“By the end of the 2003 baseball season I had learned something from publishing Moneyball. I learned that if you look long enough for an argument against reason you will find it.” — Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
I’ve been watching George Karl coach basketball for close to a decade now. During this time it’s never occurred to me that Karl is a great basketball coach. I’ve been frustrated with his decisions more often than I’ve been pleased. There have been times that I’ve appreciated his work — this past season certainly stands out — but not once during Karl’s tenure have I come to the realization that he’s a great basketball coach.
The problem: Many people disagree with me. Lots of people, much more knowledgeable about the game of basketball than I, think of Karl as one of the best coaches to have ever walked the Earth.
This, I cannot understand. I’ve come to appreciate Karl over the years — or perhaps, tolerate some of his methods. I recognize his accomplishments and by no means consider him a bad coach. I know he’s a good coach. But that’s the difference between the divide of fans that currently occupies Nuggets Nation: one side sees him as good, but replaceable; the other side as great, and irreplaceable.
No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot not understand the other side of the argument. Every postseason I’ve watched for the last nine years the Nuggets have collapsed at some level. They never give it all they can. From the early years when Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony got in feuds with Karl on the sidelines, to the fourth quarter of Game 5 in the 2009 Western Conference Finals when the Nuggets flat-lined and never recovered. Even last year when the Nuggets pushed the Lakers to Game 7 in the first round, there was a decisive point around the early part of the fourth quarter where you just knew the Nuggets were going to lose. This feeling — knowing the Nuggets are going to lose — is something I’ve felt throughout Karl’s tenure and often when it matters most. In the world I’ve come to know, great coaches don’t give you this type of feeling. Great coaches win when it matters most. Great coaches spit in the face of adversity and thrive when the chips are down. Karl has never been that type of coach. Yet these are things only I know, because I’ve experienced them. There is no way to quantify the disgust in the pit at the bottom of your stomach; and there is no way to truly quantify how good of a coach George Karl really is.
As long as the Nuggets and the national media endorse George Karl, I feel I’m waging a losing battle. Though I will never concede my position on Karl — after all, it’s taken me nearly a decade to form it — I’m still interested in the other side of the argument and what they see that I don’t. I know that while with the Nuggets Karl has not been a great coach, yet many point to his overall career accomplishments as the reason for his high standing in their eyes. So, in order to put myself in their shoes and see their side of the argument I had to look at Karl’s career prior to arriving in Denver, as that’s supposedly the genesis for much of his “greatness.” Unfortunately for the other side of the argument, I didn’t find too much greatness.
Prior to his stint with the Nuggets, George Karl had a successful career in the NBA but by no means was he on the brink of achieving the incredibly esteemed status he sees today. He had made a trip to the NBA Finals and won 708 games but he’d also been fired four times, lost in the first round of the playoffs as a 1 seed and had numerous feuds with his star players. Today, Karl apologists rave over the number of games he’s won. In fact, that’s their go-to argument when defending him against virutally any criticism thrown his way. However, prior to joining the Nuggets his 708 wins placed him 16th all time between Gene Shue and John MacLeod. Yes, the Gene Shue and MacLeod you’ve likely never heard of if you were born after 1990. In no way was Karl seen as the type of coach he is today, which suggests something monumental must have occurred over his near decade-long tenure with the Nuggets.
Nearly 40 percent of all the games Karl has won in his career have come while with the Nuggets. Yet in that time he’s advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once. One could argue the only reason Karl’s stuck around Denver as long as he has is because Denver is not Boston, nor Philly, nor New York, god forbid. In Denver, the only expectations Karl’s had have been not guiding his team to complete and utter collapse in the regular season. Yet somehow, someway, over this time the perception of Karl has changed from “Good NBA Coach with 708 Wins, Sandwiched Between Gene Shue and John MacLeod,” to “Great NBA Coach with Over 1,000 Wins and 22 Playoff Appearances.” However, do a little work, read between the lines a bit, and it becomes quite clear that “1,000 wins” is an awful argument for Karl’s greatness — if you hadn’t noticed already.
Here are the reasons:
- At the rate Karl is going he could coach the Nuggets until the year 2022 and have advanced past the playoffs only twice.
- Of the top 10 coaches in NBA history, Karl has the lowest playoff winning percentage of them all.
- Karl has never won Coach of the Year or an NBA championship.
- Karl has lost in the first round of the playoffs 14 of the 22 years (or roughly 64 percent of the time) he’s qualified.
- Karl is one of five NBA coaches to have lost in the first round of the playoffs as a 1 seed.
- Karl was fired twice in his first four seasons as an NBA head coach.
- Karl is repeatedly left off the NBA GM survey of the best coaches in the league (however his offense remains ever so popular!).
- The Nuggets have won only one of their last 14 playoff games on the road.
- 62 teams over the last 40 years have won at least 30 of their final 40 regular season games. Nine of them lost in the first round. Karl coached three of those teams.
- Karl has failed to get out of the first round with home-court advantage four of the 10 times he’s had it.
- Karl has reached the Conference Finals only four of the nine times he’s had a top three seed in his conference.
- Karl has reached the NBA Finals only one of the six times he’s been a top two seed in his conference.
- No coach in NBA history has lost in the first round more than Karl. The second most first-round loses behind Karl belong to Jerry Sloan and Lenny Wilkens who each have nine.
The above bullet points are not opinion. They are facts. George Karl owns no NBA championship; instead he owns some of the most undesirable postseason records in NBA history. Karl has many regular season wins, yes, but what does he have to show for it? Regular season wins mean nothing if you collapse every year and turn into a different team in the postseason. If regular season wins were the measure of a great coach, then Don Nelson would be the greatest of them all. Don Nelson, however, has no NBA championship. What he does have, is three more Coach of the Year awards and 11 less first-round losses than George Karl — which must be good for something.
All these years Nuggets fans have been in love with someone who does not exist. George Karl is not the knight in shining armor who has saved the Nuggets from the depths of franchise misery. He’s done a fantastic job pulling the Nuggets from obscurity to relevancy (along with other figures, namely Carmelo Anthony), but he has been unable to take them any further. George Karl is a regular season win master and postseason wreck. At some point the Denver Nuggets organization will have to take the next step forward if they desire to be successful in other aspects of basketball besides just winning in the regular season. Of course, because Karl has presided over the most successful era in franchise history many fans erroneously attribute the Nuggets success solely with him. These uniformed types often argue perhaps the most ignorant of all the baseless claims for retaining Karl: that he is THE best option on the market. Oddly enough they’ve been arguing this same recycled point for the last five years or so, during which time the following coaches have become available:
- Larry Brown: Has lost only seven times in the first round. Has lost only twice in the first round as a higher seed in his near 30-year NBA career. Has made it to the NBA Finals three times and won once — without a “superstar.”
- Rick Carlisle: Has made the playoffs nine of the 11 years he’s coached. Has lost in the first round only three times and on his current pace would lose in the first round six times in 22 years, as apposed to Karl’s 14. Has made one less trip to the Conference Finals than Karl in half the time and has already won an NBA championship. Has lost as a higher seed in the playoffs only once.
- Stan Van Gundy: Has made the playoffs every year he’s coached a full season. Has lost in the first round only twice. Has already made three Conference Finals appearances and one NBA Finals appearance in seven full years as an NBA head coach.
- Rick Adelman: Had made the playoffs 16 of his 20 season coaching prior to taking the Minnesota Timberwolves head coaching position. Has lost in the first round eight times. Has lost as a higher seed in the first round only once. Has made the Conference Finals four times and NBA Finals twice.
- Tom Thibodeau: Won Coach of the Year and made the Conference Finals in his first season as an NBA head coach. Tied the record for most wins by a rookie head coach. Became the fastest coach in NBA history to 100 wins.
The above list doesn’t even include bright, young coaches like Monty Williams, Frank Vogel or Erik Spoelstra. It also omits more seasoned but successful coaches like Lionel Hollins, Jeff Van Gundy and Nate McMillan. To think any one of these coaches would have anything but success with the types of rosters Karl has had over the years is ill informed to the highest degree. Other up-and-coming coaches who seem destined for stardom include Golden State assistant Mike Malone — whom Mark Jackson insisted upon having by his side before accepting his current position — and my favorite, Memphis Grizzlies assistant Dave Joerger, whom many feel is responsible for the Grizzlies’ dominance on the defensive side of the basketball in recent years.
After setting out to do my research I was excited — and interested. I thought I was finally, truly going to discover something great hidden in Karl’s past, the reason why people praise him the way they do. I thought I was going to find the logic behind why Karl put a 6-foot journeyman point guard on Kobe Bryant in the Western Conference Finals (which resulted in Bryant shooting 55 percent from the field throughout the series as opposed to 47 percent with A.C. off the floor) and why he would later put perhaps the worst defender in all of basketball on the Warriors’ best player in the first round of the playoffs this year when he already had one of the best wing defenders in the game. But, I found no such evidence. Instead, all I found was more information to corroborate my already less-than-stellar idea of who Karl is as a coach. I had my gut instincts, which I had obtained from nine years of first-hand viewing, and now I had history on my side as well. Gut instincts you can argue with; history you cannot.
The Nuggets loyalty to George Karl is something I will never understand. When most coaches get three strikes, Karl gets nine lives. Had he not had a prior record coming into Denver, had he not had a name to run on and had you simply judged his performance based on his on-court decisions and record, there’s no way on God’s green Earth that the coach who has resided over this franchise for the last 10 years makes it this far. More than anything, Karl is an addiction the Nuggets cannot quit. He’s a security blanket for a franchise too afraid to take the next step in their development as a real-deal franchise and force to be reckoned with. Again, Karl is a good coach. There’s no doubt about that. But he has limitations and succeeding in the postseason is one of them. If the Nuggets want to take that next step, it starts with finding someone who has a proven track record of winning when it matters most. Karl is simply not that man.
But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Nuggets over the last decade it’s that Karl’s going nowhere until Karl decides he wants to go. So, I’ll see you next year at almost this exact same time: same article, different words.
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