How Rick Carlisle built the best offense in history by letting go of control and trusting Tyrese Haliburton

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the Pacers will have already inbounded the ball, moved it up 47 feet, and looked to set up a shot. 

“We try to get the ball up [past halfcourt] in two seconds or less,” Myles Turner explains. 

That breakneck speed has led to the highest offensive rating in NBA history. Opposing coaches know that the Pacers are coming but have been powerless to stop them. 

“You have to not just get back, you have to sprint back,” Quin Snyder warned before his Hawks team took on the Pacers for the first time in the season. “Maybe one of the biggest things is understanding that even if you score, the ball is going to be coming up the court quickly. You have to be alert.” 

Five hours after making that statement, Snyder turned his red-rimmed glasses up at the scoreboard. The Hawks had scored 152 points, marking their highest output in a regulation game since 1970.

The Pacers had scored 157. 

Playing with such speed may seem like a simple strategy to apply.  But the reality is that it took veteran head coach Rick Carlisle over two decades to finally embrace.


The Pacers have drawn plenty of comparisons to the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, who revolutionized basketball back in 2005 with their emphasis on trying to shoot within the first seven seconds of the clock. For Carlisle, who coached against those teams first hand, adopting that style did not come naturally. 

During Mike D’Antoni’s first full season back in 2004-05, his Suns team averaged a league-shattering 11.2 seconds per possession per Inpredictable. They led the league in offense, increasing their win total from the previous season by 33 in large part due to the revolutionary strategy. 

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum that same season were Carlisle’s Pacers. At 14.3 seconds per possession, they were by far the slowest team in the association. They ranked 20th in offense, won 44 games, and were eliminated in the second round. 

Carlisle’s offensive attacks have improved as the years have gone by. His tenure in Dallas was marked by five top-five offenses in 14 years, including the league’s best in the 2019-20 season. What hadn’t changed much though was his slow pace. The Mavs ranked bottom-third in average seconds per possession for all six of his last years, including dead-last in 2016-17. His teams in Detroit and during his first tenure in Indiana were also near the bottom of the league. 

That slow pace hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing. Carlisle has long been considered one of the best play-callers in the world by people within the league. He appears regularly in the NBA’s annual GM survey in response to which head coach makes the best in-game adjustments. When his teams slowly bring the ball up the court, he can call the set he believes will work most effectively. It gives more opportunities to lean into one of his strengths.

“His [after timeout plays] are unmatched,” said his former Mavs point guard Rajon Rondo on a summer appearance on The Old Man and the Three podcast.

That compliment from Rondo was noteworthy because of the checkered past between the two. Rondo was traded to Dallas midway through the 2014-15 season, lasting only four months before leaving on bitter terms. 

Carlisle and Rondo never saw eye-to-eye on which of the two should be calling plays. Those conflicts came to a head during a regular season game against the Raptors in which Carlisle abruptly called a timeout after Rondo ignored his sideline instructions. Rondo could be seen shouting profanities at Carlisle during the timeout, leading to a one-game suspension. 

The issue between the two was one of trust. “It’s tough to give a guy the keys to the car when he first gets there,” Rondo told ESPN’s TIm McMahon during that heated season. 

Old habits can be hard to break. As Pacers expert and Basketball, She Wrote’s Caitlin Cooper recalls, there were signs of them when Carlisle first returned to the Pacers

“[Carlisle] was using almost the entire shot clock to call out their one Angle pick-and-roll play. He was calling out where everyone needed to go,” Cooper recalls. “It was going to be the perfect play. But now you have nine seconds to run it.”

Cooper went on to point out other examples of pace control. All five players would look to Carlisle on the sideline for the playcall, walking the ball up the court and using half of the clock before beginning their actions. Or he would be heard on the broadcast telling his team to “hold it” off a live rebound, eschewing an opportunity at early offense to instead run a set play. 

If you ask Carlisle, he will tell you that he doesn’t want to play that way. He is aware of the critique and bristles at the suggestion that he has slowed down his teams with his penchant for calling plays from the sideline. 

“I really haven’t called plays for 14 years,” Carlise says. “It was January of 2009. I met with Jason Kidd. I gave him a DVD of our plays, which he really didn’t need anyway. He started calling them and our team played way better. Two and a half years later, we won a title.”

Carlisle eventually placed that trust into Kidd, but his relationships with his guards throughout his coaching career have been complicated. After the team traded for Haliburton midway through Carlisle’s first season, the question loomed — would Carlisle cede control to the young, budding superstar Haliburton, or would tensions build between the two, as they had with Rondo and later Luka Doncic? 

It was something that Haliburton was forewarned of in his first game as a Pacer, playing against Rondo’s Cavs.

“Carlisle has a reputation. He used to call a ton of plays,” Haliburton recounted on the Knuckleheads podcast. “He doesn’t call as many plays these days. But Rondo was like, ‘Man. Good luck!’ Because we are kinda similar, we are both point guards who love to pass and bring the ball up the floor.” 


For Carlisle to change his basketball future, he had to look deep into his past. 

Carlisle says that he learned how to play basketball “in its purest form. A lot of pick up games with old school rec players, guys my dad’s age. You learned a lot about the game playing it that way.” 

After a good career at the University of Virginia in which he averaged 11 points per game as a senior, Carlisle had hopes of playing overseas, maybe somewhere like France or Belgium. The problem? Nobody wanted to sign him. 

But as luck would have it, the defending champion Celtics took Carlisle in the third round of the 1984 draft. Two of their players were holding out, allowing Carlisle valuable preseason minutes. He made the team, sticking around long enough to be part of the 1986 Celtics that are widely considered one of the greatest teams of all time. 

Playing alongside Hall-of-Famers like Larry Bird and Bill Walton, the role player saw how powerful an offense could be when the players dictated the game. 

“It was a very similar style, not a lot of plays. A lot of making plays and not a lot of calling plays. A lot of flow basketball with the ball, going through the right players. I learned from that.”

Carlisle has brought the pickup ball of his youth and the freedom of those 80’s Celtics to the Pacers this season, relinquishing his tendencies to slow down his teams. Haliburton was the catalyst for that change. 

“All along the way, you learn lessons,” Carlisle has said of his coaching evolution. “You succeed at some things, you fail miserably at others. But each year, you look at the personnel you have and try to figure out the best way to play.” 

For the Pacers, that best way is by letting Haliburton run and taking advantage of the chemistry between the team. 

The phrase most commonly thrown around by the Pacers to describe their offense is free-flowing. “There’s times you’re going to get set and work in a system, but for the most part we try to play as free as possible,” explains Turner. 

That style lends itself to many advantages, particularly in the playoffs. Even the Pacers don’t know what exactly they’re going to do, which makes them extremely difficult to prepare for. 

“It’s a lot harder to defend because it’s hard to scout,” explains Andrew Nembhard. “It’s more random. Less play calls. Less things you can adjust to.”

Snyder echoed that sentiment before facing them. “Any time there’s variety, variability, unpredictability, it’s a different type of scout,” he said. “You’re not walking through specific plays.”

Teams can try to do things to slow the Pacers down. But there is simply no preparing for a team that does things which nobody has ever seen on a basketball court before. 

Take, for example, when Snyder had his team trap Haliburton 70 feet from the basket. He responded by slinging a leaping, one-armed rocket to the corner that would have made Patrick Mahomes blush. 

“The way they move the ball is unique,” Snyder said. “They embrace that.” 

The foundation for the Pacers’ system isn’t actually pure speed — it’s the trust that Carlisle and Haliburton have built up. Nowhere was that more evident than during the closing moments of a win against the Bulls last season. 

With the score tied at 122, Carlisle yelled out instructions to his point guard to set up a last-second shot. But Haliburton saw something in the defense. He changed the call, overruling Carlislie and draining a pull-up 3 for the win. 

“[Carlisle] wanted a different set,” Haliburton told Pacers sideline reporter Jeremiah Johnson after the game, as transcribed by Cooper. “But like I’ve said all year, he’s put so much trust in me. I just told him, ‘Run something else, I’ve got it.’ He trusted my play-call, and it worked for the best.” 

The audible from Haliburton was a stark contrast to the response Rondo had received nine years earlier. Haliburton says that changing plays based on his reads now “happens constantly throughout the game.”

“He allows me to really do what I wish. Change sets, call sets, all of those things,” Haliburton says. “It would be hard for me to imagine him having more trust in me.”

Carlisle has given Haliburton the keys to the car. Now watch him rev the engine and slam it into fifth gear.

Source : ESPN.com

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