The Curious Case of George Karl

by Spencer Suk

As NBA coaching vacancies are getting filled, one name mysteriously remains absent: George Karl.  While former players such as Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher are getting their first shots on the sideline, it seems Karl is receiving very little interest.  Karl has amassed 986 career wins as a head coach (the seventh most of all time) and has had successful stints with the Sonics and Nuggets; he even led the former to the finals.

So why isn’t George Karl currently coaching an NBA team?  Are NBA front offices absolutely blind, or is there a reason why one of the better coaches this league has seen is working for ESPN?  We will break things down by observing Karl’s last stint with the Denver Nuggets.

The Good

As soon as Karl was introduced as Denver’s head coach during the 2004-05 NBA season, he instantly transformed their team into an offensive juggernaut.  The most interesting thing about playing in Denver is the high altitude; visiting teams are often not used to this change and become very fatigued.  As a result, Karl implemented a system based on a fast-paced offense with a deep rotation.  The results are astonishing:

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Karl’s Nuggets ranked 3rd on average in terms of points per game during his tenure.  More impressively, they were the highest scoring team in the league during his last three seasons.  And to top it off, Carmelo Anthony, regarded as one of the best individual scorers in the league, was traded during the first of those three seasons.  Without a dominant “go-to-scorer,” Karl created a balanced offense; in 2012-13, Ty Lawson led the team in scoring with only 16.7 points per game (a relatively low figure), and the Nuggets still won a franchise record 57 games.

The Bad

George Karl made the playoffs in all nine of his years with the Nuggets (a great feat in itself).  However, his team was sent fishing in the first round on eight of those nine occasions.

While Karl’s up-tempo, high-scoring offense is very successful during a grueling 82-game season, it seems to be less effective in the playoffs.  Relying on a fast-paced offense can be dangerous for two reasons:

1.      The pace of playoff basketball is much slower than that of regular season basketball, making it harder for Karl’s teams to run their usual offense.

2.      Teams spend hours and hours studying their opponent’s offense during the playoffs, allowing them to find optimal defensive schemes. 

However, Karl’s playoff woes should not be blamed solely on his coaching style by any means.  The Western Conference has been insanely competitive since Karl’s tenure began.  Just take a look at the teams his Nuggets have lost to:

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In Karl’s first four years, his team lost to an NBA finalist three times, and two of those three were to championship Spurs teams.  Furthermore, Karl has not had the luxury of working with coachable players either.  In one season, Karl had to deal with the antics of a young Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Allen Iverson, and J.R. Smith.  Then a couple years later, he hit the jackpot with the Shaqtin’ a Fool MVP, Javale McGee.

The Ugly

The most obvious reason why Karl’s firing after the 2012-13 season was so surprising is because he had just won the Coach of the Year.  However, what’s disturbing is it has recently become a trend for the Coach of the Year to get fired soon after winning the award. (And, this wasn’t the first time a coach has been fired after being awarded Coach of the Year. In fact, it seems to be somewhat of a trend.)

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This data seems to indicate how impatient teams are getting with coaches.  There is simply no reason why five of the last eight Coaches of the Year should all get fired within two years of winning the award.

The Nuggets’ decision to let go of George Karl is understandable because he didn’t create much noise in the playoffs in his nine years.  But, even with all of those first round exits, he still made it to the conference finals in 2008-09, losing to the eventual champions (the Los Angeles Lakers). 

Simply put, teams should be trying to hire Coach Karl.  He has shown his offensive genius throughout his time in Denver and possesses an incredible amount of experience (and inherently a vast knowledge of the game).  So go and get him off ESPN and on the sidelines!