To suddenly see the Nuggets - who were firmly ensconced as the Western Conference's two-seed seemingly from opening night - tied with Phoenix for the Western Conference's fourth-seed makes one's jaw drop to the floor. And if history is any indication, it's fair to speculate that things wouldn't be happening this way on George Karl's watch.
Ever since Nuggets lead assistant coach Adrian Dantley took over the head coaching reins from George Karl in late February, much has been written comparing the two. Starting out impressively with a 4-1 record (remember my "In AD We Trust" game recap from just a few weeks ago?) while being more generous with the minutes allocated to all the players on the active roster, the going theory was that Dantley - while no one confused him with having Karl's coaching prowess and X's and O's know-how - was a good in-game manager and thus, commanded the players' respect and best effort.
Whether or not respect is the issue today, it's clear that Dantley has lost his midas touch with our Nugget players. Because a month into the AD Experiment as Nuggets head coach, the Nuggets are now 6-6 in games coached by Dantley and have slipped from being entrenched as the Western Conference's two-seed to fighting for home court advantage...in the first round. Even when Karl announced his renewed battle with cancer and I served up my concerns about Dantley's coaching acumen, I never thought the Nuggets would slip to fifth.
Opposite of what Karl would likely be doing right now, Dantley is threatening to end a once magical Nuggets season with a thud. How can I make a bold statement like that? Because if history has taught us anything during the George Karl Era in Denver, Karl is a damn good closer.
When I had the privilege of meeting Karl back in November, our head coach was quick to point out that, in spite of some inexcusable regular season losses to horrible teams, he and his coaching staff always "put together seasons". Meaning, even when the chips are down as the season grinds on, the Nuggets finish strong with Karl at the helm. With the glaring exception of the shoddy 2005-06 campaign, Karl is absolutely right. Check out how the Nuggets have finished over the final 20 games of the season since Karl's arrival for the latter half of the 2004-05 season...
2006-07: 14-6 (won 10 of last 11 games)
2008-09: 14-6 (including a five and an eight-game winning streak)
2009-10: 7-6 (so far, seven games to go)
And beyond the wins and losses (which should speak for themselves), in seasons past Karl always seemed to get the Nuggets to win the important games that mattered most down the stretch. Remember when the 2007-08 season came down to a regular season game at Golden State in Game 79 just to secure a playoff berth? The Nuggets won. Or when the Nuggets had to beat the (admittedly lowly) Kings at Denver to secure the two-seed in Game 81 of last season? The Nuggets won.
Additionally, Karl-led Nuggets teams close at an admirably high rate within games, as well. Through February 26th of this year, Karl's Nuggets were 30-3 in games when leading entering the fourth quarter. Dantley's record when leading or being tied entering the fourth quarter? 3-3.
Making matters worse, not only isn't Dantley winning the big games - like at Dallas, at Orlando or at Boston - but he's losing the not-so-big-games - like home against Milwaukee (who were playing a back-to-back and coming off a double overtime game at Sacramento) and at New York, and almost at Toronto - that give you a cushion against the big games being too big. While Karl has been able to keep the Nuggets loose but aggressive to wrap up recent regular seasons, the pressure around Dantley and his players only seems to be building, choking the aggression and the spirited fight out of them. (When Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups combine to shoot 6-for-30, I think it's fair to assume they're playing tight and are putting too much pressure on themselves.)
So if you're wondering what the biggest difference between George Karl and Adrian Dantley is, it's that one man knows how to close games and seasons and the other doesn't. And most unfortunately, due to grave, heartbreaking circumstances that should make basketball an afterthought for us all, the man in charge right now happens to be the one who doesn't know how to close the deal.
Maybe Dantley just needs a little inspiration courtesy of Alec Baldwin's legendary performance in David Mamet's masterful "Glengarry Glen Ross". Notably around the three-minute mark...