What does P.J. Carlesimo need to do to keep his job? Would it be enough for the Nets to reach the second round of the playoffs and play a tough series against a vastly superior team? Or do the Nets need to win that round, too? Exactly how high has the bar been set in Brooklyn this spring?
Carlesimo does not have the answer.
"I have no idea what I have to do, no inkling whatsoever,'' the interim coach said last week after his Nets clinched the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. "It's not for me to say. From the beginning here, it's been 'Just do your job, and we'll talk when the season is over.' I do my job, and I don't think about it.''
Carlesimo insists he's not going to worry about what he can't control. That's been his approach since he replaced Avery Johnson on Dec. 27, and he is sticking with it. Yet even if Carlesimo can't quantify exactly what he needs to do to keep his job, he knows there is no margin for error.
The 63-year-old Carlesimo has a lot riding on this postseason. He's been to the playoffs three times as a head coach but never made it out of the first round.
Few observers gave Carlesimo much of a shot of hanging around past the end of this season after he was elevated from assistant coach to interim. Most saw him as a placeholder, someone with head-coaching experience who could keep the team together until Mikhail Prokhorov, the league's richest owner, brought in a marquee coach.
Prokhorov has spent $330 million to improve the Nets' roster, and he made it quite clear in firing Johnson (at the time the Nets were 14-14 after an 11-4 start) that mediocrity was not the kind of return he was looking for on his investment.
Some thought Prokhorov would bring in a big-name coach before this season was finished. But then Phil Jackson publicly reconfirmed his retirement. And Jeff Van Gundy refused to interview while another coach still had the job. And then the Nets started playing like a pretty good team, winning 12 of their first 14 games under Carlesimo. The Nets finished 35-19 under him for a final record of 49-33.
By running the same system (with some tweaks) that Johnson used, Carlesimo guided the Nets to their first playoff berth since 2007 and home-court advantage in the first round, something that means a lot to a team playing its inaugural season in Brooklyn.
His most impressive work, however, has taken place away from Barclays Center.
The Nets set a franchise record with 23 road victories, topping the mark of 20 set in 2005-06. That included a 5-3 stretch near the end of the season while Barclays Center was booked for the circus.
Though Carlesimo repeatedly has declined to critique the job he has done, it's clear he believes his team has a lot to be proud of.
Center Brook Lopez is having the best year of his career.
Point guard Deron Williams, who was so lethargic at the beginning of the season, is playing like the superstar everyone thought he would be.
And Joe Johnson, despite struggling with injuries, has proved himself to be a clutch player. In games in which the Nets are tied or trailing by three or fewer points with less than a minute remaining, Johnson is shooting 9-for-10 with three game-winning shots.
"I like where we're at, the way the guys are playing right now,'' Carlesimo said. "The one thing I worry about is our health, but we're just going to deal with it and whatever else we have to deal with in the playoffs.''
One thing Carlesimo will have to deal with is getting the first-round monkey off his back. Carlesimo went to the playoffs in each of his three years in Portland but never managed to get out of the first round. His teams in Golden State, Seattle and Oklahoma City never won more than 21 games.
Carlesimo said that at the start of this season, he wasn't sure he would get another chance to be a head coach.
"You never know if you are going to get another chance, just like right now I don't know if I'm going to get another,'' he said. "The way I see it, I'm definitely going to make the best of it.''