If you are what your record says you are, George Karl deserved to be extended by the Nuggets. Now the coach and the organization can happily put this distraction behind them and focus on bringing Denver its first NBA Championship.
You'd think that the guy who originally launched firegeorgekarl.com would have some immediate thoughts on the Nuggets announcing Friday that head coach Geoge Karl would be extended for one more season. But the news broke as I was on my way out of town for the holiday weekend, and I'm now just getting back into the swing of things here in Denver. So please accept my apologies for this tardy commentary!
But as the guy who did indeed launch that original side, I certainly know a thing or two (or three or four or five...) about Denver's current professional basketball coach, and I can say with confidence that this extension was long overdue and very well deserved.
Longtime readers of this site know how I grade coaches and I assume many of you do the same. I look at the quality and depth of the ros ter, the relative health of the players and the quality of the competition and set expectations accordingly. Based on those expectations, I ask: did the team meet, exceed or do worse than what was expected? I like to use this "method" for grading coaches because I don't believe it's fair to say a guy is doing a good or bad coaching job just because of a few bad losses, a few bad play calls and a few bad substitution patterns. Simply put, I like macro data to judge a person's performance, not micro data.
But I'm also solutions oriented. Rarely do I rant against something without proposing a way to resolve it. And thus, in February 2008 when I was advocating for Karl to kick himself upstairs in the Nuggets organization and bring in his good friend Larry Brown to take over as coach, I was doing two things: looking at the macro data and proposing a solution. At that time, Karl's playoff coaching record in Denver was a much, much worse than expected 3-12 and on its way to being an embarrassing 3-16 after a listless, lifeless, give-the-fans-their-money-back, first round playoff sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers. Moreover, I was basing my argument on the team as constructed at the time - namely, with Allen Iverson on board. So while I never once said George Karl was a bad coach, I felt strongly back then that he had lost his connection with the players and that Brown would be a better fit for an Iverson-led team. I believed that Brown could do something similar in Denver that he did in Philadelphia and Detroit; take a collection of highly talented, big-ego guys and mesh them together for a fighting chance at an NBA title.
We all know what happened soon thereafter. Brown was scooped up by the Charlotte Bobcats, Karl received the de facto backing of Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke and management (whether that was for monetary reasons only we'll never know) and Karl came into the 2008 training camp refreshed and hell bent on changing the culture in the locker room and on the basketball floor. Admirably, Karl owned up to his past mistakes and changed things for the better of the franchise. And it worked. Not only did Karl give a "my way or the highway"-type edict to kick off the 2008 training camp, but Karl's former adversary and known malcontent Kenyon Martin had his coach's back from day one, cementing change in Denver. Iverson would have no part of it, and was promptly shipped out to Detroit in exchange for Chauncey Billups - a pro's pro - and the culture change, kicked off by Karl in the first place, was complete.
As the Nuggets won an NBA franchise-tying best 54 games and went further into the postseason than any other Nuggets team before it (remember, the 1984-85 Nuggets won just one Western Conference Finals game whereas the 2008-09 version won two) combined with the Pistons subsequent implosion with Iverson on board, we learned - or were at least reminded for those who forgot - a few things. First, we learned that Karl is indeed a great coach when ruling the team with a stern hand (as he did upon arrival in Denver when leading the Nuggets to an NBA record 32-8 finish, the best ever for a coaching takeover in league history) and having a floor general who executes his orders. It's no accident that Karl's best postseasons were when Gary Payton, Sam Cassell and Chauncey Billups were at the helm. Second, we learned that Iverson is locker room poison. I still won't use Iverson - as many will - as the lone excuse for a 60-win caliber Nuggets team finishing with 50 wins, an eighth seed and a playoff sweep, but it was clear that neither the Nuggets nor any other NBA team were going anywhere with "The Answer".
In addition, rather than use injuries as an excuse for losses as was commonplace on the 2004 through 2008 Nuggets teams coached by Karl, last season and this season's Nuggets squad has stopped making such excuses. This season in particular the Nuggets have overcome 13 missed games by superstar Carmelo Anthony, nine missed games by team MVP Chauncey Billups and five missed games by defensive leader Kenyon Martin to remain on pace for 54 wins and second-seed in the Western Conference. How many teams in the NBA could miss their three best players for 27 combined games and still be on pace for 54 wins? Moreover, the Nuggets are doing this during a season in which they've been handed a Western Conference high 22 back-to-back games and aren't surprising anyone as they did last season.
Taking all that into account, from my vantage point Karl's Nuggets have greatly exceeded expectations for the second season in a row, even with the upcoming playoffs still to be determined, and Karl was therefore deserving of an extension.
But beyond the numbers, Karl deserved to be extended for two more reasons. First, there's no one else out there who could do a better job. And second, he's an earnest guy with great values who does things the right way (more on that momentarily).
Being late to the party on this story, I've had the benefit of reading the comments on Nate's FanShot announcing the extension and seeing the names being thrown out there by Karl's detractors: Avery Johnson, Jeff van Gundy, Byron Scott, Lawrence Frank, Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, and so on. Does anyone honestly believe that drill sergeant wannabe Avery Johnson would get Carmelo Anthony to play hard nosed defense for 48 minutes? Or that Chauncey Billups would enjoy playing in Jeff van Gundy's slow it down, be conservative offense? Or that Byron Scott - whom I've heard is downright lazy from very good sources - could pull his act on veterans like Billups or K-Mart? No chance.
If you want to argue that Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Rick Adelman or Jerry Sloan are better coaches than Karl, Karl may even agree with you on that (well, he wouldn't but he wouldn't blame you for thinking it). But to suggest that there's a non-working coach (sans Pat Riley) out there who could do a better job with this Nuggets team than Karl is patently absurd.
To my second point regarding Karl's values and Karl as a person and a coach, this means something. Back in November I got to see first hand what a good, solid guy Karl is. I got to see him bring his significant other's entire family to Nuggets games in Chicago and Milwaukee. I got see his passion for his players and the game to be played the right way. I got to see his affection for his longtime friends and vice versa. And then I heard stories like the one where Karl payed Nuggets assistant coach Jamahl Mosley out of his own pocket because he felt the NBA needed more African American assistant coaches who weren't just former players. Or how he runs a foundation for lower income kids to go to basketball camps who aren't picked up on the AAU circuit. And since meeting Karl, I can't count the number of times people have told or emailed me their stories of encounters with Karl and what a great person he is. The stories of Karl's big heart are endless.
After spending time with Karl, I wrote that just because you're a good guy doesn't mean you're a good coach. But if you are a good guy and are a good coach, shouldn't that mean something? Shouldn't there be rewards in life for those who play by the rules, work hard, do things the right way and give others ample opportunities to succeed? I certainly think so, believe so and hope my own future - wherever it leads - pans out based on those principles.
So while Karl's loosey-goosey coaching style may still have us racking our brains. While his perceived nonchalance during the first three quarters of most games will continue to drive fans - including me - nuts. While he remains somewhat arrogant and downright stubborn about his coaching (although that has changed greatly over the years...like we saw recently when Karl took the blame for the J.R. Smith pouting incident). He's our coach for the next season-and-a-half and I'm damn happy about it.
Congratulations to George Karl and Bret Adams (Karl's longtime friend and attorney) and to the Nuggets organization for getting this deal done. Now let's get the Nuggets to the NBA Finals already!
Photo courtesy of AP: LM Otero