The sentiment that George Karl is a defensive-minded coach is nothing more than a pure fallacy. During his seven-year tenure in Denver not once have the Nuggets ranked better than 18th in the league in defense. Right now, Denver ranks near the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive statistical category imaginable. From points per game, to field goals made, to field goal percentage, to 3-pointers made, to three-point shooting percentage — in each of these areas Denver is no better than 25th in the league.
Against the Thunder, these defensive woes hit an all time low. For the first time in NBA history a team had two players score over 40 with another achieving a triple-double. That triple-double, obtained by Serge Ibaka, was the first in Thunder franchise history, meanwhile, Durant and Westbrook’s scoring totals were the most they’ve had in one game all season. To make matters worse, Durant — a scoring machine — just so happened to get the most points of his young, prolific career against the Nuggets on Sunday, netting 51 in the overtime victory. Combined, Durant and Westbrook scored 91 points which is more than the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, L.A. Lakers and Dallas Mavericks give up to an ENTIRE team on a typical night. It was also the most points any two teammates have combined to score since 1983 when Kiki Vandeweghe and Alex English scored 98 points in the highest scoring NBA game ever — which the Nuggets also lost.
So if defense wins championships, where does that leave the Nuggets? Even if they do obtain a “superstar,” which everyone believes is the magical remedy for the team’s issues, how are the Nuggets ever going to win the title if the coach makes defense an option rather than a top priority?
While winning, Karl’s idiosyncrasies and inefficiencies, are swept under the rug where they remain every year until the Playoffs arrive. The rug is then upended by more disciplined teams (often in a near “sweep”-like fashion) where these issues are left exposed. The team is humiliated and a long off-season ensues in which fans eventually forget about the team’s tragic shortcomings and instead overwrite these archived pangs with an optimism for the upcoming season, as all loyal fans do. But during this recent stretch where the Nuggets have lost 10 of its last 13 games, all the distant, forgotten issues that don’t make their appearance known until early summer are already coming out of hibernation in the middle of winter.
Usually, this reoccurring process in an annual event. In 2012 however, the Nuggets version of “El Nino” has already hit thanks to a barrage of injuries that are exposing Karl for the coach he is. The arguments based solely on health, scheduling and overall “tough stretches” are nothing more but the fan’s mediocre expectations acting as a protective barrier for a custom they’ve come to accept over time. That custom, is losing when it matter most, which has been firmly singed into fan’s brains by enduring a near-decade of the same coaching techniques and methods that Karl employs.
Right now, George Karl is not being the savage general this depleted Nuggets team needs him to be. Instead of coalescing, the team is disbanding, often times thanks to uninspired defense which has no bonding agent to hold it together. When a pick-and-roll comes, that’s a tug at the fabric that is the Nuggets tattered, pieced-together defense. Throw a superstar like Kevin Durant at it, and the entire thing unravels. But perhaps the most surprising part of the invisible cloak of defense, is how easily and quickly it can be reduced to scrap pieces.
Against the Thunder, the Nuggets were up by five points with 31 seconds left in the game. After Daequan Cook missed a shot, Westbrook — standing 6-foot-4 — collected the offensive rebound over Denver’s bigs and threw the ball out to Durant, who then proceeded to smoothly knock down an uncontested 3-pointer with nobody in sight of guarding him. That pulled the game within two. After this, Denver panicked and did nothing on the offensive side of the ball but hoist up a terrible, contested jump shot. Oklahoma City then called a timeout, organized a play and executed it perfectly while George Karl left it up to his worst defenders to handle the duty of stopping Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — perhaps the most dynamic offensive duo in the NBA – who were already having career nights.
To nobody’s surprise, the Thunder effortlessly passed the ball into Durant with ease. The 6-9 forward then glided to the basket as a lane — carved out by the Nuggets (Who knew they dug out driving lanes for opponents and not gold!?!) — openly presented itself only to see Durant finish at the rim with a powerful dunk. Meanwhile, the entire Nuggets team stood around watching this spectacular event unfold without any inclination as to what it would take to prevent it from happening. In the end, every one of Denver’s “defenders” got burned… for a lay-up. There was no organization, no communication, no understanding of what was happening, and it was metaphorical in so many ways.
More than anything, this was a microcosm of Denver’s season, its life-cycle with Karl, and thus, it’s fan’s enduring pain. These types of heartbreaking losses are a staple of the “George Karl experience.” Sadly, almost every one can be prevented with more attention to detail, a stronger commitment to defense and above all, vitality. Adversity is the Nuggets’ Kryptonite. When fully healthy, Karl has no problems winning games as long as the roster is stacked, which it has been his entire career, especially in Denver; however, remove just one cog from the machine and the entire structure collapses.
In this sense, what we’ve come to realize, perhaps, is that even the very act of winning is nothing more than a facade with Karl, because no matter what, he’ll never do it unless the circumstances are ideal. Banking off that equation, winning a championship then becomes virtually impossible. He’ll always eventually meet a better coach, encounter more injuries than his opponent or find his team befallen to some sort of inexplicable phenomena that gives him just the right amount of leverage to contrive a semi-logical case for why things didn’t fall his way that time. Most people refer to these as “excuses,” but for Karl, they’re nothing more than a product of his own expectations, which he openly voices to the media.
And so it is in life, that often times we go about as content human beings, one day to the next, without being tempted to reevaluate our disposition. One day however, there will come a point in time where true happiness knocks at the door, and more often than not answering that door requires some amount of risk. It’s understandable, passing up the opportunity to answer that door in the beginning due to nerves, but eventually you’ll come to a crossroads where you must sacrifice your sense of security in order to answer the call and take your degree of satisfaction to the next level. Nuggets fans always sate so staunchly how they “remember what it was like before George Karl arrived” yet never do you hear the stories of the blissful life with “the next Grep Popovich, Phil Jackson or Red Aurbach.”
The question then becomes, “How well can you live with yourself after passing up the opportunity to answer that door one time too many?” The knocking comes every year in May — that’s a given — but the cold chill of February has already brought it out in 2012. This time feels different though. Answering the door this time, feels right.