Should George Karl Still Be Coach Karl?

If we were able to track George Karl’s approval rating with Nuggets fans it may be small enough to help President Bush feel a little better about himself.  There certainly are fans who believe George has done as well as could be expected with a roster full of miscreants.  However, most Nugget fans believe Karl is allowing the inmates to run the asylum.

 

Over these next few paragraphs we will analyze how George Karl handled this team and come to a determination of whether or not he should be coach of the Denver Nuggets again next season.

 

The first area I took great umbrage with George Karl this season was his propensity for not only allowing excuses to be made for bad performances, but actually fostering an environment where that mindset could take root. 

 

The Nuggets, like many other teams, did have a handful of injuries early in the season.  Anthony Carter, Chucky Atkins and Nene were not available early on.  Steven Hunter missed a few games here and there as did Kenyon Martin.  At the time I wrote I hoped Karl did not allow anyone to use those injuries as an excuse for why they lost a game, or games, because once you allow excuses they are an ever present crutch to explain away poor play.  The Nuggets turned that crutch into a walker early in the season.

 

Not only did George allow the players to use injuries as a walker, he did too.  On numerous occasions he stood in front of the cameras and claimed over and over that they were being held back by injuries.  Denver was doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances.  Needless to say, I was gravely disappointed.   Did Rick Adelman allow his players to make excuses when they lost Yao Ming?  Houston is a team that has struggled with injuries, yet somehow managed to earn home court advantage in the playoffs thanks to a strong mental attitude towards the loss of key players.

 

Looking back, how big of a deal was it that Chucky Atkins was hurt for most of the season?  He could not even get back on the court when he was healthy!  Yet, his name was mentioned as if he was a potential MVP candidate early in the season as a reason why they were losing games.  Some fans still throw his name into the mix when listing injuries that derailed the season.  The injury to Chucky was actually a very good thing as it kept his sorry can off the floor and forced Karl to play J.R. Smith.

 

This reliance on injuries as an excuse for poor performance also manifested itself in the monthly lowball goals that Karl placed on the team.  These monthly goals always fell somewhere between a joke and an embarrassment.  By the end of November, which was the easiest month for the Nuggets in my opinion, his goal was to win 10 games out of 17!  I wrote before the season that Denver had to win 13 and probably 14 of those games to have home court advantage and be a threat to get past the first round.  Well I was wrong.  Not even 14 wins in November would have earned the Nuggets home court advantage in the playoffs, yet Karl was tickled pink that they won ten.

 

This brings me to another issue I have with George Karl and that is his belief that the first 20 games of the regular season is basically an extended training camp.  The reason I found that so preposterous was the list of new players they had to work into the lineup at the beginning of the season that had not played for George Karl:

 

Mike Wilks

 

That is it.  Although despite coaching basically the same team as he coached the year before, he acted as if how they all fit together is a big mystery.  Does that inspire confidence or a sense of urgency in your team when you label the first 25% of the season as an extended training camp?

 

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, Karl carried his nonchalant attitude throughout the entire season.  Never once would he admit the Nuggets were facing a must win situation and he never inspired any kind of urgency which was so obviously lacking all season. 

 

That nonchalant attitude extended to the bench and was the primary reason most fans are out for his blood.  Everyone has seen George sitting on the bench looking out at the court with a blank stare sucking on God knows what.  We never saw him yell at his players, nor did he ever yell at the refs. 

 

I believe a stoic attitude on the bench can be an effective way to coach as long as the message the coach is sending is, do not worry, we are still in control here.  Coaches that flip out over everything, hello Mike D’Antoni, are less inspiring.  In fact, coaches that are known for keeping their composure can make pretty effective statements, to players or refs, when they do flip out. 

 

On the other hand, stoic coaches who are constantly stoic no matter what may be happening can lose the respect of their players.  First of all, players know there is no real consequence for not playing the way the coach asks them to play.  Secondly, they take the job of lobbying the officials into their own hands.  Guys like AI, Melo and J.R. Smith tend to yip at the refs a little too much as it is.  Add in the fact they know their coach is not going to do it and we get what we have seen over the past year or two.  Wisconsin does not have enough cheese to go with all of the whine we have witnessed.

 

As I noted earlier in the season, and as others have pointed out since, Karl played under one of the best stoic coaches ever in Dean Smith and he claims that Coach Smith’s influence is the reason he coaches the way he does.  However, it seems clear that Karl has mellowed considerably as he aged.  We all remember the coach once hailed as “Furious” George.  There is no trace of that man left.  Now, that is entirely a bad thing.  He certainly had strained relationships with a few of his star players in the past due to some of his old tactics, but it seems like Karl has completely abdicated all of the fire and brimstone that used to serve him well.

 

Those are some pretty extensive shortcomings and it is not even an exhaustive list. 

 

The only thing I can come up with in Karl’s defense is that this team is clearly difficult to manage.  George was so concerned about the players’ fragile mental state that he believes he cannot coach them he way he really wants to.  The Nuggets clearly do not do what they are asked to do.  Obviously, Karl does not come out and say, “Alright, for the first eight minutes of the second quarter we are going to give up a lot of uncontested layups on defense and make sure you take the first jumper you see on offense, no matter how bad of a shot it is.”  Karl is constantly imploring them to play defense and to move the ball on offense only to see the players go out and make little or no effort to implement his instructions.  As Karl has pointed out during the season, there is only so much a coach can do.  Much of it is up to the players.

 

Even though the disinterest the players have shown in Karl’s coaching can be used as reasons to hold him blameless for how they played, it is clearly a double edged sword.  The other way to look at it is just another example of his failings as the coach. 

 

To me almost all of these issues boil down to George Karl’s inability to challenge this team.  Maybe he cannot do it, maybe he is afraid to do it or maybe he does not care enough to.

 

Last week we found out that Karl will be back coaching this team next season.  Several players have come out in support of him.  It may be good news that he has even said that he will demand more of the players next season.  My question is why did it take a playoff sweep to get to that point?

 

He can claim that he will make the players more accountable next season, but there is a problem with Karl trying to turn himself into the dictator again.  My wife is a teacher.  One thing teachers know is you can always start off tough and become less strict, but you cannot start off soft and then become stricter.  The kids simply will not buy it.  If kids do not respond to that how type of shift how much more will NBA players, the biggest babies of all, chaff at that kind of transformation.

 

The sad thing is Karl started off strict.  He had the guts to come in and bench anyone who was not getting the job done the way he wanted them to.  Melo found himself watching quite a bit and he responded.  Carmelo took a big leap forward offensively when George Karl took over the Nuggets.  He has become much less willing to slash minutes the past couple of seasons, yet another sign of his softening.

 

You have probably gathered by now that I am not looking forward to George returning to coach the Nuggets this season.  However, I do buy into the belief that these guys are difficult to coach.  If you ask me to name a coach who could come in and demand the players’ respect who is actually available, I do not think I could.  Jeff Van Gundy?  Rick Carlisle?  There is no way you could bring in a rookie coach either.  He would end up stuffed in a laundry basket with his whistle duct taped in his corn hole.

 

The bottom line is no matter how badly some of us would like to see it I do not think a coaching change would make much of a difference with this team next season.  Nugget fans will have to hope that the players are shocked into enough humiliation by their pathetic ouster at the hands of the Lakers that they will see the need to buy into their coach’s demands.

 

I suspect that we will know early on in the season if next season will be a better one than this one although I fear it is a question to which we already know the answer.

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