I suppose it's time for my annual George Karl needs to step it up column. The conclusion is always the same, but the premise changes as the years go by. It's a constantly moving backboard that always results in a basket.
For some reason, throughout Karl's career, he has been a lightning-rod of criticism. You can chalk this up to being generally outspoken, rough around the edges, and the ownership of an unfortunate playoff record he has carried with him for many years (think Marty Schottenheimer). However, if you look a little deeper you can find other more substantive reasons to be critical, chief among them are his propensity to "tinker" with a deep team ... and a bad habit of over-relying on veterans (never more clear than with Al Harrington and Andre Miller last season).
Last season was difficult across the league. With 66 games and some teams playing two sets of back-to-back-to-back games (including the Nuggets) it's easy to look in and say "well, this year you get a mulligan". Yet, I would say that last season Karl went back to some of his worst habits as a coach and it reflected most obviously during end-of-game situations. Curious end of game lineups and overuse of his veterans can be linked as factors in some close game losses the Nuggets suffered last season. It was almost as if George was lost. Take for example the Nuggets' second-to-last loss against the Clippers last season. The one in Los Angeles that featured a dead tired Harrington and Andre Miller at the end of game; and it resulted in wonky and wild shots at the rim and poor rotations on defense.
Lineup consistency is paramount to team success. Arbitrarily inserting and removing key components can mess with the psyche of those you rely on the most to get the job done. While you can say that this is because this Nuggets team is so deep, you can also make the argument that George was just lost in general. Wildly grabbing at any straw he could. Is that because the coach was getting used to a new team? Or was it something else entirely?
Sometimes when you give someone too many good ingredients, you become obsessed with the amount of ingredients you have rather than baking the best cake you can make. So rather than having one supremely good baked good, you have a confused mess that results in good - but not great - results. While we all acknowledge that this Nuggets team is a step and maybe a couple steps away from contending, we also understand that maximizing talent is paramount and should always come before lineup "tinkering". Put your best players in the best position to succeed and what follows is the best possible team your talent will allow you to have.
I believe that Karl is starting to understand that with his indication that he may bring JaVale McGee off the bench. While people are obsessed with McGee starting, it became patently clear that his chemistry with Miller was great. In fact, I hadn't seen Miller's lob passes be that effective since he was throwing alley-oops to Kenyon Martin back in the day. JaVale's two best games in the playoffs last season (Games 3 and 5) were directly a result of his chemistry with Miller. Why tamper with that? Maybe, just maybe it's George Karl's realization that maximizing JaVale's abilities with Miller is better than sticking to a starting role?
Perhaps Nuggets Vice President Masai Ujiri took away one of George's crutches in Harrington on purpose. This may actually free up some of the talented younger players. The most important thing is to maximize the best talent. Not tinker. You can tinker yourself to death, and up until the end of last season the team was on the verge of doing just that.
Will this season be different?
I certainly hope so. With George's rather spotty playoff record, another first round exit or missing the playoffs altogether may be the final bell for Karl's time in Denver. This team is too talented to be one and done, and somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind Karl is aware of this. He is also aware, I'm sure, that he is rapidly approaching the "no excuses" category. No blaming Carmelo Anthony. No blaming the lack of point guards (Ty Lawson and 'Dre remove all point guard excuses). No blaming the lockout. Yes, the Nuggets schedule is brutal to start the season (14 out of the first 20 on the road), but people aren't expecting the Nuggets to turn into the 72-10 Chicago Bulls. Be respectable and survive. Get through that 20 game stretch and play your butts off. Maximize your best talent and get better. Can they do that?
I like Karl (spoken directly to him several times and I find him to be charming and great to talk basketball with). I'm not asking Ujiri to fire him. I'm asking Karl to step it up this season and prove to the NBA that he is a great championship level coach who can lift all boats with his rising tide. There are great aspects of Karl's coaching that sometimes get overwhelmed by his outspoken nature and his past. If he focuses on the better angels of his nature rather than his different devils he can be the beacon of light on an exciting NBA team.
I'm looking forward to this season, but there's now expectations. Let's see how George Karl handles them.
Twitter: @jmorton78 https://twitter.com/#!/jmorton78