Golden Nuggets: When to criticize a coach?

As someone who knows a thing or two about advocating for a coach to get fired, allow me to opine on the recent criticism being thrown towards Nuggets head coach George Karl.

I will forever regret launching FireGeorgeKarl.com.

Not because in hindsight I thought Karl did a decent coaching job in the 2007-08 season (I don't think he did), or that I thought he shouldn't have been fired at the conclusion of that disastrous season that ended with an 0-4 sweep to the Lakers (at the time, I advocated for a coaching change), or that I've come to know Karl personally since and greatly admire and like him.

No.

I regret launching that site because I threw myself into the lot with the "fire the coach" camp that more often than not wrongly lays blame on one figure. Having always lived my own life by the motto "Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan", I should have known better at the time.

But like many of you today, when that site originally went up I was pissed off. Really pissed off. I couldn't understand how a team loaded with talent and an $84-million payroll could get embarrassingly swept in the playoffs' first round ... nevermind almost missing the post-season altogether that year! I was tired of first round playoff exits. I was tired of squirrely rotations. I was tired of Coach Karl (seemingly) being too relaxed on the deck while The Titanic had hit an iceberg and was sinking around him. I was tired of it all and demanded a coaching change.

But a funny thing happened after the playoff embarrassment of 2008. Karl came into the 2008 training camp - holding only a one-year contract - with a renewed vigor for coaching. He had had enough of his players walking all over him and was sick of the fans, the media and (speculating) his own organization questioning whether or not he was qualified to coach in the NBA anymore. With that energy and renewed focus - plus the addition of Chauncey Billups - the Nuggets had their most successful season ever since joining the NBA in 1976 by appearing in the 2009 Western Conference Finals and taking the Lakers to six games. I repeat: the franchise's most successful season ever.

The Karl critics will say it all had to do with Billups, but you can't have it both ways. If the coach deserves all the blame when the team struggles, he is entitled to (at least some) of the credit when the team succeeds.

At the end of that magical season, I argued for Karl to get Coach of the Year consideration ... and to be clear, he had never sought me out nor had I ever met the guy (I didn't meet Karl until the summer of 2009). I've just always believed that you criticize when it's merited and cheer-lead when it's merited ... equally.

Coming off that thrilling conference finals run, throughout much of the 2009-10 season Karl's Nuggets were nipping at the conference-leading Lakers heels. In fact, their record was so good that Karl coached in the All-Star Game. But sadly, Karl was stricken with cancer (for the second time in his life) and under the "guidance" of assistant coach Adrian Dantley, the Nuggets fell apart. And for those who thought Billups was the reason the Nuggets were so good in 2008-09 I ask you: if Billups truly was the coach of the team, why wasn't he able to lead the Nuggets past the Jazz in the first round in 2010, even though the Nuggets had home court advantage?

And of course, we know what the cancer-surviving Karl had to deal with last season. And yet even with the Melodrama, and the giant trade that ended it, Karl guided the Nuggets to 50 victories while turning the Nuggets from the NBA's most efficient offensive team into it's most efficient defensive team and was (rightly) rewarded with a contract extension. Considering the bizarre circumstances surrounding the team all season, it was one of the greatest regular season coaching jobs in Nuggets history.

I bring up the recent past because I believe it's important to color the present for those looking to criticize Karl today.

When I advocated for Karl's dismissal in 2008, the Nuggets were on the verge of missing the playoffs with an exceptionally expensive roster of star players, were coming off three straight uninspiring first round playoff exits under Karl and the players themselves were totally out of control - be it on-court brawls, multiple technical fouls, erratic play, defiance of the coach, off-the-court issues, and so on. In hindsight, it wasn't fair to blame all of that on Karl (the players were talented and expensive but were also divas, and management wasn't always on the same page as the coach, often leaving Karl floundering), but at the time I didn't believe he was earning the millions he gets to deal with those very issues, regardless of how high maintenance the players may have been.

But to advocate for Karl's dismissal today or to blame the Nuggets' February woes exclusively on Karl is ludicrous.

First of all, no one should have expected this Nuggets team to compete for a conference finals appearance this year (I had them sixth in my pre-season predictions). It's as if the Nuggets' above-and-beyond play out of the gate during this lockout season set expectations unreasonably high, and now Karl is paying the price for "good coaching" earlier in the season.

Secondly, Karl has had a good enough track record over the previous three seasons to warrant patience this season.

Thirdly, the injuries have taken away Karl's ability to have any consistency with his lineups. So why aren't strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess or trainer Jim Gillen getting blamed for the losses alongside Karl? Aren't they responsible for getting the players into shape?

Now, does this mean Karl should be above criticism for the Nuggets' February implosion? Of course not. Like many of my fellow Stiffs, I believe Karl's reluctance to play his full roster (even when depleted due to injury) in favor of his "trust" (read = old) veteran guys like Al Harrington and Andre Miller have cost the Nuggets a few games. I also believe some questionable end-of-game play calling by Karl has cost the Nuggets a few games. (If I've learned anything since becoming a sports blogger, you never really know who's to blame for an end-of-game meltdown ... is it the coach for drawing up a crappy play, the players for not executing a good play or the opposing team's defense for shutting down the play altogether?) And to Karl's credit, he recently admitted that his coaching cost the Nuggets a couple of would-be wins in February. But none of this should put Karl on the "hot seat" or command a coaching change.

Moreover, if you watched the Nuggets last few games you saw ample playing time being given out to Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos, Jordan Hamilton and Julyan Stone ... due to necessity, perhaps, but it's also becoming clear that Karl is developing new players he can trust. This, and the return of Danilo Gallinari, the players getting ample All-Star break rest and the Nuggets' nine-game home stand in March should see the Nuggets climb back up the Western Conference standings. If the Nuggets still lose games left and right under those favorable circumstances, then the heat should be turned up on Karl. But not enough to get the coach fired.

Which brings me to a final question for my fellow Stiffs: when to criticize a coach?

Regardless of the sport, I like to look at the roster, what's expected of that roster, the health of the roster and go from there. If a team is loaded with talent, stays healthy and plummets in the standings, the coach deserves a lot of blame. If a team has mediocre talent, sustains a number of injuries and plummets in the standings, the coach should get some leeway when it comes to criticism. Conversely, if a team is loaded with talent, stays healthy and ascends in the standings, the coach shouldn't get overly applauded (like Erik Spoelstra in Miami, who has essentially done what any decent NBA coach would do with that roster down there).

When I doubted Karl's ability to coach the Nuggets in 2008, I saw an uber-talented, relatively healthy roster squandered. When I look at what Karl is doing this season, I see an injury-riddled, not-exceptionally talented roster treading water during a tough season. A season that's just halfway over.

So in summation, criticize Karl all you want for the lineup and play-calling choices he has made. But to suggest that the Nuggets' recent struggles are all on the head coach or to advocate for a coaching change at this juncture is out of line.

On to the links...

Kiszla: Nuggets' swoon? Put the blame on George Karl
Mark Kiszla places the blame bulls-eye squarely on George Karl.

Hochman: J.R. Smith sure to help or hurt the New York Knicks
I love my boy Hooch, but this has to be one of the dumbest headlines I've ever read. Isn't any athlete sure to help or hurt their team??

Knicks Doctors Continue Carefully Reinjuring Carmelo Anthony's Groin | The Onion
Brilliant. Just brilliant.

Mile High Sports: Searching for an Identity
Doug Ottewill writes that the Nuggets are attempting to figure out who they are.

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