This is the first of a three-part series chronicling the time I spent last week with Nuggets head coach George Karl and following the team from Chicago to Milwaukee. Part 1 follows my first day with Karl and the team, and the formal interview I conducted on Monday after Nuggets practice. Note that I'm just recapping what happened, and not doing much analysis (that will come later in Part 3).
Newcomers to this site may not know this, but my blogging "career" kicked off in late February of 2008 when – after watching the Nuggets drop two straight games at Chicago (against a bad Bulls team) and at Milwaukee (against an even worse Bucks team) and with a playoff absence looming – I launched www.firegeorgekarl.com; a hail mary pass of sorts to salvage a season that was slipping away in spite of having what I believed (at the time) to be the most talented roster ever assembled in Denver Nuggets history. I suppose it was fitting then that two seasons later during yet another Nuggets back-to-back at Chicago and Milwaukee, I finally got to spend some time with the man I once tried to run out of Denver.
For those who weren’t reading this site at the time, the thinking back in 2008 was that some long overdue heat would get Coach Karl up from the bench, working the refs, barking at his players and the team would respond with something better than an 8th-seed and a fourth straight first-round blowout playoff loss.
But what began as a local stunt erupted into a national story when Karl’s Columbus (Ohio)-based lawyer, business partner and longtime friend Bret Adams threatened to sue me and, acting on my legal counsel’s advice, I posted the threatening email on the site where it promptly found its way onto Deadspin (Deadspin's readers and their founder, Will Leitch, deserve much of the credit for breaking the story nationally and having my back), ESPN.com, The Sporting News, The Wall Street Journal Law Blog and was covered thoroughly in the Denver sports media, as well. The blog caught on like wild fire among frustrated Nuggets fans worldwide (the site was even being translated into Chinese for a while for Chinese Nuggets fans), and suddenly I had a third job on my hands that required a lot of time and attention.
Much has changed since then to say the least.
Soon after launching the site, I got deluged with information – both on the record and off, good stories and bad – about the general state of the Nuggets organization, the players and their head coach and quickly began to realize that pinning all the blame for a lost season on one person was a misinformed mistake (even though Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien contends that any 50-win season is a great success, I will forever beg to differ). Not only was this unfair to Karl – someone whom I’ve greatly respected and admired for as long as I can remember (and said so from Day One on this site) – but it wasn’t fair to me, either. I never wanted to be known as a fire[insert coach name here].com kind of guy and the site’s moniker tarnished whatever little credibility I would ever have as an NBA enthusiast. In other words, I knew better than to blame one person for a team’s demise because it’s never that simple (unless that one person is Bernie Bickerstaff, of course). If you’ve ever heard the phrase "success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan", you know exactly what I mean. I had made Karl an orphan and no one in the organization had his back (at least not publicly).
So at the conclusion of 2007-08 season FGK.com was reborn as DenverStiffs.com and I made it a point to write a more balanced blog from that point forward. The result? The readership quadrupled, I got on SBNation’s radar and now – combined with my new partner in crime Nate Timmons – we’re reaching more Nuggets fans than all other Nuggets blogs combined and have the most vibrant, balanced and educated community of Nuggets fans online. And making things even better for us, the team finally played up to (and beyond) their potential. I even advocated for Karl to get serious Coach of the Year consideration at the end of the 2008-09 campaign, the best in Nuggets NBA franchise history. I’ve always said that you can’t take all the blame when the team fails and get none of the credit when it succeeds.
All this led to an impromptu meeting with Karl and Adams during Las Vegas Summer League, which I chronicled in great detail at the time if you’d like to give it another read. I’ve kept in touch with Adams – a genuinely nice guy – and we arranged to meet in Chicago at his suggestion since the Nuggets had a three-day break and it’s best to catch Karl when he’s on the road without the numerous distractions at home.
And thus on Monday, I found myself in Chicago about to get a real education on the sport and the team I love the most.
On Monday morning, I waited for Adams in the lobby of the Nuggets hotel as the training and coaching staff began to gather. In walked Nuggets play-by-play broadcaster Chris Marlowe – whom I got to meet before a playoff game last spring and he couldn’t be a nicer guy – and we caught up a bit. I also spoke briefly with the Nuggets new PR man Tim Gelt and was introduced to a few other members of the Nuggets traveling staff. Then Adams came sauntering in, we shook hands and I handed him a pair of our new Denver Stiffs T-shirts, one for him and one for Karl (how’s that for a peace offering?).
Soon thereafter, the players started arriving – all a few minutes early, by the way (it’s embarrassing that I was impressed by their punctuality but this is the NBA, after all). It was 10:30am and the players seemed relaxed and in good spirits in spite of coming off two bad back-to-back blowout losses.
As the players departed for the team bus (which I was really, really hoping to ride on, by the way), Adams led me to a separate car where we were driven to a nearby college gym by a few of Karl’s friends who were in Chicago. Not wanting to be a distraction, we sat in a few seats in the corner of the gym. Before practice kicked off, Karl came over to say hi to me and we shook hands. "What the hell are you wearing, man?" Karl said, referring to my plaid shirt and brown velvet sport coat (I figured if I was hanging around NBA players, I had to look sharp). "You should talk," retorted Adams. I told Coach Karl that if he didn’t like what I was wearing he should get me some Nuggets gear and suit me up, to which he laughed and returned to practice.
While trying to pay attention to the practice, Adams and I started talking about an assortment of topics – I even shared my conspiracy theory about where LeBron James is going (I’m convinced he’s staying in Cleveland or why else would those Chinese investors pony up to buy into the Cavaliers?). I was able to see everything but hear nothing as we were too far away and the gym was filled with the sound of bouncing basketballs, barking players and assistant coaches yelling.
Having never attended an NBA practice before, I can’t tell you if this was better, worse or average compared to other practices. But from the start, it was evident that Karl wasn’t going to give the players a hard time for dropping those two games in Miami and Atlanta and instead got them going on an assortment of drills as if everything is going to plan (and at 5-2 and being early in the season, he’s probably right to approach things this way). From my vantage point, the players looked engaged and were working hard, notably during an intra-squad scrimmage where the starters – sans Kenyon Martin who was resting his leg – went head-to-head with the reserves as both teams worked through various plays at full bore effort. And yes, contrary to what many of us have thought over the years, the Nuggets have a playbook.
After practice concluded, most of the players continued to shoot individually. Watching J.R. Smith effortlessly hoist three-pointers was fun. Ty Lawson seems to have become automatic on his corner J. And Carmelo Anthony’s jumper is just text book, like he was born to shoot. Additionally, not a single Nuggets assistant coach was idle. Each assistant was talking to or working with a player on something (again, I could only see, not hear) and didn’t stop until time was up and bus was departing.
While the players shot around, Karl did a few interviews with the press that was there and then came over to discuss our lunch plans. When asked how the practice went, Karl happily said it was "an A+ practice" and was in a good mood. This boded well for our lunch.
Karl took the team bus back to the hotel while Adams and I got back in the car and headed to the restaurant (damn, I was 0-2 on getting on the team bus!).
We got to the restaurant and sat down, and soon after Karl joined us. As we perused the menus, I told Karl that I wanted to clear the air before we got started, and sincerely apologized for launching a website targeting him solely for the team’s struggles. Surprised, Karl said "why?" and I explained that to blame him squarely wasn’t fair, that I knew better and have since learned a good deal about the entire situation and in hindsight have a much better understanding of why that season didn’t pan out as anyone had hoped. Karl didn’t outright accept the apology but said he didn’t care about the site and even thought it was funny. I don’t believe him that he didn’t care, but I could tell he appreciated the apology and we moved on.
From there, we talked endlessly about basketball and it was a lot of fun (please note that none of this is in order, I’m just regurgitating from my pile of notes…and please also note that I’m not exactly a real journalist)…
On the contract extension…
For the uninitiated, Karl is in the last year of a five-year deal and all signs pointed to an extension during the summer. Then abruptly, nothing happened, making Karl a "lame duck" coach (to be fair, when you’ve won almost 950 games by winning nearly 60% of them and get paid several millions of dollars annually, "lame duck" is probably the wrong term). I could quickly tell that Karl was uncomfortable talking about it, which is understandable. Those of us who have followed the Nuggets closely over the years know that owner Stan Kroenke doesn’t like it when his employees negotiate their contracts through the media (see: Vandeweghe, Kiki). Karl did mention however that he’d be genuinely sad to leave Denver, that Denver is home for him now and regardless of where he ends up, he’ll continue to live in Denver and raise his young daughter there.
Karl also said that he’s more concerned about the fate of his assistant coaches – whom he claims are the best in the league – than his own fate. This didn’t surprise me as the fate of a lot of assistants around the league are tied to the head coaches they work for. You know, that whole "coaching tree" thing.
On Renaldo Balkman’s minutes…
This has been a hot topic at Denver Stiffs since Balkman’s arrival, so I asked Karl about it. He said it was a "fair question" but that he’s "not comfortable playing Balkman at the three because he doesn’t have great basketball sense and the playbook shrinks when he’s in the game." I countered that Balkman always seems to be near the ball, collecting rebounds at a frantic rate and, to quote ESPN’s Jay Bilas, has a great motor. How could a coach not like a guy like that? Karl said that Balkman is one of his "good/bad" players (a quote we’ve heard before used in regards to J.R. Smith), meaning he does a lot of things well but still does too many things poorly to get into the rotation with regularity.
When I asked about Balkman getting more minutes at the four-spot, Karl said he’s more comfortable having Chris Andersen play there. He also said that they experimented with giving Balkman more playing time during the preseason, but it sounds like Balkman will continue to be used sparingly as evident by two straight DNP-CDs against Chicago and Milwaukee.
On not working the refs…
My biggest beef with Karl in the past was that he (appeared) to refuse to work the refs during games, so I had to ask about this. Karl retorted that working the refs is "overrated" and that Dean Smith (the legendary University of North Carolina coach whom Karl played for) didn’t believe in berating officials. I brought up the example of Doc Rivers from Game 2 of the 2008 NBA Finals. Noticing that his Celtics and the Garden crowd were flat at home during the second quarter, Doc purposefully took a technical on a harmless non-call and that technical fired up the crowd and seemed to be a catalyst for a Celtics run that put the game away. I even wrote about that moment on the blog in my June 18th, 2008 column titled "5 lessons the Nuggets should learn from this NBA Finals". Karl conceded that there might be something to that but again stood by his statement that working the refs was overrated. (Don’t be surprised if Karl gets himself a big T at Pepsi Center soon.)
Fair enough, but I asked him how he could get only one technical – second lowest in the league – in 2007-08 and he quickly pointed out that he finished in the top three in technical fouls last season (which I haven’t been able to verify). Karl also noted that his health was much better last season (he was recovering from hip surgery in 2007-08) which contributed to him being able to work the refs more.
On Allen Iverson…
I asked Karl if he felt vindicated at all by what’s been happening with A.I. since he left Denver (in hindsight, Karl was successful with A.I. in Denver compared to Michael Curry in Detroit who clearly couldn’t handle A.I. and the same is happening now to Lionel Hollins in Memphis). Wanting to be diplomatic about it (that’s an understatement), Karl didn’t get too much into A.I.’s time in Denver but did comment that when he heard A.I. might be coming to Denver, he was hoping Andre Miller would stay to pair them together in the backcourt. Karl, a former point guard himself, said he had never coached without a true point guard before. He also felt that having a big, strong guard next to A.I. can possibly work and that to be successful with A.I., you need true veterans around him – a la A.I.’s 76ers teams that were so successful back in the day.
On Iverson’s future, Karl said he is optimistically hoping that A.I. will end up somewhere where he’ll be amenable to contributing off the bench. As one of A.I.’s biggest supporters on this blog for a while, it’s becoming painfully evident to me that he was a chore to coach.
On the possible Ron Artest acquisition…
I forget how this came up, but it did. Remembering back to the 2008 trade deadline: the Nuggets had the opportunity to acquire Ron Artest from Sacramento for Linas Kleiza, Eduardo Najera and a draft pick. Nuggets management was all set to pull the trigger on that deal, but Karl shot it down and was criticized in many circles for doing so. It was assumed that Karl wanted nothing to do with Artest, but Karl told me it had more to do with losing Kleiza than acquiring Artest. I then asked if he really wanted a locker room featuring Artest, Iverson, K-Mart, Melo, J.R. and Marcus Camby. Pondering that for a moment, Karl’s eyes widened, he took a deep breath and returned to perusing the menu.
On the 2009 Western Conference Finals…
We talked extensively about the Conference Finals loss to the Lakers and I really appreciated Karl’s candidness on this topic. Without me even bringing it up, Karl explained the insertion of the 6’1" Anthony Carter on the Game 1 inbounds play against the 6’10" Lamar Odom as needing someone he trusted to throw in the ball given that Kenyon Martin, who typically throws it in, had fouled out. Karl wouldn’t concede that it was a mistake but did mention that they "probably practice more" on inbounds plays now, even though that play – according to Karl – had been successful for them all season long last year.
I asked if he thought the Nuggets were just two inbounds plays short of going to the NBA Finals, and he quickly disputed that, noting that even if the Nuggets had passed the ball in securely the statistics show that you only make a game-winner in those situations 30% of the time.
I then brought up the only good quote Isiah Thomas ever authored when he was analyzing games at NBC (by the way, you should see Karl’s expression at the mere mention of Isiah’s name), stating that when two teams are evenly matched in the playoffs, the team with the best player always wins. (Isiah had said this before Game 7 of the Lakers/Trail Blazers 2000 Conference Finals game in which Portland blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead and lost.) Karl agreed there might be something to that, noting Kobe Bryant’s outstanding performance in the second quarter of Game 6 against the Nuggets at Pepsi Center that helped seal the series for the Lakers.
On to Game 6, I said that the energy that night was awful from the start, both on the floor and in the stands, and asked if he had sensed the same thing. I took a page from Bill Simmons’ theory that Lakers home crowds get worse as they march through the playoffs because that’s when all the girlfriends and wives and rich guys who didn’t go to a game all season suddenly want to go. And that’s exactly what happened in Denver that night. That was a flat crowd (not the reason the Nuggets lost, mind you) and you could just feel it. And Karl acknowledged that he felt the crowd was flat that night, too. So apparently the crowd doesn’t go unnoticed from the bench!
I asked Karl if ultimately the Lakers were just the better team, and we both again recounted Kobe Bryant’s amazing second quarter in Game 6 with displeasure but admiration. Karl conceded that the Lakers were the better team, but then commented to Adams, half-jokingly: "They sure get a lot of calls in that building [Staples Center], don’t they?"
Karl went on to say that Lamar Odom gives the Nuggets a lot of problems, which led to our next topic…
On the Nuggets needing a real big man…
I said to Karl that my concern going up against the Lakers is that the Nuggets are simply too short. I threw out my theory that if the Nuggets had a true center, Nene could be moved to the four-spot where he’d dominate. Karl didn’t out-right agree that the Nuggets need a true center, but acknowledged that the Nuggets "are a little undersized" compared to some teams, citing the Lakers, San Antonio, Portland and the Clippers specifically.
He said, however, that "playing small ball expands the playbook" and that when the team gets down, going small is the quickest way to get back into a game. Karl noted that they tried this in Atlanta, but they just didn’t have the energy that night.
Speaking of energy, I served up another one of my theories that whichever team "owns the energy of the game" seems to always win. Hence why the Hawks clocked us last Saturday night. Karl – surprisingly – had never heard of this theory before and he nodded his head and acknowledged this is true. See, so even a 25 year veteran coach can learn something new from a blogger!
On yelling at the players…
This was an extension of our "working the refs" conversation, and I asked why Karl doesn’t seem to berate the players like he used to. Again, Karl cited lessons learned from Dean Smith. According to Karl, Smith said that whenever he saw an opposing coach yelling at players and calling lots of timeouts, he always asked: "What are they doing in practice?"
Karl also gave me an interesting tidbit that only a coach of his experience would know. He said that when your team loses by 20, it’s not the time to yell at the players because in those scenarios, all the players want to know what they did wrong. He said it gets tricky when teams lose by three or four points, because that’s when players start blaming each other and you have to nip it in the bud.
I then asked Karl if he felt there’s too much "over-coaching" going on in the NBA, something Simmons brings up in his new book. Karl immediately agreed that there’s too much over-coaching, again citing Smith’s credo that good coaches do their work in practice.
Back to the yelling, I questioned why Karl yelled more in Seattle than in Denver. He said it has a lot to do with the players. In Seattle, he said he "had two crazy guys" – Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp – and everyone else was a seasoned veteran, such as Hersey Hawkins, Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins and one of Karl’s all-time favorites, Nate McMillan. So Karl felt he had to be crazy to connect with his young, crazy stars, knowing those veterans could take it. Whereas in Denver, he has chosen to be mellow because so many of his players aren’t, and also acknowledged that age and health issues over the years have contributed to this, as well.
On the back-to-back road losses to Miami and Atlanta…
We then segued into how Karl was handling the back-to-back losses at Miami and Atlanta among the players, and he said there’s no reason to panic, citing the Nuggets third back-to-back in just a few weeks (including the preseason ending back-to-back). He said he didn’t want to make excuses, but there was definitely a "fatigue factor" in those two losses that kicked in.
That said, Karl mentioned that the Nuggets transition defense in Atlanta was "the worst" he’s seen since being in Denver and that the players "disrespected the game." That’s a bold statement considering how bad the Nuggets defense has been over the years. Karl also felt like Melo really forced his game with K-Mart out and he’s concerned generally about the Nuggets having no insurance policy for K-Mart should he go down again. I said that wouldn’t have been a problem had the Nuggets drafted DeJuan Blair, and Karl said that there was some serious consideration for drafting Blair on draft night in the Nuggets war room. (In case you forgot, the Nuggets sold their second round pick for a record number just before Blair was drafted by San Antonio. I’ll forever wish the Nuggets had just drafted Blair instead of taking the cash.)
I then needled Karl for his quote about how winning half the games on this six-game trip could possibly be considered "a great success" to which he countered: "Ask anyone in the NBA, and they’ll tell you that winning half your road games is a great success." I said: "Well, sure, if you win half your road games and 75% of your home games you win 50 games." And Karl immediately countered, jokingly: "Hey! You stole that from me! That’s my line!"
But I wouldn’t let it go. I asked: "But isn’t that setting the bar a little too low if you say it’s ok to win just half your games on a six-game road trip?" And Karl justified it by saying that statements like that take the pressure off his players.
On the Nuggets schedule…
I couldn’t resist bringing up the Nuggets arduous schedule, and said: "Well, I hate to make excuses for you and I probably shouldn’t do this, but I think the Nuggets schedule is egregiously difficult this season. Not only do we have a league high 22 back-to-backs, but a lot of them come after 8:30pm games and many are on the road." Karl acknowledged that scheduling can make a difference, citing that Portland had mostly home games on the second of their back-to-backs last season. Karl went on to say that the toughest back-to-back in the NBA is playing the second half of a double header the night before and then come into Denver or Utah for the second game. He said you really feel the difference with the altitude.
When I brought up the Lakers absurdly having 17 of their first 21 games at home, Karl wouldn’t touch that one. But he did say that the problem with the Nuggets opening their season with seven of their first nine games on the road is that they’ve missed a lot of practice time.
On my homeland security theory…
I shared my "homeland security theory" on coaching with Karl to see if he agreed with it. The theory goes that in coaching, like homeland security, you only have to be wrong once and everyone blames you for everything. Homeland security can defend our country 99 out of 100 times against a terrorist attack, but if they miss one they’re deemed incompetent and heads roll. Karl understood the analogy, and pointed out that he has to make between 40 and 50 decisions during every game – player substitutions, when to call a timeout, what plays to call, etc – and doesn’t always make the right decisions. He went on to say that sometimes you put a player into a game and you can tell right away he’s going to hurt you out there. I asked him if he has to purposely leave a player on the floor for a few more minutes than he should to preserve the player’s confidence (especially young players), and Karl said that absolutely happens from time to time.
On rookie Ty Lawson…
I pointed out that Karl’s proud expression was inescapable on national TV when Lawson came out of the opening night game against Utah (Lawson had had a tremendous rookie debut, and you could tell Karl was fighting everything he had inside him not to give the rookie too much praise after his first game). Karl didn’t want to over-praise his new rookie with me, either, but was quick to point out that only two former Duke players have won a championship in the NBA (Lawson is an alum of North Carolina, same as Karl). He also said that Lawson doesn’t make mistakes like most rookies do.
On starting J.R. Smith…
Since we were on the eve of J.R.’s return from a seven-game suspension, the topic of J.R. came up. Karl said that he "doesn’t think J.R. wants to start" and that he’d be starting Afflalo that night. Emphasis was on that night, implying that Afflalo isn’t guaranteed to be the starter in perpetuity if he doesn’t hold his own. Back to J.R., Karl believes that J.R. likes being in the rhythm of the offense off the bench rather than starting. I also asked how things are going between Karl and J.R. (they had been at loggerheads for a while) and Karl said things were great between them right now, but J.R. remains a good/bad player.
On general keys to success…
I asked Karl if he had read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and not only had Karl read it, but he brought up Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule (the theory being that after someone devotes 10,000 hours to something they’re very passionate about, that’s when they start getting really good at it). I asked Karl when he thought his 10,000 hours kicked in as a coach, and while he didn’t exactly answer the question, he told me an interesting story.
After getting fired at Golden State (Karl’s second NBA coaching job after getting fired in Cleveland two years earlier), Karl went back to the owners, general managers and assistant coaches of those two franchises and asked them what he did wrong. What made him fail, etc? He took what they told him and decided he’d just coach and forget worrying about coaching in the NBA and the politics that go with that. From there, Karl went on to coach the CBA’s Albany Patroons and Real Madrid before returning to the NBA in Seattle.
On past playoff disappointments…
When discussing the Nuggets first round flameouts before last season, Karl used the same line that Mark Warkentien fed me when we first met: "We weren’t supposed to win any of those series and three of the teams that beat us went on the NBA Finals." I said fine, but maybe we shouldn’t have had such a low seed in the first place? Karl, understandably, wouldn’t agree with me there and went on to note that in spite of all the issues prior to last season: the injuries, the brawl in New York, absorbing A.I., more injuries, etc, he and his staff "have always put together a season," referring to the great runs the Nuggets have had to wrap up three of the last five seasons.
As we were finishing up our lunch, one of Karl’s friends sitting with us pined in with an old Chuck Daly (the "dean" of NBA coaches) story. Karl’s friend recounted a time when Daly had told him: "You don’t know what it’s like to be a head coach in the NBA. There’s absolutely nothing like it. You walk through that tunnel into the arena and 18,000 people are second guessing you. Then you look at the press row and 15 reporters are second guessing you. And then you look at the broadcasters and they’re second guessing you, too. It’s the hardest job in the world."
I countered, jokingly: "Pay me $3 million per year to coach basketball and you can happily second guess anything I do."
And suddenly Karl became stoic, his eyes swelled up and the mood at the table switched from loose and relaxed to dead serious. Karl looked me right in the eyes with the utmost sincerity and, as if the weight of almost 30 years of coaching were being channeled through him to me, said: "The money’s not worth it. And unless you’ve been in those shoes, you just don’t know what it’s like." Karl took a deep breath and repeated himself: "You…just…don’t…know."
We all kind of paused after that. It was a heavy moment that I’ll never forget. Eventually we got the check and Adams picked up the tab (see, I told you he’s a nice guy). Karl and I then walked out together, just the two of us, for a few short blocks back to his hotel. As we approached his hotel I told him I really appreciated his time and he patted me on the back and said: "That was fun. I can always talk basketball."