Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Truth About George Karl Is...

This is a tweet I sent to Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com on June the 7th just a day after the news came down about George Karl. Now, I'm not one to kick a guy when he's down but I have to keep it funky as they say, when it comes to Karl. A little back story on myself & my allegiances...growing up in the 70s I was a Knicks fan but rooted for the Seattle Supersonics because of Gus Williams. Him & his brother Ray are from my hometown of Mt. Vernon, NY & went to the same high school. When the Sonics won the title in 1979 I became an unofficial fan of the team. Fast forward to the late 80s/early 90s & I still followed the team when they drafted Shawn Kemp & Gary Payton. Payton eventually became my favorite player so I began to follow the Sonics even closer because of him. In 1992 they hired George Karl & he immediately had an impact on the team as Payton & Kemp both began to reach their superstar potential. In Karl's 1st year they won 55 games & took a dominant Phoenix Suns team led by Charles Barkley to 7 games in the Western Conference Finals.

That series put that team on the map as serious title contenders for years to come led by Karl, Payton & Kemp. They went on to win 60+ games 2 out of the next 3 seasons but that first 60 win season would be the 1st of many playoff disappointments for Karl as they lost in the 1st round to the Denver Nuggets. Back then the 1st round was just a 5 game series but it was the first time in NBA history that a #1 seed lost to an 8 seed. I still remember that famous shot of Dikembe Mutombo on the ground holding the ball over his head celebrating....it still hurts just thinking about it. As if that wasn't painful enough, the next year they again went out in the 1st round albeit to a decent Los Angeles Lakers team. But once again a George Karl led team went home sooner than expected. By that time Payton & Kemp had established themselves as 2 of the best young players in the game but they began to hear the talk about being chokers. They finally got out of the 1st round the next year & went all the way to the NBA Finals where they lost to the Chicago Bulls. Of course that was no ordinary Bulls team as they had set the NBA record for wins in the regular season by going 72-10.

Now as a fan of the team & with my favorite player playing for them, I had a strong rooting interest in the squad so I followed them pretty closely given that they were on the other side of the country. With a swarming trap defense led by the Glove (Payton) & the Reign Man (Kemp) they were very often on national TV. I can still recall feeling like Karl was a good coach but maybe wasn't good enough to get them over the top. It used to bother me watching him on the sidelines almost looking at times as though he was literally going to break down in tears which left me feeling like, "this ain't the guy". His system was great for Payton but his leadership in the clutch always left a lot to be desired for me.

He left Seattle before the start of the 1998-99 season & went to the Milwaukee Bucks. Again, I had a rooting interest in the team because they had 3 guys who I had followed since their college days in Ray Allen, Sam Cassell & Glen Robinson. Knowing his penchant for coaching up defense I remember wondering if he'd be able to turn them around knowing none of those guys were even average defenders. Much of the success Karl had in Seattle defensively could be attributed to Payton's aggressive style. But once again Karl was only able to take that Bucks team to the brink, getting as far as game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals vs Allen Iverson's 76ers. Within just a couple of years after that loss though the team was out of the playoffs & Karl was on his way out.

In 2004 he went to coach the Denver Nuggets & once again took a mediocre team & managed to turn them into winners aided of course by the drafting of Carmelo Anthony the year prior to him being hired.  Over the next 6 1/2 years with Anthony leading the way, they managed to get out of the 1st round just once, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Conference Finals. Carmelo showed in his 1 year at the University of Syracuse that he could lead a team to an NCAA Championship, but somehow people still looked at him & placed most, if not all of the blame in his lap. The reality is however, there were a multitude of factors that led to those failures.

Karl developed cancer on 2 separate occasions, with 1 of them totally submarining any shot they had at playoff success. Another year they dealt with some lengthy suspensions of Anthony & JR Smith because of an in-game fight in NY vs the Knicks. They lost them both for a total of 25 games because of that, 15 for Melo & 10 for Smith. They also played in the incredibly dominant Western Conference which fielded 2 different dynasties during that time with the San Antonio Spurs & Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets actually won an 8th seed one year while winning 50 games...50 games!

It's easy for the average person to look at the talented Anthony & assume he's most to blame for their lack of playoff success but that wouldn't be fair. While he of course does deserve some of the blame, as do all of the different superstars Karl coached, success & failure start at the top. Taking all of that into consideration, Karl can't get a pass for the Nuggets playoff failures as he had a top 5 talent in Anthony for over 6 seasons. He also had Allen Iverson for a couple of years to go along with Anthony but I always gave him somewhat of a pass on that because while everyone else assumed it would make them unstoppable offensively, I always felt it was a bad mix of basketball chemistry. At the same time though, that's what the great coaches are paid to do: maximize the talent on your roster. Bare in mind, he also had Chauncey Billups for a couple of seasons just a couple of years removed from a championship with the Detroit Pistons. So he's always had talent everywhere he's gone, but he just wasn't ever able to get them over the hump.

After Denver traded Melo & Billups, the Nuggets went an unconventional route by building the team with a bunch of really good players but no real superstar. He was able to have great success, in the regular season of course as they went 57-25 & 37-3 at home, but once again, yet another George Karl-led team went out in the 1st round, as the higher seed this time to a young Golden State Warriors team led by Stephen Curry.

The obvious trend to all of this is, everywhere he went regardless to how much talent he had he didn't always just lose to the better team, he was very often sent home early from an embarrassing exit. I've heard some compare him to Rick Adelman, one time coach of the Portland Trailblazers & Sacramento Kings. The difference being however is that, Adelman's teams almost always lost to the eventual champions & while they were often undone by legendary great winning plays by his opponents, there weren't many, if any, moments of just flat out embarrassing early playoff exits or poor coaching decisions that led to his teams' failures. The same unfortunately CAN NOT be said for Karl. Quite the contrary, his coaching resume is littered with shockingly bad playoff losses. 

I always tell people if you continually have the same problems with various people in your life, at some point you have to realize there's one common denominator in all of your failures...yourself. So while the rosters & teams changed, the results were relatively the same for George Karl. Suffice it to say while some may think the Nuggets made a mistake by letting him go, when you take a close hard look at his track record, the evidence was there that Coach Karl had perhaps taken that franchise as far as his coaching ability would ever allow.