that lasted from 2007 until only a few days ago.  Indy floundered for four more seasons but did have that nice mini-run in 2011-12 through 2013-14, when Paul George and Company nearly went to the Finals.  Now, 14 years later, Carlisle is back in town.  Carlisle’s odyssey back to his friends in Indiana got me wondering how other similarly situated coaches did in their returns to coach the same franchise.

We found 14 times that a coach was rehired by the same franchise.  Before we examine them, let’s eliminate a few of these instances on technicalities: 

-Paul Silas came in as an interim coach for the Hornets in 1999 and the Bobcats in 2011.  Since the teams were not quite the same franchises and both hirings were both initially interim in nature (and happened to turn to full-time gigs) they don’t really fit with our study.

-Same goes for Lionel Hollins, who had two interim gigs in Memphis, one of which became permanent.  Again, he did a great job but Hollins also doesn’t fit the Carlisle return.

-We will also eliminate the legendary Pat Riley.  Yes, he had two stints in Miami but he runs the franchise.  Clearly, his decision to re-install himself was not an organic rehire of an old coach.

-Cotton Fitzsimmons had three stints with the Suns but he was already ensconced in the organization and also wasn’t a true outside hiring, just a front office guy tagging in to help the organization as he did in 1988 and 1996.

-The Timberwolves brought Flip Saunders back to coach in 2014 after a ten-year break.  This would be a perfect case study because Saunders’ situation was so similar to Carlisle’s in Indy.  Unfortunately Flip passed away after one season rebuilding so we won’t count him on the list, as it’s not fair to evaluate his second stint given the circumstances.

That leaves nine situations where a franchise fired/lost a coach and decided later that the same guy was, again, the perfect coach to lead the team to the Promised Land.  How did they work out?  Let’s do quick chart of the rehires in their second stints, reverse ranked by won-loss record:

9. Dick Motta, 1994-96 Mavs: 62-102 (.378%)(no playoff appearances)

8. Mike Brown, 2013-14 Cavs: 33-49 (.402%)(no playoff appearances)    

7. Dan Issel, 1999-02 Nuggets: 84-106 (.442%)(no playoff appearances)

6. Don Nelson, 2006-10 Warriors: 145-183 (.442%)(1 playoff appearance)

5. Brian Hill, 2005-07 Magic: 76-88 (.463%)(1 playoff appearance)

4. Red Holzman, 1978-82 Knicks: 147-167 (.468%)(1 playoff appearance)

3. Gene Shue, 1980-86 Bullets: 231-248 (.482%)(3 playoff appearances)

2. Lenny Wilkens, 1977-85 Sonics: 357-277 (.563%)(6 playoff appearances, 1 title)

1. Phil Jackson, 2005-11 Lakers: 323-169 (.657%)(6 playoff appearances, 2 titles)

Broadly speaking, only two of the nine rehires worked out really well and those were not typical circumstances.  Wilkens helped turn the Sonics around in his second tenure in Seattle but his first tenure as player-coach in the early 1970s wasn’t actually successful (they were a .500ish expansion team).  When he was brought back, Wilkens wasn’t really revisiting glory years he was more like any other coach trying to fix a bad situation.

The biggest success was Phil Jackson who memorably quit/was fired by the Lakers after 2003-04 and wrote a book about how immature Kobe Bryant was.  The Lakers still hired him back after a year off and he helped bring two titles back to town.  They never should’ve let Jackson go to begin with and they apparently knew it.  This brief excursion by Jackson is clearly distinguishable from Carlisle’s long layoff.

Carlisle’s coaching story is most similar to Nelson, who returned to his roots after also leaving the Mavs.  Nellie had some success in his return to Golden State.  The Warriors upset the Mavs in the 2006-07 playoffs and jumped to 48 wins the next season before Nelson created an internal power struggle with GM Chris Mullin and then lost interest and quit again.

All of this is a long way of saying most rehires are not rousing successes, though nearly all the rehires had hopeful moments.  The only two coaches who had little success on return were Brown and Issel.  Brown only got one season before he was canned.  Issel’s second tenure was not great. 

But all the others can point to some good times.  Motta led the previously awful Mavs back from terrible to near the playoffs in 1994-95 before cratering in 1995-96.  Hill developed a young Dwight Howard and led the Magic back to the playoffs before a soft firing that left him in the organization.  Holzman got the Knicks back to 50 wins in 1980-81 before declining quickly.  Shue’s teams were around .500, neither good nor bad but they made the playoffs, which is usually considered acceptable by Bullets owners for some reason.

Carlisle is coming back to a team with some solid talent (Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Jonathan Brogdon).  There’s little reason Carlisle can’t get them back to respectability quickly.  The Pacers have been mediocre in all facets of the game and Carlisle has been good at putting awkward pieces together (notably, what to do with Sabonis and Turner, who probably shouldn’t pay together much).   If past history is an indicator, Carlisle is in for a decent (but not great) return to Indy.