In the first three parts, I focused on the present day thinking and decisions of George Karl. In the next 6 parts, parts 4-9, I will explore the past and explain why Karl should not have been hired by the Nuggets in January 2005. In part 4, I lay out and discuss Karl’s coaching resume, with specific attention paid to the regular season win-loss records and patterns of his teams.
In Parts 6-9, we will look in greater detail at Karl’s previous years as a head coach. We will go over his best players and his teams winning and losing year by year. In other words, we will be giving a narrative complement to the earlier statistical presentation. When we are through, every reader will be extremely well informed about Karl’s history, and what it says about his strengths and weaknesses, from both a statistical and from a historical perspective.
GEORGE KARL’S REGULAR SEASON WIN LOSS RECORDS:
1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers 82 games, 36-46 .439
1985-86 Cleveland Cavaliers 67 games, 25-42 .373; fired during season
1986-87 Golden State Warriors 82 games, 42-40 .512
1987-88 Golden State Warriors 64 games, 16-48 .250; fired during season
1988-89 Did Not Coach
1989-90 For a short time, Karl was an Assistant Coach for the Jazz, but was fired.
1990-91 Did Not Coach in the NBA; coached Albany in the CBA.
1991-92 Seattle Supersonics 42 games, 27-15 .643
1992-93 Seattle Supersonics 82 games, 55-27 .671
1993-94 Seattle Supersonics 82 games, 63-19 .768
1994-95 Seattle Supersonics 82 games, 57-25 .695
1995-96 Seattle Supersonics 82 games, 64-18 .780
1996-97 Seattle Supersonics 82 games, 57-25 .695
1997-98 Seattle Supersonics 82 games, 61-21 .744; voluntarily left the Supersonics to coach the Bucks at the end of the season.
1998-99 Milwaukee Bucks 50 games, 28-22 .560
1999-00 Milwaukee Bucks 82 games, 42-40 .512
2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks 82 games, 52-30 .634
2001-02 Milwaukee Bucks 82 games, 41-41 .500
2002-03 Milwaukee Bucks 82 games, 42-40 .512; fired at the end of the season.
2003-04 Did Not Coach
2004-05 Denver Nuggets 40 games, 32-8 .800
2005-06 Denver Nuggets 82 games, 44-38 .537
2006-07 Denver Nuggets 82 games, 45-37 .549
2007-08 Denver Nuggets 45 games, 27-18 .600
OBSERVATIONS ON KARL’S REGULAR SEASONS
The most obvious thing to note from his early years is that Karl twice, for two different teams, had a big drop off from the first year to the second year. The second time, with the Warriors, the drop off was truly massive. In both instances, he was fired before the 2nd season was over.
Following these two similar episodes, Karl could not get a coaching job at all in 1988-89. In 1989, Karl was an assistant Coach under Jerry Sloan in Utah for part of the season, but he was once again fired from that job before the season was over. After being fired from Jerry Sloan's staff in Salt Lake City, Karl returned to the Continental Basketball Association as coach of the Albany Patroons for 1990-91, winning the coach of the year award in 1991. He had been a CBA coach in Montana prior to his first NBA head coach position with the Cavaliers. Under Karl, the Patroons completed a 50-6 regular season, including winning all 28 of their home games.
Karl’s dour personality and his hard work produced a huge success in the CBA, which made it theoretically possible for Karl to be invited to return to head coaching in the NBA. And that is exactly what happened. The overall shortage of experienced coaches made Karl an attractive candidate for the Seattle Supersonics in late January of 1992, after they fired Coach K.C. Jones.
Karl’s tenure with the Supersonics, in the regular season at least, turned out to be the opposite, in terms of the win-loss record and in terms of the stability of the winning from season to season, of his time with the Cavaliers and his time with the Warriors. The Sonics during every one of Karl’s 6 ½ years as Head Coach were a rock solid regular season team, with winning percentages ranging from .643 to .780. The Sonics earned home court advantage in round one, at a minimum, in every one of the Karl years.
But the postseasons were entirely another matter and the Supersonics were more like jelly than rock solid in many of the 7 postseasons under Karl. In the next report, which will be for the Nets game, we will look at Karl’s postseason coaching, both for the Supersonics and all the other teams he has coached.
At the end of the 1997-98 season, Karl voluntarily chose to leave the Sonics to assume the head coaching duties for the Milwaukee Bucks. Quite honestly I have not been able to determine Karl’s reason(s) for this move, but if I had to wager I would say that he was most likely not getting along all that well with the Sonics’ front office at the time.
Karl’s performance in Milwaukee ended up about half way between his terrible start as a head coach while coaching the Cavaliers and Warriors on the one hand, and his perfectly rock solid 7 regular seasons with the Supersonics on the other hand. His overall record while Coach of the Bucks was 205-173, not bad but not great either. And his playoff record for the Bucks was mixed as well, even relative to the lower postseason expectations the Bucks had compared with the Supersonics.
At the end of the 2003 season, following a lackluster regular season and a quick exit in the playoffs, Karl was fired for the third time in his head coaching career, as the Bucks hired Terry Porter to replace him. Karl did not coach in the NBA during 2003-04, nor did he during the first few months of the 2004-05 season.
Then on January 28, 2005, Karl was again brought out of mothballs, this time by the Nugget’s organization. With Carmelo Anthony as the cornerstone, the Nuggets were aggressively maneuvering through front office and roster changes to rapidly rise up from being about the worst team in the League to, hopefully, one of the best. The Nuggets organization was extremely ambitious at that time, and Bzdelic did not seem to have the potential to pilot the Nuggets optimally in the great seasons that the front office was dreaming of. The Nuggets front office thought of the franchise as a rising star, and thought of Bzdelic as lacking star power so to speak.
So even though Coach Jeff Bzdelic was good enough to oversee the Nuggets going from 17-65 in 2002-03 to 43-39 in 2003-04, he was given the heave out the door after a 13-15 start in 2004-05. The Nuggets’ front office gambled that Karl’s Seattle regular season performances are more representative of his real abilities than were his other performances. In other words, the front office gambled that Karl was a star coach who had no luck when he was at Cleveland and Golden State. So Karl was handed a talented team that became even more talented, extremely talented in fact, during the next two seasons, 2005-06 and 2006-07.
With the Nuggets maxed out financially, and with the owner in fact paying a luxury tax for running an oversized payroll, the 2007-08 Nuggets of the here and now are loaded to the rafters with talent and skill. The team is a kind of coach’s dream, in that the skills and talents of the best 4 or 5 players are so stratospheric, that a coach can be lazy and/or incompetent to one extent or another and few will notice, because the team will be winning often just from the talents and skills of those superstar and star players.
Despite the overload of talent, Karl and the Nuggets have as yet failed to win more than a single postseason game in each of the three years that the Nuggets have been coached by Karl: 2005, 2006, and 2007. Now here in 2008, there is almost no evidence to suggest that the Nuggets are going to do much better than 1 postseason win this year. Worse still, there is at least a 50/50 chance that the Nuggets will not make the playoffs at all this year, thanks to the Nugget’s inability to make headway against the top half dozen teams of the West. The Nuggets are in real danger of not making the playoffs, thanks to the amazing New Orleans Hornets, who apparently now are one of those top teams, thanks to the again explosively dangerous Golden State Warriors, thanks to Rick Adelman who is most likely going to maneuver his Rockets into one of the playoff slots, and thanks even to the stunning performance of the Portland Trailblazers, despite the fact that they lost Greg Oden to an injury for the entire season.
Assuming that the Suns, the Hornets, the Lakers, the Mavericks, the Spurs, and the Jazz are all playoff locks, the Nuggets are going to have to finish ahead of two out of three between the Warriors, the Rockets, and the Trailblazers, or they are going to go down in history as the most talented team to fail to make the playoffs in the history of the NBA. Since 16 out of 30 teams make the playoffs in the NBA, it is not supposed to be difficult for a highly talented team to at least get a low seed. But for the Nuggets, and this is smoking gun evidence that Karl’s coaching skills are limited, it is and will most likely continue to be, for the duration of the season, dangerously difficult.
To summarize, during his NBA head coaching career, Karl has been fired three times and voluntarily quit a team, the Supersonics, once. During his 20 year coaching career spanning 24 years, (the 4 years difference is because he was not the head coach of any NBA team during 4 years) Karl’s record to the present moment is 856-600, for a percentage of 58.8%. That’s good, but the bulk of the excess of wins over losses was provided by the Sonics gig, and to a lesser extent by the Nuggets gig. And both of these teams were. and are, known as having extremely talented players who can win games without quality coaching. Consider this summary of wins and losses:
GEORGE KARL WINS AND LOSSES BY “PHASE”
Phase 1: 1984-1988 Cavaliers-Warriors 119-176, or 40.3%
Phase 2: 1991-1998 Seattle Supersonics 384-150, or 72.4%
Phase 3: 1998-2003 Milwaukee Bucks 205-173, or 52.4%
Phase 4: 2005-2008 Denver Nuggets 148-101, or 57.1%.
When Karl was brought out of the unemployment wilderness by the Nuggets, his cumulative win-loss record was 708-499 or 58.7%. But this was composed of three phases of his career, one of which was a major failure, one of which was in between a failure and a success, a slight success at best, and the other one of which was a huge success. But another very plausible way of looking at the Sonics years is to hypothesize that they were relatively easy teams to coach because they were very talented and self-motivated teams, with such famous and semi-famous players as Sean Kemp, Gary Payton, Nate McMillan, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, and Vin Baker.
Even if you give Karl huge credit for the Sonics years, his history is a totally inconsistent mishmash of results. This is precisely why you have to consider the “Sonics were easy to coach” theory as stronger and stronger with each passing month that the current Denver Nuggets fail to break through to the top of the Western Conference by being able to beat the best teams in the West on occasion by more than a bucket or two. If the Sonics were relatively easy to coach, and the Nuggets, who I readily admit are not easy to coach, continue to fail to be fully competitive with the top teams of the West, the inescapable conclusion will be that, even though he is a gentleman and someone who means to do well, George Karl was and is a failure at the task of putting a very talented basketball team in a position to win at the highest levels of pro basketball.
Technically the jury is still out, because the 2008 fate of the Nuggets is yet to be seen. But a lot of evidence has already been introduced against Karl, and no one least of all myself will be surprised if the jury returns a verdict of “a gentleman but guilty of not being capable of coaching successfully at the advanced level of pro basketball competition.” If Karl is convicted of that as seems all too likely, Allen Iverson and the rest of the Nuggets will pay the price as victims. They will never experience the thrill and honor of playing in the Western Conference finals or the NBA Championship, which they theoretically could have with the assistance of a highly skilled head coach and able assistant coaches.