A Brief History of George: Why Karl Is Out in Denver and Where He May Be Headed

Earlier today the Denver Nuggets announced that head coach George Karl, reportedly seeking a contract extension, would part ways with the team with one year left on his deal.

There are at least three big themes that have followed Karl through his career:

1. Innovation and stylistic flexibility.

2. Teams that have generally been better on offense than on defense, save for those glorious 1990s Sonics, which enjoyed a two-way balance Karl’s teams have since struggled to achieve.

3. Playoff disappointments. Karl’s Sonics made the Finals in 1996, but the the 1993-94 version became the first no. 1 seed to lose in the first round, and his Nuggets advanced past that first round just once in his nine seasons — despite making the playoffs every season. To pin all that on Karl is unfair and ignores context. Denver had a better regular-season record than its opponent in exactly one of those eight first-round losses — this season’s crusher against the Splash Brothers. Four of those seven first-round losses came against the Tim Duncan Spurs and Kobe Lakers — teams that hogged the NBA Finals for much of Karl’s tenure. (Denver had home-court advantage against Utah in the 2010 playoffs, but the teams had identical records, and Karl missed the series while undergoing cancer treatment; Adrian Dantley coached the team.)

Still, the track record is worrisome. Karl at this point has the résumé of a coach who gets the big things right but has problems with the smaller in-game and between-games stuff — the adjustments that become exponentially more important in the playoffs, when teams game plan for the same opponent over a two-week stretch.

But in building a team, the big things matter most. They are the foundation that make playoff appearances, and playoff failures, possible in the first place. Karl has proven himself an offensive innovator, capable of morphing his style to a particular roster in a particular place; one GM once joked with me that Karl could take me, that GM, and three random people, and still crank out 110 points in a game.

He’s pigeonholed now as someone whose offensive philosophy amounts to “outrun an opponent until they can’t breathe,” but that’s not really accurate. Karl had very little history as a proprietor of a fast-paced offense until arriving in Denver, where he correctly concluded a speed game would work best with young, athletic rosters playing in mile-high air. We remember Karl’s Seattle teams as helter-skelter transition machines, but in only two of Karl’s seven seasons there did the Sonics rank above the league average in possessions per game — i.e., pace. Those Seattle teams pioneered an aggressive style of trapping, chaotic defense that was ahead of its time, with zone-ish principles and heavy switching that made it difficult for offenses accustomed to dictating the terms of engagement. The Sonics ran opportunistically off turnovers their defense created, but with the exception of those two fast-paced seasons, they were not a Denver-style “run at all costs” bunch.

And Karl’s Milwaukee teams were mostly slowpokes, and yet still managed to rank in the top 10 in points per possession in each of his five seasons there.

Point is: Karl, on offense, is adaptable. Just because the Nuggets ran like all hell does not mean Karl would be a bad bit for snails like the Nets and Grizzlies. And while Karl’s Denver offenses looked almost simplistic, they gradually gained the excited admiration of the NBA’s more analytics-oriented front-office folks. Karl understood that his offense generated the most efficient shots available — shots at the rim, and 3-pointers — and on an even deeper level, he was early in understanding that NBA defenses were evolving in ways that made scoring in the half-court a more difficult job. He was also ahead of the curve in getting that post-up plays, while appealing in a traditional way, are a very low-efficiency strategy without really good post-up players to run them.

The Nuggets looked like they were playing pickup ball, but there was deep thought behind it. And even in the half-court, they had a system of rotating pick-and-rolls on the sides of the floor, rotating drive-and-kick action, and very specific cutting-and-spacing requirements for the Denver big men. JaVale McGee struggled to master those requirements, Karl has told me, and that’s one reason Karl didn’t play him as much as Denver’s management reportedly wished after signing McGee to a four-year, $44 million contract. (Karl did not return a call from Grantland today, though he did release a statement on Twitter.)

It’s fair to be skeptical about whether run-and-gun offenses can succeed in the postseason, and as Kevin Pelton at ESPN.com notes today, Denver’s scoring punch did decline a bit more than expected in the playoffs during Karl’s tenure. But they ran wild on the Lakers in 2011-12, when Ty Lawson grew into a borderline star, and they scored efficiently against Golden State in the first round this season.

The Nuggets in recent years mostly failed on defense. They ranked in the top 10 in points allowed per possession just three times in Karl’s eight-year tenure, never higher than no. 8, and they just never seemed all that interested in correcting bad habits. They probably over-switched, in part because Karl dreams of coaching a team with five speedy players capable of switching every screen on and off the ball. That’s not a bad dream. I’ve spoken to lots of other coaches who share it, and there are very smart people around the league who believe, very strongly, that teams do not switch enough on defense. And Karl was convinced that matchups that looked horrible weren’t all that horrible — that switching Lawson onto a big man during a pick-and-roll, and facing a possible big-versus-small post-up against Lawson, might actually be a win for his defense. That big man might lack post skills, and Denver could generate turnovers by swiping at the ball as that big man backed Lawson down.

There’s a lot of sense in that. But Karl’s teams never quite mastered the art of switching. They’d miscommunicate now and then, so that two defenders would chase one player instead of switching assignments. And they’d repeatedly switch themselves into obviously more terrible matchups that opponents would happily exploit over and over; Kobe Bryant slaughtered Denver with post-ups in the 2012 playoffs in part because the Nuggets stubbornly switched on Ramon Sessions–Kobe pick-and-rolls, leaving Lawson or Prof. Andre Miller to check Kobe.

The Nuggets never found the right balance between gambling for steals and patrolling the 3-point line; only 10 teams allowed a higher opponent percentage from 3-point range, and the Warriors eviscerated Denver from long range. It also felt like Karl was overthinking things in defending Stephen Curry on pick-and-rolls — by trapping out toward half court, or having Wilson Chandler defend a center (Andrew Bogut) just so the active and rangy Chandler would be involved as a defender in Curry-Bogut pick-and-rolls. Curry is super-dangerous anywhere within 30 feet, but Denver’s defense was a gimmick that didn’t work; they’d have been better off sticking with their normal pick-and-roll coverage, only extending it out an extra couple of steps. The Spurs were more successful against Golden State when they went this semiconservative strategy, though Curry’s recurring ankle issues helped.

And that’s where personnel comes in. Look at Karl’s big-man brigade, and you understand why he felt skittish taking that traditional route against Curry. Kenneth Faried does many things very well, but he struggles to defend in open spaces against the pick-and-roll. McGee is a complete mess. Kosta Koufos is solid but hardly exceptional, and he wilted against the Warriors.

Even factoring in personnel, Karl’s record coaching NBA defense is mediocre. Aside from a half-decade with Gary Payton, Karl’s teams have generally been average or worse defensively. I doubt I’ll ever type a sentence like that about Tom Thibodeau.

But offensively, Karl is about as good as it gets after Gregg Popovich and whatever coaches have LeBron and Kevin Durant. And the Seattle years show Karl can do fine on that end with good personnel and a creative assistant. (Bob Kloppenburg was Karl’s right-hand man in Seattle, and he’s largely credited with designing the Sonics’ S.O.S. defense.) With that in mind, a quick team-by-team glance at the franchises affected here:

• Denver Nuggets: I believe the word the young kids would use is: “Welp.” Karl’s gone, Masai Ujiri’s gone, Danilo Gallinari just had knee surgery, and Andre Iguodala might opt out of the final year in his contract — a decision that would leave Denver only with $6 million to $7 million in cap room. Can’t do much with that. Oh, they need a coach, and they might simply promote from within instead of hiring a new GM. If Iguodala opts out and Gallinari misses significant time, it’s not hard to see this team taking a big step back next season — at least without finding a shooter and another good piece in free agency. Karl’s departure may also spell the end of Corey Brewer’s time in Denver. He’s due a raise, and has really only functioned at an NBA level in Karl’s fast-paced, free scheme.

• Toronto Raptors: Ujiri’s new team would seem a logical landing pad for Karl, but a source close to the situation tells Grantland there’s zero chance Karl would be a candidate for the job right now. Dwane Casey has one year left on his contract, and it’s unlikely the Raptors would consider Karl even a year from now.

• Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizz have already reached out to Karl, per Sam Amick at USA Today, and that makes a ton of sense. The analytics crowd is very fond of Karl, and those voices, including that of John Hollinger, have a large say in all things Grizz now. Memphis needs a boost on offense, and if they don’t retain the ornery Lionel Hollins, Karl could inject a dose of creativity there. Remember: He wasn’t always Mr. Pace, and the Grizzlies might take the long view, anticipating a faster pace of play once Zach Randolph’s days there are over.

• Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul’s teams are always among the slowest in the league, making Karl an odd fit on the surface. But Karl is adaptable, and you know he’d unleash the Paul–Eric Bledsoe dual point guard lineup after doing the same with Lawson and Prof. Miller in Denver. Karl’s long been very good at squeezing points out of teams with so-so (or worse) long-range shooting, and the Clippers were firmly “so-so” on that front this season. But it’s unclear if Karl is the man to mold the Clips into a consistent top-10 defense.

• Detroit Pistons: Almost certainly not happening.

• Philadelphia 76ers: This job is still open, and the Sixers’ new GM, Sam Hinkie, late of Houston, comes from the analytics-savvy crowd that has been raving for years about Karl’s sophisticated creativity on offense. This has been a very quiet coaching search, but the sense coaching sources have now is that Hinkie wants a chance to develop a strong relationship with a first-time NBA coach of his choosing. Chris Finch, a Houston assistant and coach of Great Britain’s national team, is a name to watch. Finch has also coached Houston’s D-League affiliate in Rio Grande, and developed a strong working relationship with the parent club from that perch.

• Brooklyn Nets: Karl has coached slow, but he’s never coached this slow. Only the Hornets and Grizz averaged fewer possessions per game than Brooklyn, and the core perimeter players are only getting older. I’m not sure Karl would thrill to an offense heavy on isolations and post-ups, and like the Clippers, the Nets need more help on the other side of the ball. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo, who broke the Karl story this morning, reports the Nets have no real interest in him. That jibes with what I’ve heard.

But Karl is only 62 and widely respected, despite a reputation for being stubborn and difficult at times. He’ll get back in the league, next season or in 2014-15.

Filed Under: Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, NBA, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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