This is the final part of a three-part series in which I chronicled the time I spent two weeks ago with Nuggets head coach George Karl. Part 1 featured my formal interview with our team's coach and Part 2 detailed my experience watching the team play live in Chicago and Milwaukee. This final segment is my analysis of Karl and what happens moving forward.
George Karl didn't change my opinion of George Karl when we spent a good deal of time together two weeks ago. Instead, the experience of hanging out with the Nuggets head coach basically affirmed much of what I'd already heard and knew about him.
Before I get accused of being a sellout, a shill for the Nuggets, and so forth, let's take a few steps back. As noted numerous times on this site and again in Part 1 of this series, I recognized early in this site's development that blaming Karl solely for the Nuggets myriad of problems in 2007-08 didn't make sense. Hence the site's name change at the conclusion of that lost season.
My opinion of the Nuggets head coach began to change early on in the 2008-09 season when I saw the Nuggets playing tougher and more cohesively, Karl coaching more enthusiastically and when Robert Sanchez and I had lunch last Fall. (You're probably thinking: huh? And: who is Robert Sanchez?)
As the 2008-09 Nuggets season was in its infancy, Sanchez - a journalist for Denver's 5280 magazine who had previously written a terrific piece on former Nugget Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf - interviewed me as part of his lengthy article on Karl, published in the magazine's March edition (my part of the story never found its way into the magazine article, but I still like Sanchez nonetheless). While discussing all things George Karl, Sanchez shared with me the story of Karl laying it on the line with his players in Las Vegas during the 2008 offseason, which essentially set the tone for the season ahead. I eventually detailed that moment when interviewing Sanchez for my "Genesis of a great Nuggets season revealed" piece, and I recommend reading that again. Had Sanchez not told me that story, I don't think I'd have ever heard it as no one reported this at the time. (Just one of many examples of the Nuggets being the most under-covered team in the NBA...more on that below.)
Knowing that Karl had stood up to the players (who, in my opinion, had run amuck on the coach from the 2006 playoffs through the 2008 playoffs) combined with the effort on the floor and from the bench, I became very bullish on Karl early last season and eventually advocated for him to get serious Coach of the Year consideration. And the results spoke for themselves when the Nuggets came within a few quarters of besting the Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference Finals.
Beyond what Sanchez shared with me about Karl, from the day this site launched I'd spoken with a number of people who work in and around the NBA, with the Nuggets directly and with several members of the Denver sports media who all know Karl and never heard a bad thing about the Nuggets head coach on a personal level. I was consistently told that he's a great guy, fun to hang out with, candid, smart and if you had to say one bad thing about him, it's that he's arrogant when it comes to coaching (shocking for an NBA coach, I know).
And thus, I wasn't the least surprised that when I finally got to hang out with Karl he was all those things, although I didn't find him to be all that arrogant about his coaching.
Spending time with Karl, you see immediately why the media likes him (when he's in a good mood, at least). He's gregarious, loose, frank, engaging, deeply passionate and very knowledgeable about the game of basketball. In an era where too many athletes and coaches are overly cautious about what comes out of their mouths, Karl isn't afraid to speak his mind, even if it sometimes bites him in the ass...and gets torn apart on this site and others. I've never pretended to be the best judge of character, but having spent some time with Karl I truly believe he's a good guy with the best of intentions. This is evident not just in talking to him, but when you hear the stories about his charity work or stories like the time he paid Nuggets assistant coach Jamahl Mosley out of his own pocket believing that the NBA needs more African American assistants who aren't just former players.
But just because you're a good guy, fun to hang around with and passionate about your job doesn't automatically mean you're good at your job, so the man and the coach have to be looked at separately. That said, I've long believed and still believe that Karl is a great coach. You don't become the NBA's 8th all time leader in coaching victories while winning almost 60% of your games without being great at that job. And the guy Karl is about to pass to take 7th place - Bill Fitch - was more of a product of longevity than great coaching (Fitch's career winning percentage is a lowly .460). As one Nuggets executive told me during the playoffs last season when Karl's name came up: "50-win coaches don't grow on trees."
I still maintain that we didn't get the best from Karl between 2006-2008, even though the Nuggets were able to "put together seasons" as Karl was quick to point out with me (I'd add regular seasons only, not substantive playoff runs). There are an assortment of reasons for this - some justifiable with the benefit of hindsight and understanding, some still not in my opinion - that have been covered ad nauseum on this site. I don't want to revisit all that but it should be acknowledged as it seems clear to me that when we get the George Karl from 2004-05 and again last season - working the refs, holding the players accountable for mistakes, bursting at the seams with every possession - not only are the Nuggets better off for it but the fans feel like the coach is exhibiting the same passion for the game that we do.
When I was calling for Karl's ouster two seasons ago, it was because Larry Brown was available at the time and I envisioned Brown reuniting with Allen Iverson and whipping the Nuggets into shape for a championship run, as Brown had done with a similar collection of players in Detroit just years earlier (it should be noted that when asked who the next Nuggets coach should be, Rocky the mascot edged out Brown among Nuggets fans by a margin of about two-to-one). Little did I know at the time that it would be Karl himself who would whip the Nuggets into shape and then some, while being given a gift from management in Chauncey Billups to help lead us to the brink of that long sought after championship.
Moving forward, I've seen enough Michael Coopers, Gene Littles's, Michael Currys and Dwane Caseys to know what happens when organizations get penny-wise and pound-foolish over coaching changes and boot out 50-win coaches in favor of cheaply paid assistants. On the one hand, I wish there were more bright assistant coaches who could get a shot at being head coaches (like we've seen in the NFL with great success). But on the other hand, this is the NBA where the guaranteed contract has made the player king, and thus there are only a handful of coaches whom these players will listen to. Fortunately for us, I believe Karl is one of those coaches and he deserves to have his contract extended during this season, preferably before the All-Star break.
Under Karl, the Nuggets have won 62% of their games and have had their most successful postseason run in NBA franchise history. Prior to Karl's arrival, the Nuggets (since joining the NBA) had won 45% of their games. Now I know it's not apples-to-apples and Karl has had the benefit of overseeing arguably the most talented rosters in Nuggets history, but these have been good times for Nuggets basketball and Karl deserves credit for much of that success. Whatever rifts existed between Karl and Carmelo Anthony, Karl and J.R. Smith, and Karl and Kenyon Martin seem to have dissipated (winning games helps, as does maturity and patience). And while I won't allow Iverson to be the scapegoat for the Nuggets past struggles under Karl (and won't blame management for bringing Iverson here...at least they went for it), we only need look at Detroit and Memphis to realize that Iverson was anything but "The Answer" the Nuggets were looking for during his short tenure in Denver. As I said on the Stiff List a few weeks ago, in hindsight Karl and Brown look better than ever with how they handled Iverson.
So what does me meeting Karl mean for Denver Stiffs? Do things change around here?
The tone of this site already changed a long time ago as I got more educated on the goings-on within the Nuggets organization. And this site will remain vigilant as the voice of the Nuggets fan and the season-ticket holder (like me) by calling out Stiffs when people deserve to be branded as such. But while mistakes will be made in the front office, on the bench and on the floor, I've come to realize that there are no "bad guys" in this story (except K-Mart's contract I guess). Long gone are the days of ineptitude in Nuggets Nation due to absent ownership, incompetent management and inept, lazy coaching. With each passing year, the Peter Bynoes, Bertam Lees, Bernie Bickerstaffs, Dan Issels and Allen Bristows keep fading - thankfully - into the rear view mirror of our collective memory.
One thing that I hope will change - and I'll be forwarding this piece to the Nuggets PR team - is for Nate and I to get credentialed already. While the Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman and Chris Dempsey and HoopsWorld's Travis Heath do a great job covering the team, the Nuggets have to be one of the more under-covered teams in the NBA. And since joining AOL Fanhouse, Chris Tomasson (formerly of the Rocky Mountain News) is no longer 100% dedicated to the Nuggets. The bottom line is I only see good things for the Nuggets by having Nate and I around to write stories and features on the team not being covered elsewhere. And hopefully my short excursion with the team showed the organization that I know how to behave myself in the locker room!
Before signing off for today and wishing you all a happy Thanksgiving, I want to extend a public thanks to Bret Adams (George Karl's lawyer) and Karl himself for being such gracious hosts on the road and making themselves available for the long-awaited interview. I also want to thank Tim Gelt and the Nuggets for being cool with me hanging around the team.
I want to wish all of this site's readers and those in the Nuggets organization a wonderful Thanksgiving. With the Nuggets opening up at 10-4 and tied for first place in the Northwest Division, we all have much to be thankful for!