The greatest regular season in Denver Nuggets history deserved a better ending.
No one expected a return to the postseason irrelevance of Karl’s previous Nuggets teams, who frequently battled near impossible odds against heavily favored contenders on the road. This team was different. They were the favorites, having built a 57-win three-seed around a young core just one year removed from taking the Lakers to 7 games.
So what happened?
For Nuggets fans, it’s an all too familiar feeling. Another short postseason punctuated by decisive defeat. Another year of regular season thrills fading into yet another unceremonious first-round exit, the Nuggets’ third straight and their eighth in nine seasons under George Karl.
There’s nothing that brings out the worst in the Denver Nuggets and their fans quite like the NBA playoffs. Year after year, George Karl’s Nuggets look unfit to compete on the NBA’s biggest stage and we spend long offseasons trying to reconcile what that means with regards to his hall-of-fame career. The narratives change from year to year but the results do not.
Do those poor results point to Karl being the problem? To answer that we have to weigh Karl’s culpability for constant first-round embarrassment against his uncanny ability to get seemingly every team he coaches into the playoffs consistently. George Karl has overseen the Nuggets’ longest period of sustained success along with a torturous string of first-round exits that haven’t gotten any easier to bear. Would firing him really be a step towards a better future or simply a different one?
I have to admit, for a long time I never understood the Nuggets’ infatuation with Karl, the head coach who seemed to love everything about his job except the actual coaching. His famous laid back demeanor and hands-off approach in games seemed to reflect a man who was disconnected from the inner workings of his team.
Then I got an opportunity to see the Nuggets at work in last year’s Summer League. With it came an appreciation for how the George Karl culture is ingrained at every level of the organization. Everyone I talked to – from coaches to players to training staff – all raved about George Karl and his influence on their work. The level of respect he commands in a gym full of basketball lifers is palpable.
George Karl might not be much of a playoffs coach, but he is an inspiring leader at the head of a large staff who believe in him down to a man. That counts for something. The workplace is humming with productivity and positive energy under his watch. That mundane day-to-day work is not something fans get to see at the games, but it is an example of how George Karl is more than just the Nuggets’ head coach.
Karl has orchestrated everything from how the Nuggets develop players to how they create value on the court. His methods are unorthodox and require a specialized roster suited to them, which has helped Denver create maximum value out of guys like Corey Brewer and Kenneth Faried. The Nuggets are still only a few years into developing that Karl-centric roster around a young core that should still be peaking in another 2 to 3 years. There’s an opportunity to continue that process now.
I am not trying to be abstract about it, but Karl really is more to the Nuggets than the coach who can’t win in the playoffs. He is a pillar upon which they’ve built ten years of sustained success. Tearing that down in the name of results would mean a much larger reshuffling of the organization than many realize.
Therein lies the George Karl dilemma. His Achilles heel is the playoffs, which bring out his worst qualities as a coach and an in-game manager. On the other hand he is the Nuggets’ greatest asset, an iconic basketball mind with a wealth of experience needed to teach this young roster constructed specifically for his zany style of play.
The process is what we talked about right after Game 4, when it started becoming clear how badly the Nuggets were getting dominated. As a fan, I am still upset and seeking answers just as much as anyone. Truthfully, George Karl deserves much of the blame for this series and the lack of any discernible plan to win it. But in and of itself, that is not a good enough reason to abandon the process now.
Fans will continue to point to the latest playoff disaster as proof that change is needed. I won’t necessarily disagree but I do think that change can come from within. Take away Karl’s last crutch in Andre Miller and find ways to add layers of skill and structure on top of all that athleticism. Lay the burden of guilt on the team and trust them to change what they can to avoid the same mistakes. Try to view the offseason for what it is — the next step in the process or the beginning of a long hard search for a new one.