One coach paces up and down the sidelines with an unrelenting fervor from the opening tipoff until the final buzzer sounds. He works the refs continuously to support his players and gets calls thrown his way in the fourth quarter. Instead of only talking to his players during timeouts, he barks at them every chance he gets: during free throw breaks, stoppages in play and throughout extended TV timeouts. He also draws up intricate set plays throughout the game, throwing the opposition into confusion as picks are set and the ball circles around the court, going inside then outside and back inside and outside again until the open man is found. And he constantly - albeit with a whiny tone - reassures his players that they can get the job done regardless of the score. And when the game is over, even if his players are to blame for mistakes made during it, he lays the blame squarely on himself to protect his players.
The other coach sits quietly, almost peacefully still throughout much of the game. He can't be bothered to work the refs at any point during the game and rolls his eyes when his players make mistakes rather than engage them immediately to curtail whatever the issue is. He rarely calls timeouts unless it's absolutely necessary to do so. He almost never draws up set plays (including on inbounds plays), instead letting his players operate in a free flow offense that often gets stuck or stalls in a half court setting. And during his postgame press conferences, he either lays the blame on his players or on circumstances allegedly out of his control, and never places the blame on himself.
This is the dichotomy that is Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy and Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl.
And yet these two have much in common, as well (beyond their gait).
Each unquestionably has a great passion for the game (have you seen them in those postgame press conferences? You'd think they'd have run over their family dog backing out of the driveway). Each is in the rare class of coaches who can resurrect a franchise from a lottery denizen to a 50-win perennial playoff participant. Each allegedly works tirelessly behind the scenes with their assistant coaches looking for an edge before each contest. And each has paid his dues the right way after being foolishly counted out to get to where they are.
But while watching the Orlando Magic square off against the Los Angeles Lakers in Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals, I couldn't help but wish Karl had a little more Van Gundy in him. Constantly pleading with the refs, yelling at players and running up and down the sidelines and placing the blame on yourself more often than blaming your players doesn't automatically make you a great coach (it should be noted that the Lakers Phil Jackson is the most passive of all NBA coaches and has a long history of blaming his players in the media, and yet he has nine championship rings and will likely have ten by the end of next week). But Karl could stand to do a lot more of those things.
Even if Karl had worked the refs more furiously throughout the Western Conference Finals - notably Game 5 when the whistle was overwhelmingly in the Lakers favor in the second half - the Nuggets probably wouldn't have won. The Lakers were and are the better team. And if Kobe Bryant could have ditched his Shaquille O'Neal-from-the-free-throw-line impersonation last night, Van Gundy's Magic would likely be down 0-3 in the NBA Finals.
But if every possession "counts more" in the postseason, so does every coaching maneuver, as noted by a couple favorable calls and non-calls that went the Magic's way in the crucial final minutes of last night's Game 3 in addition to a slew of great plays crafted by Van Gundy for the second game in a row.
As I've stated on this blog numerous times throughout the 2008-09 season, Karl deserves credit and congratulations for steering the Nuggets to a franchise best 54-win season and the franchise's third Western Conference Finals appearance. And the Nuggets didn't just appear in the conference finals, but made a good fight out of it by being competitive in four-and-a-half of the six games.
But I believe it's a fair question to ask: had George Karl put forth a Stan Van Gundy-type performance throughout the Western Conference Finals, would he be meeting his Bizarro self in the NBA Finals instead of watching Phil Jackson snooze his way to championship number 10?