Carlisle, Holzman, and Productive Pep Talks

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Howard Beck wrote a great piece about Monta Ellis. “The Evolution of Monta Ellis: Mercurial Former ‘Chucker’ Is Thriving In Dallas” examines the ways Ellis has improved this season — his first as a Dallas Maverick — and includes quotes from coach Rick Carlisle, owner Mark Cuban, and the player himself, explaining the process by which Ellis is transforming his image from ballhogging loser to efficient winner.

I found one part of the story especially interesting. Beck described a meeting that took place between Ellis and Carlisle last summer, after he signed with Dallas. In it, Carlisle pulled no punches in explaining to Monta how he was perceived, why he was perceived that way, and how things would be different with the Mavericks.

Beck writes:

Over eight NBA seasons, Ellis had assumed the aura of a prototypical gunner—his shot count high, his accuracy low, his judgment questionable, his conscience undetectable. Selfish. A bad teammate.

That was how fans had come to view Ellis, and that was the stinging image painted by Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle last summer, shortly after Ellis signed a three-year, $25 million free-agent contract.

“He gave me a rundown of what was said about me,” Ellis said in an interview with Bleacher Report last week. “Me being all about offense. Didn’t want to practice. Really wasn’t a vocal leader. Didn’t want to buy into systems.”

There was more.

“And then,” Ellis said, “he told me what he sees for me with this team.”

A partnership with Dirk Nowitzki. A devastating two-man game. Open lanes to attack the basket. A cast of savvy veterans: Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Jose Calderon. The chance to be a playmaker. The chance to win, to change perceptions, to change habits. To evolve.

This year, through 28 games, Monta is playing smarter and scoring more efficiently than he has in years. He is the second leading scorer on a winning team. It seems likely, if not obvious, that Carlisle and environment he has helped create in Dallas deserves some credit for the improvement in Monta Ellis.

* * *

About 41 years ago, a different shooting guard was struggling to incorporate his immense talents into the confines of a successful NBA team offense. Earl Monroe was traded from the Baltimore Bullets to the New York Knicks just a few games into the 1971-72 season. In Baltimore, “The Pearl” was a superstar; Rookie of the Year in 1968 and first team All-NBA in 1969. Monroe enjoyed playing in Gene Shue’s freewheeling offense in Baltimore where he teamed up with Gus Johnson to reach the Finals in 1971 (they lost to Lew Alcindor’s Milwaukee Bucks). But, after establishing himself as a legitimate superstar guard, Monroe was seeking a commensurate salary. When Baltimore wouldn’t show Monroe — or his agent, the famous Larry Fleischer — the money, they demanded a trade. What was unthinkable just a few weeks earlier was now a reality. Earl Monroe was a Knick.

In his book, “Earl the Pearl,” Monroe described the challenge that awaited him in New York, where the Knicks were 1970 champions and a well-oiled machine with way more emphasis on team principles and much less on one-on-one flash. He could “deviate from the script” in Baltimore. Monroe quoted his mentor Sonny Hill, whose input he sought when considering the proposed trade:

“Earl, all those individual things that you told me you wanted to accomplish in the NBA–all the goals you set for yourself–like scoring 20,000 points over your career, making so many All-NBA teams. All-Star teams–that’s not going to happen if you go to the Knicks. Because in Baltimore you are the man, you are the franchise player, everything revolves around you. With the Knicks it will be very different. They play a different style and their team will not revolve around you, or how you play. You will have to adapt yourself to their system and fit in with their more conservative traditional approach to the game. Five guys moving the ball, moving without the ball. Setting screens for each other. It’s pick-and-roll basketball, not the kind of game you’ve been playing with the Bullets, running and gunning. Fast-breaking all the time. Now can you do that and still be ‘Earl the Pearl’?”

Monroe took the advice to heart, but decided he was up to the challenge. He “believed in the ‘science of the game’.” He was willing to sacrifice and felt that Philly players could play any style. (Eds note: some of the most interesting parts of Monroe’s book are his opinions about geographic basketball trends. I suspect there was greater city-to-city differentiation before TV and especially the internet.)

The transition would be slow, and not always easy. In his first season in New York, Monroe came off the bench — he even requested this from Coach Red Holzman, as he did not want to disrupt team chemistry or agitate starting guard, Dick Barnett. The Knicks were very good that year, advancing to the Finals before losing to the 69-win L.A. Lakers. But Monroe was not producing in the same way he did in Baltimore. His per-game scoring was down a full 10 points (21.4 the previous season in Baltimore down to 11.4 in ’71-72 with the Knicks). He was battling bone spurs in his ankle, and never grew fully comfortable playing next to Walt Frazier in the backcourt.

It was in the middle of the following season — Monroe’s second in New York — that a conversation took place between he and Coach Holzman that he remembers to this day as having a positive effect on his psyche, and his ability to coexist with Frazier in a productive way:

“Hey, Earl,” [Holzman] said to me one day, “it’s all well what you’re doing, but you seem to have lost your ego.”

“What do you mean?” I said to him.

“Well, you know, in order to be good, you have to want to be great, and if you want greatness you got to have an ego. And you don’t seem to have the same ego you had before. So I think you have to go back to playing with more ego.”

He told me this at the beginning of January that year. And it was only then that I realized that Red actually liked me, you know what I mean? I had always felt, ever since he hadn’t played me a lot in that All-Star Game when I was a starter and he was the coach, that he didn’t like me. But for him to come up and talk to me this way kind of freed me up to be me, you know, to be “Earl the Pearl” again. That was much appreciated on my part and it made our relationship a little bit different, less personal, you know. So I kind of relaxed in my approach to my game after that and it showed immediately in my scoring production. After we had that talk my average jumped up to 19.2 points a game over a nine-game stretch.

Monroe and the Knicks went on to win the 1973 championship.

These stories about shooting guard conversations are interesting. Can we really believe them? I mean, I don’t doubt that Carlisle explained to Monta how he had to change, or that Holzman gave Monroe a pep talk. But is it even remotely possible that — in the internet/Twitter/blogosphere age — Monta didn’t already know what was said about him?

Maybe he just needed to hear it from somebody like Carlisle; a reputable coach with a recently-earned title ring.

How about the case of Monroe? How could he think — and be entirely wrong — that his coach didn’t like him? He’d been on the team for over an entire season! Did they ever talk before that day?

Phil Jackson has eleven championship rings and is considered by many to to be the greatest coach in NBA history. His nickname “The Zen Master” was obviously earned not by drawing up the most clever plays, but by the relationships he established with his players. One could assume that beneficial conversations like Carlisle’s with Monta Ellis and Holzman’s with Earl Monroe (Jackson was Monroe’s teammate in New York and considers Holzman a key mentor, by the way.) were commonplace on Jackson’s Bull and Laker teams. He knew when, and how, to push the right psychological buttons.

It’s always difficult to assess the impact of good or bad coaching in basketball. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what current players might benefit from a “tough love” sit down with their coach like Monta’s, or a pick-me-up like Pearl’s. But chances are good that these are happening everywhere and will continue to have an effect on the way the season plays out.

Here in Minnesota, coach Rick Adelman seems to keep some distance from his players. That’s not a criticism, but just an observation. Adelman is a “player’s coach” in terms of not barking out many orders or micromanaging on-court decisions. But he isn’t a chummy type looking to make any 25-year old friends. The assistant coaching staff — which unfortunately no longer includes the popular Bill Bayno — is charged with player morale duties. Some other successful coaches — Doc Rivers comes to mind — form personal bonds with their stars. Jason Kidd, new to coaching and struggling mightily, seems to be searching for the right disposition as a leader of men he very recently considered his peers. It’s different for every coach in every situation.

The Monta story reminded me of Monroe’s book and I’m always eager to explore the human side of basketball performance.

Now can somebody give Alexey Shved a pep talk?

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