I had dinner with my parents and a few of their friends on Thursday night, all of whom are Nuggets season ticket holders. When the topic of how the Nuggets finished the season at Portland came up, I heard the following: "Why wouldn't (George) Karl work his butt off to win that game?" and "What a horrible way to end the season" and "Karl just sat there and let the Blazers walk all over the Nuggets" and "Karl never calls a timeout. He lets the other team go on a huge run and never does anything to stop it" and finally "Even if you're getting blown out, there's no excuse not to work hard. Karl makes millions of dollars a year. Why doesn't he work hard?"
I heard more of the same last night when I was hanging in LoDo for a friend's birthday party with about 12 Nuggets fans my age and one Cavaliers fan (also my age, in case you care). I knew most of the guys. But of the few I met for the first time, upon hearing that I was the guy behind this website it became clear to me that the anti-Karl faction is cross-generational. I heard the usual gripes about the Nuggets coach: "You're giving (George) Karl way too much credit for the Nuggets success this season" and "He's the same lazy coach that we saw last season" and "He never calls timeouts when the opposing team goes on a big run" and "He never tries hard and never yells at his players to play harder." When I countered with my standard pro-Karl argument that you can't criticize the coach when the team struggles and yet give him no credit when the team succeeds, to a man each of these Nugget fans replied: "It's all Chauncey (Billups). He's the coach. Karl's just a manager. Not a good coach."
(In case you're curious, the lone Cavaliers fan didn't participate in this discussion. Instead he just vented about how much he hates the Broncos. Which, given that he's from Cleveland, I could totally understand.)
I'm bringing this up because on the eve of the Nuggets first opening round playoff home game in 21 years at the conclusion of a fantastic 54-win season, there's still a huge anti-Karl contingency within Nuggets Nation, fair or not. And it's not just in the comments on this blog or among the fans I speak to directly that you see and hear it. You can hear it on local sports radio whenever the Nuggets are discussed, hear it among the fans at Pepsi Center and see it in the comments of almost every game recap or editorial in the Denver Post
And it's not just the fans who remain Karl's biggest skeptics.
The Denver Post's
Mark Kiszla - a longtime Karl critic who curiously was spared the criticism I received for calling out Karl's poor performance last season (I guess you're allowed to criticize the coach when you're a vetted newspaper writer, but not as a ticket-paying fan) - recently wrote:"While Stan Van Gundy of Orlando and Rick Adelman of Houston are deserving candidates, the real NBA coach of the year is from Denver, if you're asking me. No, not George Karl. It was Billups who installed a brain on this team..."
And ESPN.com's Bill Simmons when discussing Billups' MVP candidacy, wrote:"He helped a hopelessly dysfunctional team - yes, I'm including the coach - find common ground, almost like 'Supernanny'..."
And on Thursday's version of The Sports Guys on 104.3 The Fan, Sandy Clough responded to a caller asking about Karl's future should (god forbid) the Nuggets (in the most unlikely scenario) lose to the Hornets by saying that it depends on how the Nuggets play and how many games it takes before losing.
The point is that Karl - in spite of those 54 wins - is still on thin ice, at least among the fans who support the organization by buying tickets, parking passes, beer at the games, apparel, merchandise, those foam Rocky hats and so forth. And frankly, Karl should be on thin ice. You or I would be, too, if we were paid $3 million a year and had a 3-16 playoff record to show for it. It's one thing for the Nuggets to lose to teams clearly better than them in the playoffs each season. But it's another to lose without ever throwing a counter punch or bothering to make it interesting. And Karl's antics - refusing to call those timeouts to stem opposing team runs, work the refs or stand up until the latter half of the fourth quarter - simply aren't acceptable when the team flames out in the playoffs.
I'm not trying to bag on Karl before the playoffs begin (after all, I've been bullish on Karl since the 21st game of the season
and believe he deserves Coach of the Year consideration
). Rather, I'm hoping someone sneaks this article to Karl so he realizes that Nuggets fans still don't have faith in him and need to be proven wrong. If you look at Karl's career historically, he seems to coach best when the "experts" and fans count him and his team out.
Remember Karl's 1991-92 Seattle Supersonics who were 20-20 before Karl showed up and guided them to a 47-win season and a playoff series win? Or Karl's 1995-96 Sonics who went all the way to the NBA Finals after being the first number one seed in NBA history to lose to a number eight seed in 1994 followed by being just one of four two-seeds in NBA history to lose to a seventh-seed in 1995? Or Karl's 1998-99 Miwaukee Bucks who made the postseason - in Karl's first season with the team - after a seven year drought? And of course Denver fans remember the 2004-05 Nuggets that Karl inherited at 17-25 and led them to a Nuggets NBA franchise sixth-best 49 wins.
In hindsight, the 2008-09 Nuggets were set up perfectly for Karl to have one of his most successful regular seasons ever. Nationwide NBA "experts" and the local guys who cover the team universally had the Nuggets pegged as a ninth or tenth-seeded Western Conference team after Nuggets management slashed payroll - an indictment perhaps on Karl's past performance - by ridding the organization of their starting center in Marcus Camby and Karl's favorite player in Eduardo Najera. Meanwhile, the Nuggets (astutely) re-signed Karl's least favorite player, J.R. Smith, and (also astutely) refused to part ways with Karl's sparring partner, Carmelo Anthony
. With the deck stacked against him, Karl delivered his best coaching performance with the Nuggets since that 2004-05 campaign. Now the question is: will it continue into the postseason?
For Karl's sake and ours, I hope he proves his doubters wrong so we can move on to Round 2 worried about how the Nuggets will dismantle the Spurs or Mavericks, rather than waste our breath fretting about Karl's future with the team.