21 games into the new NBA season the Nuggets find themselves at 14-7 (a .667 winning percentage), are on pace for an NBA franchise best 55 wins, are tied for second place in the Western Conference and are giving up nine less points per game than they did last season.
It's time to give credit where credit is due.
Readers of this blog know I'm a macrotrend kind of guy. I rarely dive into critique offensive efficiency, or those crazy John Hollinger formulas I still don't understand, or the minute details of substitution patterns, and so forth, unless its such a glaring error that even I would do it differently - like pulling J.R. Smith out of the Hornets game with 1:17 to go even though he was the best player on the floor that night. And thankfully, most of the small details I overlook get brought up by this blog's terrific readers with their passionate comments.
So when I launched this blog under the name of www.firegeorgekarl.com back in February, it wasn't because of a few bad games, a few bad quotes, or a few bad strategic decisions on the floor. I had a very simple mantra: if George Karl didn't guide the Nuggets out of the first round of the playoffs for his first time since being head coach, he should resign or be fired. And after the Nuggets were embarrassed by getting swept by the Lakers - without ever putting up a fight mind you - I wasn't the only one calling for a coaching change. The bottom line is that the team's owner and its fans deserved better for an $80+ million payroll and a $3+ million per year coach than a 3-16 playoff record over a four year span.
Going into the playoffs last season, the rumor circulating in the Denver sports media was that Karl had to win a series or at least two games (what a joke) to keep his job as head coach. He did neither and kept his job regardless. My theory is that it had more to do with owner Stanley Kroenke cutting costs than him and the Kroenke Cronies having any faith in Karl. Kroenke wasn't going to pay out the remainder of Karl's deal (approximately $6 million over two more seasons) and then bring on another multi-million dollar coaching contract when he was going into cost-cutting mode anyway.
But that was last season and it's time to move on.
In keeping with my macrotrend analysis, I decided before this season started that I would wait for a quarter of the games to be completed before assessing the coaching job that Karl is doing. And to me, a .667 winning percentage after 21 games - all while doing this without a true center, no backup big men and one of the shakiest shooting guard situations in the NBA - tells me that Karl is doing a very good job.
I know many of this blog's readers will still disagree and point to the Nuggets success being credited solely to the arrival of Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony's improvement in rebounding and assists, and the health of Nene and Kenyon Martin. But if our coaches are to get blamed when their team's struggle, than they must get credit when their team's succeed. We as fans can't have it both ways.
Furthermore, several of the macrotrends that infuriated me about Karl last season - such as refusing to work the refs, rarely calling timeouts to rein in his team when they got out of control or lazy, not holding his players accountable for bad shots and porous defense, sitting through games as if he's doing a Phil Jackson impersonation - seem to have dissipated this season. At all the Nuggets games I've attended this season - both home and road - I've been fortunate to sit within four to 15 rows of Karl himself. I'm seeing a much more spirited effort out of Karl; he's constantly working the refs, calling more timely timeouts and he's visibly more engaged with the team during those timeouts. It's like he's a different guy from the coach we observed last season.
That being said, Karl isn't spared any criticism 21 games in. The J.R. Smith situation continues to fester and Karl needs to get over his ego and let the kid play. The rotation remains an erratic mess - how many times do we need to see Billups, Anthony Carter and Chucky Atkins on the floor at the same time and why isn't Renaldo Balkman getting more PT? And the Nuggets remain impotent in a half court set when a well-coached opponent throws a tough defensive scheme at them.
What worries me the most - as noted in my Friday night column
- is that the Nuggets aren't beating really good teams (with the exception of the amazing victory at Boston a while back) and still play like cowards against the Lakers. But over nine days beginning Monday, December 15th, the Nuggets play at Dallas, at Houston, vs Cleveland, at Phoenix, vs Portland and at Portland. If the Nuggets are still playing at a .667 winning clip after that slew of tough opponents, then we might be on to something special this season.
Denver Stiffs will remain vigilant in holding the coach, the players and the organization accountable based on this site's credo: they must care more about the outcome 0f each game than the fans do, or they'll end up on the Stiff List and lose our support. And of course, final judgment on Karl's future in Denver will be reserved for after the playoffs. But for the first time since Karl's initial campaign in Denver, I believe that he and the players are giving the effort we're paying them for.
Congratulations to Karl and the Nuggets on a great first quarter of the season. Keep it up and Go Nuggets!