As the asshole who originally launched a website under the ignominious title of "firegeorgekarl.com" back in 2008, I take no pleasure whatsoever in writing this column just hours removed from George Karl's dismissal by the Denver Nuggets as the team's head coach. Because while we as Nuggets fans may differ in our opinions of Karl the coach, no one has ever disagreed about Karl the person. Universally, Nuggets fans everywhere will tell you that George Karl isn't just a good guy, he's an exceptionally great guy.
One of the greatest of all time, in fact.
Since launching that immature public relations spectacle in 2008, I've come to know Karl up close and personally. I've traveled with Coach Karl to road games in Chicago and Milwaukee. I've dined at his house with his family. I've joined him for several fundraisers. And I spent time with him when his face and neck had been blasted by radiation therapy in the wake of his throat and neck cancer diagnosis in 2010 and saw first-hand the stubborn strength that has enabled Karl to beat that insidious disease on two occasions (and every NBA team at some point, too).
I've even advocated for Karl to win the NBA's Coach of the Year ... twice (in my defense, once in 2009 before I met Karl after guiding the Nuggets to a 54-win season despite losing Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby before the season began) and still don't understand how Karl, winner of 1,131 games for eighth all-time in NBA history, hasn't yet been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
As I've written about on this site before, you don't win 60% of your games and go 21 consecutive years without a losing season without being a great basketball coach. And, make no mistake about it, George Karl is a great basketball coach. But for whatever reason - be it bad timing, injuries, bad matchups, bad seeding, bad luck or what have you - Karl wasn't able to translate routine regular season success in Denver into routine playoff success. And thus, Karl's legacy as a Denver Nuggets head coach will be a mixed one.
First and foremost, Karl presided over (and was largely responsible for) the Nuggets most consistent stretch of winning than at any time in the team's NBA franchise history, rivaled only by Karl's close friend and mentor Doug Moe. Not only did Karl, like Moe, deliver nine consecutive playoff appearances, but it was Karl and Karl only who guided the team to five 50-win seasons in six years, including a Nuggets NBA franchise-record 57 wins in 2012-13 (hence the real Coach of the Year Award given to him by the NBA just a week or so ago). It was also Karl who led the Nuggets as far as any NBA Nuggets squad ever had been before him, when the 2008-09 Nuggets pressed the Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals (Moe never got past a Game 5 in a WCF and Larry Brown also once guided the Nuggets to a Game 6 in 1978).
Secondly, Karl - like he did in Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle and Milwaukee previously - instantly made the Nuggets better upon arrival in 2005. With just 40 games remaining in the 2004-05 season, Karl's Nuggets finished with a 32-8 record ... the best 40-game stretch in NBA history.
And finally, not only are Karl's multiple 50-win seasons impressive but what's more impressive is that he pulled it off with two completely different teams - first with the Carmelo Anthony / Chauncey Billups / Kenyon Martin team and then with the Ty Lawson / Danilo Gallinari / Wilson Chandler team that was formed in the aftermath of the NBA world-shattering Melo trade of 2011. No matter who cycled through the Nuggets roster since 2005, you knew they'd at least make the playoffs thanks to Coach Karl.
In terms of "best Nuggets coach ever" status, Karl clearly ranks right alongside Moe. Each has a strong case for "best ever" and I'm not sure it really matters. Moe owns the Nuggets coaching wins record with 432 regular season victories plus those nine consecutive playoff appearances, five playoff series wins and one Western Conference Finals appearance. Meanwhile, Karl finishes just nine wins shy of Moe, also has nine consecutive playoff appearances on his ledger and a Western Conference Finals appearance. But Karl won just two playoff series during his entire tenure here, losing in the first round seven times (I don't count the 2009-10 Nuggets who flamed out in the first round while being coached briefly by Adrian Dantley while Karl recovered from cancer).
Regardless of who your "best ever" Nuggets coach is, Karl undoubtedly goes down in history as not just a great Nuggets coach but one of the great NBA coaches ever. His absence from Springfield is shameful, but then again Coach Karl was never one to play Hall of Fame politics.
If you've read everything I've written up until now, you're probably thinking: "If George Karl is/was such a great coach, why the hell did the Nuggets fire him today?" The answer to this question is complicated. And Karl certainly isn't the first great coach (and won't be the last) to be let go after having a great regular season.
I suspect Karl was ultimately let go due to several small issues rather than one big reason, and perhaps more than anything was just a victim of bad timing. Down to a year remaining on a three-year contract extension granted in 2011, Karl's fate was likely sealed by a combination of the upset by the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs' first round (the team's ninth first round bounce in 10 consecutive tries, seven on Karl's watch), the Nuggets franchise losing out on re-signing their talented general manager Masai Ujiri (any new GM probably wants to hire his own coach rather than have one be forced upon him) and Karl allegedly flirting with the Los Angeles Clippers coaching vacancy (Nuggets ownership has never looked favorably upon those who negotiate extensions by trying to leverage the media ... just ask Kiki Vandeweghe).
And on top of all that, it's becoming more and more clear that the Nuggets young owner Josh Kroenke wants to make his own mark on the franchise he has taken over from his father, Stan. After all, Kroenke inherited Karl and now that he has lost his closest cohort in Ujiri, Kroenke likely wants to bring in a management and coaching team built directly by him. By no means do I want to make light of this, but in the wake of the Ujiri departure (who is the reigning NBA Executive of the Year), firing Karl (ironically the reigning Coach of the Year) is like ripping off a giant band-aid all at once. Overnight, the younger Kroenke can remake the Nuggets team as he would like. The question now, of course, will be whether Nuggets fans will go along willingly and enthusiastically with Kroenke's vision given the recent turmoil. Time will tell. Going into the 2013-14 NBA season without George Karl on the bench is the ultimate of unknowns for a Nuggets franchise that has been reliably stable for 10 years.
But before spending the countless hours that we fellow Stiffs will spend pontificating and debating about the future of our Nuggets - be it at the management, coaching or player levels - let's collectively thank George Karl for his loyal service to our beloved franchise for 8 1/2 good years. Very good years, I might add. Always gracious with both the fans and the media, Karl truly loved being here and thought he would retire here. Most unfortunately for all parties involved, due to a confluence of varying circumstances - some understandable and some not - Karl will likely retire elsewhere. And we at Denver Stiffs certainly hope he does.
The Clippers or Grizzlies don't need a recommendation from a sports blogger, but I can assure the fans of those organizations that if the rumors are even remotely true and Karl becomes the head coach for one of your teams, you'll be blessed with a basketball-obsessed, soon-to-be Hall of Famer that will immediately make your team a viable competitive force in the Western Conference. Should Karl go to the Clippers specifically, he will make Chris Paul an even better point guard than he already was and create even more dunks for the already second-most-dunking team in the NBA. And should Karl go to the Grizzlies, Memphis fans can kiss those boring 80-75 games goodbye and actually enjoy watching a team win 50-plus games.
George Karl will be greatly missed and his impact on the Nuggets franchise will never be forgotten. We wish George nothing but the very best.