Your trusted blogger scored a one-on-one interview with the Nuggets head coach soon after he signed a three-year contract extension with the team.
What a difference a year makes.
About 11 months ago, I visited with a cancer-stricken George Karl in his living room hoping to cheer up the Nuggets coach as he was bravely fighting through intensive radiation treatments. At the time, Karl had recently signed a contract extension to coach the Nuggets for the 2010-11 season, but was forced to sit out the remainder of the regular season and the entire 2010 postseason as he battled cancer for the second time in his life. Many questioned if Karl would ever see an NBA court again, never mind coach on one.
But come last September at Nuggets training camp, a noticeably thin, fit and re-engaged Karl was ready to coach our Nuggets again. And even though he would be faced with his greatest coaching challenge ever - navigating the nauseating Melodrama - nothing seemed to compare to battling, and beating, cancer.
Maybe it was Karl's new outlook on life that put basketball in its proper perspective. Maybe it was the experience that comes with winning over 1,000 games as an NBA head coach. Maybe it was the newfound respect his players had for him. But whatever the reason, Karl was able to guide the Nuggets to a very respectable 32-25 record prior to the All-Star break despite the ongoing Melodrama that threatened to tear the team apart. And Karl has coached them to an impressive 5-2 record since trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups (plus three other Nuggets) for five newcomers who have had to be integrated on the fly.
Rewarding Karl for what's arguably been the best coaching job of his long career, on Tuesday the Nuggets announced that Karl had signed a three-year contract extension with optional years for extension after the third year. Karl also met with his doctors on Tuesday and received very positive blood test results. The strategies put in place by his doctors are working thus far and the prognosis for the future is good. So to say the least, Coach Karl was in a very upbeat mood when I caught up with him in his living room on Tuesday night - the same living room where just over a year ago, Karl could barely speak as he battled for his life.
Just hours removed from signing a three-year contract extension, Karl was playing with his young daughter Kaci Grace and (begrudgingly) taking coaching tips from his life partner Kim Van Deraa who, like me, was all-too-happy to grill the Nuggets head coach on the team that was and the team that will be. Karl was as gracious as ever, and we covered an assortment of topics related to the Nuggets and the NBA in general...
Andrew Feinstein: "Congratulations on your extension. You know, 11 months ago we were sitting right here watching the playoffs and you were undergoing that brutal radiation treatment. How do you reflect on the last year with everything you've gone through?"
George Karl: "There's no question that in the last few weeks there has been a closure to what happened in the last year. It's time to begin a new chapter, both in my life and my coaching. We should celebrate my six years here with Melo - only think of the good stuff and stay away from the crazy stuff. All of us have a mourning when a big trade happens, especially with Chauncey Billups. But the excitement, enthusiasm and exuberance with the trade gives everyone an opportunity to feel really good right now. And I have to say, I really like being the underdog right now. Everyone says we have to get the fifth seed to play Oklahoma City, but I like our chances as the underdog against the other teams atop the Western Conference, too."
AF: "Have you talked to Melo, Chauncey or any of the other players since the trade?"
GK: "I haven't. I've sent some text messages. In this business, people tend to be pretty raw right after a big trade and it's best to let things calm down a bit before reconnecting with those players."
AF: "Name one surprising thing you've learned about the new Nugget players that the fans wouldn't know about."
GK: "Raymond Felton has an Andre Miller toughness and psyche to his performance. Danilo Gallinari is more of a complete player than I realized. Wilson Chandler is going to make more defensive plays from the weak side than any player we've had since Marcus Camby. He has all-defensive team potential. And the big guys [Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos] each have a basketball savvy that's unusual for young big men. I think, in general, we have five guys that are all capable of playing on an NBA court. How, when, where they'll fit in is still to be determined."
AF: "Everyone seems to be excited about this team, but how do we get from here to a championship without a superstar leading the way?"
GK: "We just have to try to be the best team. The game will tell you what to do. Speed and penetration are so valuable to the game of basketball right now, and with Ray and Ty we have those things. I like reinventing the philosophy of having to have a superstar to win. I hate to say it, but you can try to do it like Detroit did [making the NBA Finals in 2004 and 2005 without a true superstar] by having a top-15 player at every position and a top-five bench and being committed and defensive minded. Team minded."
AF: "You, myself, the media, etc. have said some pretty lofty things about this team and then we lost to the Clippers last Saturday. Did reality set in or was that just road fatigue?"
GK: "I blame that one on injuries more than anything else. Not having Arron and Gallo did us in. But another way to look at it is that we were missing two of our most talented players and we still had a chance to win despite playing a below average game. And I saw that some people have been nitpicking our flow and substitution patterns even though we're 5-2 with the new guys. I'm telling you, that loss had nothing to do with flow or substitutions."
AF: "Speaking of substitutions, why isn't Mozgov getting more minutes?"
GK: "You have four big guys [Al Harrington, Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen] that you rotate all year. Remember, even Melo played the four sometimes. And the signing of Al Harrington has been better than he gets credit for. We've won a lot of games with Al Harrington.
"Now you add a fifth guy and you're going to take away some confidence from those other guys. Sometimes adding a fifth builds confidence and sometimes it takes away confidence. But it also depends on who we're playing. Thursday against Phoenix you're not going to see many big guys on the court because they're not big. Right now, against teams with bigger lineups he'll [Mozgov] get more minutes. But our success has been playing small and changing that personality is not a 'switch'. There's a creative ability to find a flow and that's when those opportunities open up.
"The kid [Mozgov] will be an NBA starter and he'll play 25 minutes a game. But right now you're in a stretch run in a playoff situation and young players can freeze up sometimes. I just need to find opportunities to play him and we'll see how he does."
AF: "Who should be the starting point guard - Ray or Ty?"
GK: "I've asked Ty and Ray to give me a couple weeks. I'm getting to know Raymond now on and off the court. Ty knows how I feel - if he's going to be the starter, there needs to be more seriousness to his leadership. Most days I get that. I love his athleticism and speed in the game, but he still defers too much of the time. I'd rather see him try to create the game and force it than deferring and being non-existent.
"I want them to dominate our passing decisions and I'd like our other guards to be playmakers. The luxury we have is that our big guys are good passers, too, and the new guys we picked up are good passers."
AF: "I was asked on the radio the other night who the leader of the team is right now and I said it was Kenyon Martin. Who is it in your eyes?"
GK: "I think Kenyon is the dominant personality right now with the opportunity to step forward and be the leader of this team."
AF: "What about J.R.? Do you want him back next season?"
GK: "In a crazy way in a dramatic season, I'm excited for everyone and that includes J.R. This is the best opportunity for J.R. than it's ever been here. Kenyon has the opportunity to be the leader of the team. Nene loves Denver and has a chance to be an All-Star - his efficiency is really good. Arron is moving in the right direction. Since there are so many different scenarios for next year, answering now isn't fair to anybody. But I think they all want to be here."
AF: "There are five seconds left, game is tied, who takes the last shot?"
GK: "It's going to be determined by matchups. Right now you've got Arron, Nene and Raymond in a position to make that shot. And if Ty has an ability to beat guys off the dribble and penetrate, I like that. Let basketball dictate who takes the shot. I'm not a huge believer in "a closer." It was fun to have Melo - and Chauncey a little - as "a closer" but closers don't have as high a shooting percentage in those situations as people think. Defense, grabbing loose balls, getting an offensive rebound - that's what wins those games. All those things win games more than people realize. Gallo could fall into that role..."
AF: "How about that shot Gallo almost made to end the Portland game?"
GK: "...I'm not sure I liked that shot, but he thought it was going in and I like that confidence. We have a lot of guys who have not been the first option in that situation, except Raymond. But it's not going to take three years to learn that."
AF: "Do you enjoy watching the Heat lose as much as I do? And do you think you'll refrain from mentioning your players crying in the locker room?"
GK: "That situation in Miami is crazy, it's unique and I'm sure it's difficult. It has a magnifying glass on it. I honestly believe they'll balance this ship out and be fine in the playoffs. Their failure right now is not coming together for the entire NBA to admire, not by their own standards. And even if that doesn't happen, they have so much talent that if the matchups break the right way, they could still get there."
GK: "I'm a big Dallas fan. Dallas creates interesting problems with their zone, but we've been successful against them. I think Oklahoma City will finish in the top four, they probably won't stumble. Portland, us, New Orleans are all playing for fifth with Memphis, Phoenix and Houston playing for that last spot.
"Utah is really struggling to the right the ship. If there's one team that's taken a psychological hit, it's Utah. I'm saddened by [Jerry] Sloan's departure. I have a background with Deron Williams, too, you know. He's turned into a great player. No one wins in that situation."
AF: "Are you as concerned as I am about the state of the NBA when just a handful of franchises collect the best players, leaving many teams devoid of stars and/or become unwatchable?"
GK: "Collusion isn't good in any business and is bad for sport. "Colluding" is not a good word for any team sport. I can't deny that it doesn't scare me a little bit. Competition, loyalty and commitment are important for a championship mentality. I'm not a socialist and I love the tradition of the Lakers and Celtics, but I wish there were more team rivalries of cities and teams and not players. The greatness of the league are the cities and the teams, and they should market the team and not individuals."
AF: "How is your son Coby doing and where is he playing?"
GK: "He's playing in Grenada, Spain and was just named the ACB Player of the Week. He's playing against Ricky Rubio. His team has had a lot of injuries and financial nightmares, but he's enjoyed his time in Spain. We talked today about finishing off the year strong."
AF: "You're very involved with Hoops for St. Jude Week. Can you tell Denver Stiffs readers more about it and what they can do?"
GK: "I've been humbled and honored by the NBA Coaches Association with St. Jude's tremendous tradition of dealing with childhood cancer. What Danny Thomas started 50 years ago is an incredible story. It's one of - if not the - finest children's hospitals in the world and focuses on difficult and dangerous cancers. The money is raised somehow, someway and I'm glad the NBA is a part of it. We've added some "studs" to the team [referring no doubt to Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Rudy Gay, Pau Gasol and David Lee] and I'm just glad to be a part of it. I recommend anyone to visit the hospital in Memphis if they get a chance. Your readers and fans should visit the website and donate. And a lot players have pledged to donate based on how many wins they have."
AF: "We have a tough schedule ahead. You've said 48 wins is the benchmark to make the playoffs, but now we're talking a fifth seed. Any thoughts on what's ahead or do you just take things one game at a time with these new guys?"
GK: "There's no need to overreact to anything but play the right way. If we play the right way, we'll find wins. Plus, you'll be surprised by the win and the losses. We are not a team of consistency right now and the schedule is strenuous because there will be playoff-type games. But I'm confident that we'll make it to the playoffs and shock the world in the first round."