NBA Roundtable

Thunder Fire PJ Carlesimo

In Coaches Corner on November 22, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Sports Illustrated reporting the story

The Oklahoma City Thunder have fired coach P.J. Carlesimo, just 13 games into the franchise’s first season away from Seattle, according to a published report.

Yahoo! Sports cites undisclosed sources with the information, saying Thunder GM Sam Presti informed Carlesimo of his decision before the team boarded a flight to New Orleans. On Friady night, as part of a home-and-home with the Hornets, the Thunder (1-12) fell 105-80 in front of their home fans.

According to the report, assistant coach Scott Brooks has agreed to take over the club on an interim basis. In his last 95 games with the Thunder, formerly the Sonics, Carlesimo posted a 21-74 record and presided over the team’s current 10-game losing streak.

I’m very surprised by this decision, the timing of it more than anything. We’re not even one month into the season and the Thunder have already fired their Head Coach. The only way I’d condone that is if there were extenuating circumstances and, frankly, I do not see any.

What was Sam Presti expecting?

He gave PJ Carlesimo the single most incompetent collection of offensive players in the league.

Carlesimo has only one legitimate scorer, and he’s still learning the game, and a bunch of role players

Carlesimo lacks shooters. He lacks passers. He lacks post players. He lacks players who move well without the ball. He lacks scoring options.

This was always going to be one of the worst offenses in the league, and should be the worst overall. It lacks talent in a major way.

What was Sam Presti expecting?

He drafted Russell Westbrook with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft. Westbrook had only one above average NBA ready skill (by my estimation) outside of his defense and that’s driving ability in the open court. Westbrook looked a lock to be work in progress type of player, and everything we’ve seen from him so far reinforces that belief.

The season before he drafted Jeff Green with the fifth pick in the NBA draft. A tweener forward – lineup difficulties because of their big man situation – who is struggling to perform at even a mediocre level since joining the pro ranks. His lack of contributions have left Durant and the Thunder out on an island.

Let’s not forget the player he gave up for Green was none other than Ray Allen, a superb leader and great player who would have been wonderful for young Kevin Durant.

That’s two top 5 draft picks plus Kevin Durant.

Then you have Durant himself, who has been good but not dominant so far, not an All-Star caliber player.

What was Sam Presti expecting?

The Thunder have played hard night in night out for Carlesimo.

The Thunder continue to perform at greater than expected level on the defensive end – ranking 22st last season in defensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency so far this season.

What was Sam Presti expecting?

This team was always going to struggle this season, likely to a repeat of last season’s dismal season where they went 20-62 in the W-L column.

I truly do not understand the haste in firing PJ Carlesimo.

  • If you didn’t think he was good enough why not fire him in the summer?
  • What new damning information has come to light in the first month of the season?
  • Has it been that bad that you’d refuse to give some time to turn it around?

Scott Brooks

One of my favourite teams of All-Time was the 1994 Champion Houston Rockets, I mention this because Brooks was a backup point guard (intelligent, hard working shooter/passer type of a player) on that squad. It’s always nice to see guys from that team get jobs in the NBA in some capacity.

For those who remember, Brooks also was a stand in head coach for Eric Musselman in Sacramento. Was Musselman suspended at the time? I’m not sure. Anyway, he looked interesting in the brief glimpse we got of him in the main seat. The players played hard and performed well. I think the squad had a positive W-L record. He did well enough in that brief period to command some attention as Musselman’s possible replacement, but did not receive the job in the end (Reggie Theus did).

Brooks has 5-6 years of coaching experience as an assistant in the NBA. He has worked for the Denver Nuggets, then the Kings, and the Sonics/Thunder. He has a good reputation.

Brooks is an interesting choice as interim Head Coach. Someone to watch, he may become a fixture down there in Oklahoma City … and if he doesn’t we’ll likely learn some things about his capabilities as a future Head Coach elsewhere.


A few articles, quotes and reaction

Barry Tramel writes on his blog that the timing of the decision is terrible – except not in the way you’d imagine – He wanted them to do it on a weekday (so more fans saw the news), shouting at the top of their voices from the steps of City Hall. He wanted a leak to the press before the firing about the unhappiness management felt towards Carlesimo and the team’s start. Basically, he felt it was wasted opportunity to send a message to the Boomer’s fans.

Sam Presti on the decision to fire PJ Carlesimo

Presti said a lot of factors went into the decision, but he emphasized that the team wasn’t showing the kind of progress expected. What were the other factors? Presti wouldn’t elaborate.

“I don’t think it’s professional or appropriate for me to dwell or dig into all of them,” Presti said. “I’d rather stay focused in the direction we’re going.”

Mike Baldwin who was reporting the story felt the key factor was an underlying message

Sam Presti never came right out and said it. But throughout Presti’s teleconference Saturday it was clear that the Thunder’s effort — or lack thereof — was a main reason coach P.J. Carlesimo got fired.

“That’s something we’ve been looking at,” said Presti, the Thunder’s general manager. “When there is some question in that regard that’s certainly a concern. There’s accountability with everybody.”

“(Effort is) something we feel is not negotiable,” said Presti, who informed Carlesimo of the decision before the team boarded a charter flight to New Orleans. “We have to play hard and put ourselves in positions to compete and win basketball games.”

The players feel it’s their fault that Carlesimo got fired

Thunder players say they are take responsibility for P.J. Carlesimo’s firing.

None claimed Carlesimo had lost influence on the team, despite lackluster efforts that dug Thunder 30-point deficits in five of nine games before the firing.

“I think that was all on us, how we were losing and how we were playing,” said Kevin Durant. “We tell ourselves it’s not on the coaches, it’s on us because we’re out there playing. That’s the main thing. We got to play hard.

Said Damien Wilkins: “Anytime you start off a season 1-12, a change somewhere is needed. And that doesn’t always mean it’s with the coaching staff. Unfortunately, in this business it’s always the coaches first.”

More player reactions

“Everyone failed, not just P.J. So you wish the best for him. You wish you could have done a lot more to help him.” [Earl Watson]

“I didn’t know it would happen. It caught me off guard. I’ve never been through this before. P.J. was my first coach when I came into the NBA, so this is something that’s going to stick out to me. But I know this is the business of the NBA. I just got to get through it.” — Guard Kevin Durant.

“We put a lot of blame on (Carlesimo), and we didn’t do enough looking in the mirror. That’s unfortunate for him.” — Guard Damien Wilkins.

“I think P.J. had the respect of guys. I think most everyone liked P.J. and thought he was fair. Things just get tough when you’re having a year like this. Things have happened, but I equate that more to the frustrations of losing more than to people not having respect for P.J.” — Forward Nick Collison.

“It definitely hurt. It was somebody you’ve known for a couple of years and somebody you develop a bond with. At the end of the day the man has kids and a family and you don’t want to see him lose his job.” — Forward Chris Wilcox.

“I think it’s kind of sinking in for everybody still. But the tough thing about this league, and I’ve been a part of it by being traded, is having to make moves like this. I know P.J. and Sam (Presti) had a good relationship so it’s definitely a lot of respect there. It was really tough for Sam to make the move, but P.J knows how things work. So I’m sure he’ll move on and we’ll see him somewhere else pretty soon.” — Forward Desmond Mason.

Despite the players insistence that Carlesimo had not lost the team, and Darnell Marbury’s agreement with that, a separate writer (can’t find a name for the author of the article) for insists that Carlesimo was fired principally because he’d lost the respect of the team

The horrendous record didn’t get P.J. Carlesimo fired.

Ditto for the blowout losses and the atrocious stats.

There is but one reason why the Thunder decided to fire its coach in the wee hours of Saturday morning — Carlesimo lost his players.

“There’s obviously a number of factors when making a decision like this,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said.

Still, many of the team’s woes can be traced back to an increasingly obvious disconnect between coach and players.

He cites examples of the players not paying attention to Carlesimo and a shouting match between the coach and star player Kevin Durant

Still, the dreadful start was not a fireable offense on its own. There was evidence, though, that Carlesimo had lost the players. He lost their ear. He lost their respect.

Players were ignoring him in timeouts. Not every last man, mind you, but you could see some of the players paying more attention to what was on the Jumbotron than to what Carlesimo was saying.

Then, there were the heated exchanges during games.

Monday night, during a home loss to Houston, Carlesimo pulled Kevin Durant from the game. As the Thunder star walked toward the bench, the coach started yelling at him.

Was he yelling to be heard over the arena din?

Was he yelling because he was angry at Durant?

Whatever the case, Durant started yelling back at Carlesimo.

If that would’ve been an isolated case of the coach locking horns with a player in the heat of competition, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. But there have been other instances where players got into it with Carlesimo.

Then cites a lack of effort

Then, there was the effort.

The lack of effort, that is.

We were told before the season the Thunder would be a team that played with great energy and high intensity. Clay Bennett said it. Presti said it. Carlesimo said it. Players said it.

Scott Brooks

Some quotes on Brooks and his appointment

Brooks also believes his battles as a player prepared him for this job. He played for legendary coaches like Dick Motta and Rudy Tomjanovich, referring to his role as the point guard as an “extension of the coach.”

“His experience as a point guard I think will really benefit him and our players,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti. “He’s essentially thinking the game because he was responsible for running a team on the floor. He has great passion. He has great skills with the players in terms of communication.”

He was a reserve on Houston’s 1993-94 NBA title team led by Hakeem Olajuwon. But it’s what he learned from a 15-win season in Minnesota in 1991-92 that gives him confidence to lead the rebuilding Thunder.

“I’ve always believed in my abilities. As an average player, I believed that I was going to do the job,” said Brooks, who was runner-up to Reggie Theus for the Sacramento job in 2007. “I feel like that’s what I’m going to do as a coach.”

The players seem to be backing Brooks

Thunder guard Kevin Durant said Brooks explains the game more in practice, and players know he’s there for them no matter the request.

“I think all the young guys, me Jeff (Green), Kyle (Weaver) and Russell (Westbrook), we all love him as a coach,” Durant said.

Said Damien Wilkins: “Hopefully, with coach Brooks at the helm maybe it’ll energize us and help us to realize that we’re a better team that what we’ve shown and we can go out and play basketball the right way.”

That’s all Brooks asks.

“I have clear plans to do whatever it takes to make this team play with more energy and passion on the defensive end and for each other on the offensive end,” he said.

Another quote on one of the key differences between Carlesimo and Brooks from Kevin Durant

Carlesimo’s sideline shouting during the game was replaced by Brooks’ contemplative stare.

“Not taking anything away from P.J., he wanted the best out of us,” said Durant. “But Scott did a great job of giving us a little bit of room for error. Once we messed up he just told us what we needed to do better and told us that play was over. I think that kind of made us feel a little better. We just got to continue to build on it.”

One final quote by Durant on something Brooks said to the players

“(Interim coach) Scotty (Brooks) said a great thing (Friday) night, ‘The hardest thing is to play well in this league. The easiest thing is to play hard.’ So if we do that we’ll be alright. And we didn’t do that in games before.

Brooks has made his presence felt immediately by switching the starting lineup

In his first moves as interim coach, Brooks moved Durant to small forward, Jeff Green to power forward, Nick Collison to center and inserted Wilkins into the starting lineup at shooting guard.

Brooks suggested more moves could be coming.

“We will make changes as it goes along and according to how things work out,” Brooks said. “You can’t put a timetable on some of the changes that will probably be made.

“There is a change (Saturday), but it’s not because someone did not do their job. It’s the fact that we need to play with better energy, and I felt that this is a lineup that could give us a good start.”

Update: Two more articles from

  1. The long term outlook doesn’t change
  2. PJ lost the team


The club has also announced that assistant coach Paul Westhead has been fired too.

  1. I’m not too surprised by this move. As a fan, I can appreciate Carlesimo’s style. But I can certainly understand why a bunch of young players and displaced veteran ballers don’t want to buy into him.

    It’s one thing to have this approach in San Antonio, where all of the players realize this approach can lead to championships. It’s quite another in OKC, where these guys have one more win than me and Carlesimo’s hard-ass, tough-love approach cannot be positively reinforced by winning or any amount of success.

  2. Hey K-Man,

    A lot of people are saying that Carlesimo lost the team but I’m not sold, I don’t think he lost the locker room.

    (1) They’ve played with a great deal of effort+purpose despite constantly running into a brick wall (due to their lack of talent).
    (2) The team has also done a good job of sticking together rather than diverting into a bunch of individuals trying to do all the work themselves (NY last season).

    Teams that give up on their head coach don’t do these things.

    I think they’re just looking to make Carlesimo a scapegoat for their poor squad. I also wonder how much of a hand ownership played, and how worried they were about their new fans reaction to the basketball they were seeing.


    There’s rumours floating around that Carlesimo will return to his assistant coaching job in San Antonio. It’d be good to see him stay in the NBA so I hope that works out.

    I think this may have been his final opportunity as a Head Coach in the NBA.

  3. Why did PJ Carlesimo stop starting and playing Chris Wilcox and playing Nick Collison instead. And why did he stop playing Damien Wilkens?

  4. Hey Travis,

    PJ Carlesimo stopped playing Wilkins in order to give top draft pick Jeff Green a starting spot and more time on the court.

    I’m not sure why he stopped playing Chris Wilcox. I can’t remember any explanation from him on the topic. Oh, Wilcox was injured last season and the Sonics played Petro/Collison as the starting duo up front and had some success with it … maybe that convinced him? I don’t know.

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