I can’t lie. I’ve thought about writing this article for years. Years. After each futile, heartless, disappointing exit in the first round of the playoffs, I was so ready to write this article that I couldn’t sleep. This year was no different. This year I wanted it just as bad as I have for the last several years. And yet, here it is, less than a week since Karl was let go, and I’m not sure I even want to write it anymore.
Every last drop of frustration I’ve ever had in regards to George Karl and his quirky coaching methods has already been documented on this site. My well has run dry, so to speak. I can’t stand his stubbornness. I loathe his half-assed approach to working the refs and lighting a fire beneath his players’ rear ends when they’re sluggish and disheartened. I hate (yes, hate) the way he’s treated players like J.R. Smith and JaVale McGee, who need encouragement and guidance rather than constant berating and punishment. And each new season I cringe at the idea of watching him do the exact same things, in the exact same manner, that got him bounced in the first round of the playoffs the year before: no offensive sets, no defense, blind favoritism, (insert whatever other elementary aspect of basketball you can think of). But above all else, when I look back, the one thing that bugged me the most, that absolutely drove me up a wall, was the inability to criticize Karl — or even question him, for that matter — without feeling like a complete outsider, like a pariah who simply didn’t appreciate his greatness. Because the truth is, although I’ve often written about my strong distaste for his coaching methods, I’ve never really felt comfortable doing so.
You see, Karl was never just a coach in Denver. Not even close. Karl was a roundball deity sent straight from the heavens to resurrect Denver basketball from the depths of ineptitude and irrelevancy where it had resided for so many decades before — at least, that’s what we were told to believe. And if you’d been a lifelong fan of the Nuggets or someone who followed the team loosely and watched the media contrive annual features about his personal health struggles off the floor (which I admire him for overcoming) or how his longevity went hand in hand with greatness (so not true), you would have no problem buying into this narrative. But for fans like me — relatively young, open minded… not used to looking forward to the Draft Lottery each year — this was never an appealing ticket to purchase. To me, Karl was just a coach, and that was exactly the problem.
Saying Karl is responsible for The Renaissance of Denver Basketball is like saying Elvis Presley was responsible for the invention of Rock and Roll. Did he have a huge hand in shaping the direction of the movement? Absolutely. Was he incredibly talented? No doubt about it. Was he the face of the product he was representing? Without question. But was he the master architect of his realm, the man who built his form of craft from the ground up, fine tuning the rough spots and delving into the abyss of his own creativity to return with something unprecedented? Absolutely not.
Karl changed the way people viewed the Nuggets, just as Elvis changed the way people viewed Rock and Roll. He was a catalyst. In the end he may very well be remembered as “The King” of the Denver Nuggets, but let’s get one thing straight here: Karl coached. He did not draft players. He did not execute trades. He did not cajole free agents into coming to Denver (though he may have convinced them to leave!). In fact, the one time we know Karl put his general manager hat on he essentially thwarted the Nuggets from acquiring Linas Kleiza for David Lee because he liked Kleiza’s outside shooting — or something unreasonable like that. So the idea that Karl is solely responsible for the revival of basketball in Denver is erroneous to the highest degree and ignorant of so many other factors, mainly the Nuggets’ change in ownership and recent succession of outstanding general manager performances that resulted in a mass accumulation of talent, the likes of which the franchise had never seen before.
Just look at the list of names Karl’s had the opportunity to work with during his nine-year career in Denver starting with this past year’s roster: Andre Iguodala (All-Star, Olympian, top 10 pick in the draft), Ty Lawson (ACC Player of the Year, Bob Cousy award winner, fringe All-Star), Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried (NCAA’s all time leading rebounder, All-Rookie First Team) Evan Fournier, Danilo Gallinari (top 10 pick in the draft, fringe All-Star… if he ever stays healthy), Andre Miller (top 10 all time in assists, top 10 pick in the draft), Arron Afflalo, Chris Andersen, Al Harrington (Sixth Man of the Year finalist in 2012), Nene (top 10 pick in the draft), Chauncey Billups (NBA champion and Finals MVP, five time All-Star, top three pick in the draft), Carmelo Anthony (six time All-Star, NBA scoring champion, top three pick in the draft), Raymond Felton, Kenyon Martin (All-Star, No. 1 pick in the draft), J.R. Smith (Sixth Man of the Year winner in 2013), Allen Iverson (NBA MVP, 11 time All-Star, four time NBA scoring champion, No. 1 pick in the draft), Marcus Camby (Defensive Player of the Year, top three pick in the draft).
The idea that Karl has somehow squeezed refreshing, juicy, thirst-quenching lemonade out of a batch of rotten lemons year after year is one theory I will never understand. Outside of San Antonio, L.A. (Lakers), Dallas and Miami, I’m not sure there’s been another team in the NBA that’s had more talent flow in and out of its arena doors since Karl arrived with the Nuggets in 2005. Again, look at the list above and tell me Karl hasn’t had everything you could possibly ask for as ahead coach in the NBA. Great GMs? Check. A superstar player? Check two of the list. Leaders? Check. Defensive specialists? Check. Elite 3-point shooters? Check. A deep roster? Check, check and check.
But no matter what the roster entailed, Karl always had excuses for losing when it mattered most. When he had superstars he complained about team cohesion and immaturity. Rather than accepting the challenge of mitigating egos and in turn demanding perfection on both ends of the floor, Karl let the inmates run the asylum and seemed content to sit back and collect a paycheck while appearing disinterested and apathetic from the sidelines (after all, blogs like firegeorgekarl.com don’t get conceived for no reason). And once he finally had the roster he wanted, Karl already had an excuse built right into the structure of the team: He could always fall back on the alibi that he needed a big-time shot maker to win in close postseason games. Of his nine playoff appearances in Denver the only time Karl ever did anything worth noting was in 2009 when the Nuggets went to the Western Conference Finals. But as any Nuggets fan who meticulously followed that season will tell you, it was Billups who did most of the coaching, not Karl.
From an outsider’s perspective, Karl must have looked like a genius in Denver. He racked up 423 wins with the Nuggets, placing him second all time and only nine games behind Doug Moe’s 432 franchise wins for most as head coach in team history. Five of his last six seasons he notched 50 wins. And this year, after guiding the Nuggets to their best single-season record in franchise history, Karl was crowned NBA Coach of the Year for the first time in his near 30-year career in the league. If you judged Karl based on his regular season performances alone, you’d never have any reason to let him go. The Nuggets would have already inked him to a lifetime extension three years ago and would have currently been in the process of erecting his statue outside the Pepsi Center. But in every sport, there will always come a time when each respective league or tournament must agree to crown a champion. This is the best part of sports. It’s why the game is played. It’s called the postseason. And it’s where Karl failed most frequently.
I don’t claim to be a psychologist, but I feel the way I’m built, for whatever reason, understanding the mental aspect of sports has always been my greatest strength. When I watched Karl and his teams implode year after year in the playoffs I always felt it was as much mental as a breakdown of the system Karl employed for his players. Surely the fastbreak offense wasn’t meant to be run in May and June, but watching the Nuggets match up against their opponent was often like watching varsity play J.V. It seemed unfair. It was as if the varsity team (the team not named the Nuggets) had a better coach (not always the case), better players (not always the case) and much more confidence in their abilities (always the case). Sure the Nuggets would hang around for a while, but in every series there inevitably came a time when the Nuggets would just, break, down. It was always only a matter of time. Even in the Western Conference Finals when the Nuggets stormed in as a two seed and were a mere two games away from making the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, they could not prevent the inexorable breakdown.
Look, these things happen. Teams lose in the playoffs. Even really good teams like the Spurs in 2011 and Mavericks in 2007 (and Supersonics in 1994, coached by none other than George Karl!) get overwhelmed by bad matchups and drop a few they probably shouldn’t. But with Karl, these “bad” playoff losses happened every single year. Every single year. Every. Single. Year. Karl’s eight first-round exits in nine years is bad enough on paper. But when you factor in player-coach feuds, suspensions, Karl’s long history of underachieving in the postseason and a general consensus among fans that on more than one occasion Karl’s teams basically quite on him in the playoffs, it becomes much more than just losing to a higher seed. At that point you have all the scientific evidence you’ll ever need to conclude that George Karl isn’t the coach to take you to the Promised Land. And if he’s not that, why should a team chasing a championship keep him around?
As a way of somehow defending him and fortifying his worth, Karl apologists always had a counterargument to the above thesis. It went something like, “You can’t lose in the playoffs unless you make it there first.”I always thought it to be one of the more lazy attempts to cover his ass that I’ve ever heard, but regardless, these types never seemed to look at the other side of the coin, being, “What’s the point in making the playoffs every year if you know once you get there you’re not gonna put up a fight?” In theory, wouldn’t you be much better off floundering in the lottery for a few seasons with a chance to land a player like Derrick Rose or Kyrie Irving?
For nearly a decade the Nuggets have missed that opportunity. Not that it’s a bad thing — I don’t think anyone is saying they regret the last nine years Karl’s been at the helm. But the idea that perpetually making the playoffs only to bow out in the first round without a fight is somehow better than (A) contending for a title, or (B) tanking it so that you can obtain a horde of star players to again one day contend for a title, is just not correct. In other spots? Sure. But not in the NBA. The way the NBA is structured, you’re much better off suffering through a few dismal seasons of ineptitude than being just good enough to make the playoffs and lose in the first round. Just ask Matt. He’s a Bucks fan and will tell you exactly how awesome it is.
The point is: Under Karl, the Nuggets have been neither really good nor average. They’ve been good. They’ve been the epitome of mediocrity. Karl’s had everything you could imagine in terms of roster flexibility, talent and managers, and it’s showed in his regular season records. He’s had stars; he’s had perhaps the deepest teams in the league. He’s finished as eight and five seeds; he’s finished as two and three seeds. But throughout the roster overturn, Karl’s always churned out the same heartless, disappointing, underachieving results in the postseason. And for the first time since Karl arrived in Denver in 2005 it appears ownership has finally realized: It’s not a player problem; it’s a coaching problem.
Over the years, Karl has grown on me. Perhaps I finally gave in and seceded that as long as Karl wanted to coach, he’d coach in Denver. After all, the Nuggets and Karl were a match made in heaven. (A franchise haunted by failure and instability meets a Hall of Fame coach who does nothing but win games in the regular season to the tune of an exciting, high-octane offensive assault? Perfect!) I guess I learned to appreciate (or rather, tolerate) the consistency and stability (weren’t these always the euphemisms for mediocrity?) he brought to the franchise. Although I knew every year would bring another disappointing first-round loss, I also had 82 games of pretty fun basketball to look forward to. So, there was always that.
I also have great respect and admiration for the way Karl has handled the many perilous obstacles in his life. He hasn’t always been dealt the most robust hand, yet he’s powered through one struggle after another to continue to do what he loves. His involvement in the community, especially with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and those affected by cancer, is an honorable undertaking that goes far beyond a simple ball game. Karl is a man who’s worked his way from the ground up and accomplished feats only a handful of people ever have. He is truly unique in every sense of the word. He’s a man with great pride who’s mastery of his craft will remain firmly entwined into the minds and hearts of Nuggets fans forever. Though I may disagree with Karl on virtually everything in terms of basketball, I cannot agree enough with the decision he made long ago to help others become better at the things they do, be it playing basketball or recovering from chemotherapy. Karl is truly a philanthropist and because of that I will always, always respect him as a selfless human being.
But without further ado, it’s time we bid farewell to perhaps the most successful era in Nuggets franchise history and usher in a new, and hopefully even more successful one. Though many coaches will follow in his footsteps and achieve a large number of wins (postseason, preferably), Karl will always be remembered as one of the founding fathers, perhaps even “The King” of Nuggets basketball.
It’s been one hell of a ride.