In the week that has passed since the Nuggets were again eliminated from the first round of the playoffs, George Karl has faced withering criticism from Denver's fan-base, national observers and a slew of other pundits. Even as we collectively get over our saudade for a playoff round beyond the first, Karl deserves credit for his accomplishments during the NBA's regular season. To wit, via NBA.com:
* The Nuggets went 57-25 (.695) -- the league's fourth-best record -- despite beginning the season as the league's third-youngest team with an average age of 24.9 years, and not having a player score more than 16.7 points per game during the regular season. According to NBA.com/Stats, the Nuggets ranked third in assists (24.4 apg), generating an assist on 60.0 percent of their made field goals. Denver ranked fifth in player impact estimate (53.8 percent), offensive rating (107.6) and net rating (+5.6).
* The Nuggets' 38-3 record at Pepsi Center was a franchise-best and tied for the 14th best home record in league annals. Additionally, their .927 winning percentage at home was the highest since 2008-09 when the Cleveland Cavaliers went 39-2 (.951) at Quicken Loans Arena.
* In his 25th season as an NBA head coach (ninth with Denver), Karl earned two Western Conference Coach of the Month awards during the 2012-13 campaign. He won for March after leading Denver to a conference-best 13-2 (.867) mark, which included wins in the first 12 games of the month, feeding a 15-game, franchise-tying-best winning streak. He earned his first monthly nod in January after the Nuggets opened the New Year with a 12-3 (.800) record. During January, Karl passed Larry Brown for sixth place on the all-time coaching wins list and notched his 1,100th career win.
*The sixth-winningest coach in NBA annals and the active wins leader, Karl has amassed 1,131 career victories in the NBA, including a streak of 21-straight non-losing seasons -- tied with Phil Jackson (21, 1989-90-2010-11) for the most in NBA history.
Those are accomplishments worthy of plaudits no matter how much we might gnash our teeth about the lack of success in the postseason. After being handed a "starless" squad that fit his vision of winning with "teamness", Karl showed just how powerful that concept could be over an 82 game season. Nobody expected the young Nuggets - if you take 37 year old Andre Miller out of the equation, the Nuggets are the youngest NBA team in the league - to have competed as well as they did, given their youth, brutal road schedule and the pressure of incorporating Andre Iguodala's talents into the team. Not even the Nuggets!
Karl and his coaching staff turned a squad of NBA cast-offs into the fourth best team in the league during the regular season, without an All-Star and without a player averaging more than 17 points per game. The Nuggets thrilled fans at The Can, posting a franchise record 38 wins at home (in 41 games). In fact, this team may very well have matched the all-time 40-1 home record held by the 1985-1986 Boston Celtics were it not for a pair of befuddling losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards.
Any coach which is able to guide his team to such success and so consistently - only Gregg Popovich can claim to have guided his team to as many consecutive postseason berths as George Karl - deserves to be recognized as one of the best. Karl's excellent at managing minutes and understanding the grind of the regular season, never letting his team get too down on themselves after losses or too overconfident after a series of wins. His single greatest strength, to me, is how his even-keeled demeanor (especially following his bouts with cancer) is able to keep a team calm. As frustrated I have been with Karl in the recent past, jeremiads on his coaching without recognizing his decade-long regular season success are misplaced.
With that being said...
Karl has done and won practically everything a coach can do and win during the regular season. To avoid being relegated to the dustbin of NBA coaching history like Don Nelson, however, Karl's Nuggets must succeed in the playoffs from now until his tenure with the franchise ends. There is no more room for failure.
At the beginning of this season, with the Nuggets coming off a 4-3 series loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, many of us - myself included - thought this past season would be the one in which Karl took this developing team to the next level. The Nuggets had acquired one of the best wing stoppers in the game in Iguodala and had simultaneously relieved themselves of an aging Al Harrington and an overpaid Arron Afflalo. They picked up the hyper-athletic and utterly enigmatic JaVale McGee in exchange for an over the hill and oft-injured Nene. After coming into the new year with a record above .500 - which was astonishing, given 22 of their first 32 games were on the road - the Nuggets fought and clawed their way into home court advantage.
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, they suffered a season-ending ACL injury to Danilo Gallinari with just six games to go to the playoffs. All of a sudden, the Nuggets were without one of their leading scorers and a player who was a lynchpin of their defensive schemes - Gallinari, Iguodala and a finally-healthy Wilson Chandler switching together were capable of shutting down teams from the perimeter routinely. To add injury to injury, the Nuggets also lost Kenneth Faried to a twisted ankle and Ty Lawson to a torn plantar fascia down the stretch, testing just how deep the Nuggets actually were. To believe that these injuries to Gallinari, Faried and Lawson in the final games of the season didn't impact how this team approached and performed in the postseason is foolish.
However: do I believe that these injuries were insurmountable? No. If anything, the ability of the Warriors (David Lee), Bulls (Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng), Thunder (Russell Westbrook) and Pacers (Danny Granger) to sustain significant injuries to their stars and still move on to later rounds in the playoffs shows that injuries can be overcome. In the case of the Warriors, though... they are something special this year, folks. There's a lot of similarities to the way they have run their 2-3 zone and rained three pointers to excellent effect against both the Spurs and the Nuggets, and the champion 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks squad with Dirk Nowitzki (and Corey Brewer, natch). They just took game 2 and homecourt advantage from a veteran, well-coached Spurs team in a very similar fashion to the way they did against the Denver Nuggets.
Karl's coaching mistakes in this year's playoffs have been exhaustively detailed both here on Denver Stiffs and by many other observers. I think it is fair to say that Karl deserves criticism for his over-reliance on Andre Miller, unwillingness to trust in his rookies, and dependence on a defensive scheme against a team that matched up against it perfectly.
Karl's lineups were a product of his belief that the Nuggets could compete with any team no matter how big or small they played, despite what the snap of the net following a Stephen Curry three or Andrew Bogut dunk seemed to scream at anyone who was watching. I've watched enough of Karl's playoff games to see that perhaps his biggest weakness is being too slow to react to a team's momentum and make critical in-game adjustments. He absolutely must do a better job of understanding when schemes aren't working and that the margin for error is nil in executing his gameplan. That means accountability for players who aren't following it, as I would have liked to have seen for Corey Brewer and Andre Miller at times during this latest series loss.
While this piece may at points read like more Karl apologia, ultimately this franchise is not and was never going to part ways with a coach who just guided the fourth-youngest team in the NBA to franchise records in home wins, consecutive wins and overall wins. Masai Ujiri's long game was/is to construct a roster full of young talent and develop it - Masai explicitly said that "[the Nuggets are] not a contending team". The Nuggets were never going to survive the slog through the brutal Western conference this season sans Gallinari (or even with him), then somehow go on to defeat LeBron James and the Heat in the NBA Finals.
I don't believe that's acceptance of failure, but an acknowledgement that this team was still missing some crucial pieces, was sidetracked by injury, and was gaining experience that will allow them to finally flourish in the postseason. With a few of the right moves in the offseason made by newly-minted Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, the Nuggets could, actually, be this close from the Finals trip we all desperately crave.
On the flipside of that same coin, Karl should be held accountable for his performance in the upcoming postseason (to speak nothing of what missing the playoffs entirely would mean for this team). Josh Kroenke and Masai Ujiri must take a long look at Karl's performance in this upcoming season and ask themselves some hard questions about if he's a coach that can ever take this franchise to the next level.
George Karl, thank you for everything you've brought to the Nuggets organization. You've guided this team to successful regular seasons in every season you've been here. It is time for more. You need to prove to this organization and this team's fans that you can win when the chips are down. That you can adjust to the intensity of the playoffs. That you can find ways to overcome adversity and injury. You've been given more chances than many. Your regular season record qualifies you as one of the best regular season coaches in the history of the game.
The last two early playoff exits and two offseasons worth of roster tinkering - on top of eight previous first round exits with Karl at the helm - need to be looked at as the fire clearing away the underbrush of failure to let the shoots of success take root. The seeds have been planted, watered and nurtured - it's time to see growth.