SEATTLE (AP) – Kevin Durant is the cornerstone of the Seattle SuperSonics’ future. P.J. Carlesimo gets the first opportunity to teach Durant the ways of the NBA.
The Sonics concluded their two-month search on Thursday when they hired Carlesimo as their coach, eight years after he was fired from his last head coaching job. After spending the last five years as an assistant with San Antonio, Carlesimo will take charge of a young team still in the throws of a roster overhaul.
It is Carlesimo’s first head coaching job since the 1999 season, when he was fired by Golden State. Carlesimo replaces Bob Hill, who was fired on April 24 after Seattle went 31-51 in his only full season as coach.
“I wanted to be a head coach again, particularly the last couple of years I did start to feel it was going to happen,” Carlesimo said. “But I didn’t feel like it was owed me or I would be incomplete if it didn’t happen again.”
The remodeling of Seattle’s roster is being orchestrated by 30-year-old general manager Sam Presti. In the past week, the Sonics traded seven-time All-Star Ray Allen to Boston on draft night, and free agent Rashard Lewis agreed to sign with the Orlando Magic, erasing Seattle’s top two scorers from its lineup.
Carlesimo’s directive will be overseeing the growth and development of Durant and Jeff Green, two of the first five picks from last week’s draft, while also developing a current roster that has no player older than 30. Seattle selected Durant with the No. 2 pick, then got the rights to Green, the No. 5 selection, in the trade of Allen.
Carlesimo is also charged with instilling defensive principles on a team that has barely played any since Nate McMillan left for Portland after the 2004-05 season.
Presti settled on Carlesimo as his top choice for the position, determining that Seattle needed a teacher who fell in line with the rest of the organization’s principles.
“One of the reasons P.J. is the guy is his ability to teach. And I think we have a number of players on this team who want to get better, and want to be coached and have come from programs where they have been coached,” Presti said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about improving your ball club.”
To learn if Carlesimo would be the correct fit for the organization, Presti spent time with Durant’s college coach, Texas’ Rick Barnes. Lengthy discussions with Barnes convinced Presti that a Durant-Carlesimo mix would be a benefit.
It certainly didn’t hurt Carlesimo’s chances that he and Barnes are close friends, and that both Carlesimo and Presti worked for the San Antonio Spurs before both came to Seattle.
“What we’re trying to do here is create a team in Seattle that will pull from some of the core values of San Antonio, but also some of the values that are seen in a Utah or a Chicago or other teams that have an identity and have a culture,” Presti said. “I believe P.J., coming from a winning culture … is important to what it is we want to do here.”
Seattle becomes the third stop in Carlesimo’s NBA coaching tenure, the previous two marked by tensions between players and the coach, and of course, one infamous run-in with Latrell Sprewell almost 10 years ago.
Carlesimo took the Trail Blazers to the playoffs three times in the 1990s, but never advanced out of the first round. It was at Golden State where Carlesimo garnered headlines for his intense, in-your-face approach that almost immediately became an issue when tensions developed with Sprewell, his star player.
The emotions boiled over at a practice Dec. 1, 1997, when Sprewell responded to Carlesimo’s terse command of “put a little mustard” on a pass by choking his coach. It took several players and team officials to break up the attack, which an angry Sprewell renewed 15 minutes later.
“The NBA is about the players; there is absolutely no question about that,” Carlesimo said. “Hopefully, I have learned from my relations.”
Carlesimo lasted two more years with the Warriors before getting fired after a 6-21 start to the 1999 season. He was comfortable spending his time as Gregg Popovich’s assistant in San Antonio, a stretch of time that calmed his reputation.
“He has deep experience in the college and pro game and will immediately instill a highly disciplined, defensive mentality with players that play intelligently and play together,” Sonics’ majority owner Clay Bennett said.
Presti and Bennett narrowed the field to Carlesimo and former Minnesota coach and Seattle assistant Dwane Casey. On Tuesday, Casey was informed the Sonics were “going in a different direction.”
Bennett, the Oklahoma City-based owner of the Sonics, repeatedly has said he wants to model his franchise after San Antonio’s. He has plucked two key pieces from the Spurs: Presti, who was San Antonio’s assistant GM, and now Carlesimo.
“I feel really, really good with the kind of basketball mind we’re bringing into the program with P.J.,” Presti said.