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. Thabo in particular gave them a perimeter defender, which helped a lot. It also made the defensive matchups a lot better for Kevin and Jeff. The trades and acquisitions helped tremendously. The rest was just natural." Under Carlesimo, the Thunder had a wide-ranging roster in terms of age. Now the Thunder’s key elements are in their 20s, with roughly half still in their low 20s. "It wasn’t like our (2007-09) teams were divided. It wasn’t like they didn’t get along," Carlesimo said. "There were good people on the team, but the team wasn’t nearly as talented then as it is now. They’ve done even a better job of getting good people. When they add a piece, they’re very mindful of what type of person they’re bringing into the mix. "Kevin and Jeff were in a very difficult situation that first year because they were such high draft picks and they were going to be the face of the franchise going forward. There was all the normal rookie-veteran stuff on that team, but the way Kevin and Jeff handled themselves really made it work. That could have been a very difficult situation with a lot of resentment, but it wasn’t because of the type of guys they’ve got." Carlesimo said he is happy for players and coaches who were with the Thunder during his tenure, and particularly for veteran forward Nick Collison, who played for five coaches in a span of five seasons. Another key to the Thunder’s rapid ascent has been Russell Westbrook, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 draft, whom Carlesimo didn’t feel should play point guard. "Then again, I don’t know what (position) Dwyane Wade plays, either," Carlesimo said with a laugh. "I believe in him (Westbrook) as a talent. Russell reminded me of (Boston’s) Rajon Rondo from Day 1. The thing that stuck out with me was the anticipation and the steals. But the ability they have that no other point guards have is the rebounding. They distort a game with their rebounding. Russell totally disrupts you with his quickness, his steals, his anticipation and then his rebounding is off the charts. "To me, Russell is always going to be a wild card, in a good sense. A wild card because of all the positions he could play. There’s going to be games and series where it’s an enormous advantage. Russell might not have been a classic point guard, but he was too damn good not to draft. (General manager) Sam Presti felt he was too special to not draft, and he was right. ‘Don’t worry about what position he is. Let’s just get him and play him because he’s going to be really good.’ "A lot of people were saying ‘Yeah, but’ about Russell being a true point guard. A lot of wins from now, people are going to still be saying, ‘Yeah, but.’ " A native of Scranton, Pa., Carlesimo will turn 61 two weeks from today. He still lives in Seattle with wife Carolyn and their two sons, Kyle and Casey. Carlesimo was a college head coach for 20 seasons and an NBA head coach for eight. He hopes to return to coaching someday, preferably at the pro level. For the past two years, Carlesimo has worked as a college basketball television analyst and this season did 13 games on the San Antonio Spurs network while filling in for Sean Elliott. Carlesimo said it’s important for the Thunder to remember all the work it took to make last season possible. It’s also important to remember the greatness of the achievement. "By them doing it so confidently and making it look like they belonged, to me it almost detracted from it they did a little bit," Carlesimo said. "Believe me, there are a lot of other franchises out there scratching their heads and saying, ‘How in hell did they do that? We can’t even get in the playoffs.’ " John Rohde: 475-3099. John Rohde can be heard Monday-Friday from 6-7 p.m. on The Sports Animal Network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1.
More on Rohde's blogFor a transcript of P.J. Carlesimo’s interview with The Oklahoman, check out John Rohde’s blog at http://blog.newsok.com/johnrohde .