Because of a clause in his contract, former Thunder coach P.J. Carlesimo is not allowed to make disparaging remarks about his previous employer. If Carlesimo spoke of the Thunder, he would have to play nice. No dog-cussing the franchise.
Carlesimo easily could have protected himself and refused the interview. Instead, he spoke for 43 minutes in his familiar rapid-fire, point-blank manner. Never one to hide his opinion, Carlesimo admits that allowing his mouth to runneth over frequently has brought trouble. If bitterness remains after getting fired on Nov. 21, 2008, Carlesimo hid it well. No venom spewed from his lips when discussing the Thunder. "Trust me, I wouldn’t be saying these things if I didn’t want to," Carlesimo said. Carlesimo initially was approached for this piece on April 26, the day before Game 5 in the Thunder-Lakers playoff series, which was tied 2-2 at that time. He was willing to talk, but preferred to wait until after the Thunder’s season ended so he wouldn’t possibly distract from the team’s mission. Carlesimo said the Thunder’s 50-32 regular-season was no fluke, nor was Kevin Durant becoming a first-team All-NBA pick and the youngest scoring champion in league history, nor was giving the world champion Los Angeles Lakers all they could handle before losing the series 4-2. "The Thunder really is that good," Carlesimo said. "They were so good people stopped saying, ‘How in hell did they do this?’ Because they did it over the course of the year and made it look like they deserved to be there, it almost took a little something away from it. "You have to step back and say to yourself, ‘Do you understand what their record was the past couple of years? Do you understand they just made the playoffs, they almost beat the Lakers, they have a first-team All-NBA player, the coach of the year?’ I mean, come on. It almost like now it’s just accepted how good they are." The Thunder was 1-12 when Carlesimo was fired immediately after a 105-80 loss to the New Orleans Hornets last season inside the Ford Center. Assistant Scott Brooks was named the Thunder’s interim head coach that same night and promptly started out 2-17. But since its 2008 New Year’s Eve game at home against Golden State, the Thunder is 70-62 (.530) in the regular season under Brooks after going 21-74 (.221) in one-plus seasons under Carlesimo. The man who replaced Carlesimo was a runaway winner this season as NBA coach of the year. Carlesimo said a case could be made for a minimum of five other people as coach of the year — Cleveland’s Mike Brown, Milwaukee’s Scott Skiles, Portland’s Nate McMillan, Phoenix’ Alvin Gentry and Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy. "I thought it was an unbelievably tough year to pick just one," Carlesimo said, "and yet at the same time it was clearly a no-brainer. Scottie was the guy. I don’t think you could do a much better job that Scott did this year. It’s not an accident those guys got better, and are continuing to improve." Had Carlesimo been retained as coach, could the Thunder possibly have gone 50-32 last season? "Coaches are arrogant enough to think, ‘Hey, I would have done better,’ " Carlesimo said. "But in reality, I might have done a lot worse. Who knows? Any legit coach is going to tell you it’s not about him, it’s about the players." Carlesimo said he immediately saw bright futures for Kevin Durant and Jeff Green, who were picked No. 2 and No. 5 in the 2007 NBA Draft. "You didn’t have to watch Kevin for more than five seconds to say, ‘This kid is going to end up being one of the best players in the league,’ " Carlesimo said. Carlesimo also liked other pieces to the Thunder’s evolving puzzle. "They didn’t do it by shortcuts," Carlesimo said. "They didn’t do it by a miracle free-agent acquisition. They did it building with young guys, building with character people and I think excellent coaching and player development." Carlesimo said the trade with Chicago on Feb. 19, 2009, that brought in Thabo Sefolosha and adding 20-year-old forward Serge Ibaka to this year’s roster are "what really jump-started the whole thing.