With the end of the regular season fast approaching, we're taking a closer look at each award race. We've already hit on the Sixth Man award, Most Improved and Defensive Player of the Year. Here, Ian Thomsen examines the race for Coach of the Year.
Young teams without offensive starpower aren't supposed to do what the Nuggets have done this year. Andre Miller is the only player in Denver older than 29. Not only did the Nuggets begin the year as the NBA's third youngest team, but they spent most of the first two months on the road with 22 of 32 games away from home. They won 17 to give themselves a chance.
They went onto to take full advantage of that chance, going 38-10 in the New Year on their way to a franchise-record 55 wins already. No coach has done more with less than George Karl. He's the choice for NBA Coach of the Year because he has given his Nuggets an identity that has driven them to the No. 3 seed of the West (as of Monday) while playing to a style all his own.
"Our style is different from most styles," said Karl earlier this year. "We want to attack the rim. We don't like to shoot jump shots."
While the rest of the league tends to space the floor to create open jumpers, Karl has been pushing the ball in transition to attack the basket. The Nuggets rank No. 1 in paint scoring with 57.7 points -- more than 10 points ahead of the No. 2 Pistons.
Karl deserves the award not only for making the most of his players, but also for bringing them along. His coaching staff is among the best in the league in terms of developing young talents like Ty Lawson, a No. 18 pick in 2009 who leads the Nuggets with 16.6 points and 6.9 assists; 27-year-old Corey Brewer, who is averaging 12.3 points off the bench after being traded by Minnesota, waived by New York and spending four months with the champion Mavericks; and second-year forward Kenneth Faried, who has provided a ferocious 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in 28.1 minutes.
Other coaches might have struggled after the franchise star demanded a trade, as Carmelo Anthony did two years ago. His move to the Knicks brought Denver a variety of talented young role players who replaced Anthony's firepower with depth. Karl instantly reinvented the Nuggets' approach around ball movement and effort. Only three Nuggets average more than 29 minutes per game. Their bench ranks among the NBA's top five in points, assists, shooting percentage, blocks and steals. They win by way of relentless effort, as expressed by their league-lead in offensive rebounds (13.3) and fast-break points (19.9).
Karl's goal is to dominate the hustle categories, which includes the league-best 19.9 points they score off turnovers. "If you make quick decisions," explained Karl, "defenses always will react and they can't be aggressive."
This is a crowded award field loaded with peers of Karl's who are also qualified to be Coach of the Year. The Pacers were running a high-tempo offense when they elevated Frank Vogel as head coach in January 2011. This season he turned them into one of the NBA's top defensive teams while playing to a slower, playoff-styled pace. He has earned homecourt advantage in the first-round on the right side of the bracket (avoiding Miami until a potential conference final), and he was able to overcome the season-long absence of leading scorer Danny Granger by hastening Paul George's improvement to become an All-Star.
Then there is Tom Thibodeau, who survived the absence of franchise star and former league MVP Derrick Rose -- as well as several crucial role players -- by maxing out the remaining roster to reach a top-six seed in the East.
Karl inches to the top because he earned more wins than the Pacers and Bulls in the more competitive Western Conference. Danilo Gallinari had been looking like a potential All-Star before he suffered a torn ACL two weeks ago, and Lawson has been slowed by plantar fasciitis. The Nuggets have kept winning anyway, but the weakening of their egalitarian roster may be too much for them to withstand in the playoffs. Their lone star is Andre Iguodala, the Olympic gold medalist who has a bigger impact as a defender than as a scorer (12.9 points).
"This is the way the game of basketball is supposed to be," said Karl. "It's supposed to be a team game. It's supposed to be five players playing as a unit that magnifies into a special team. It's an 82-game season, and depth is important. We can overcome an injury; there's a lot of teams that can't overcome an injury.
"I think the way we're trying to do it is the best way to do it."
If the Nuggets should go on to be upset in the playoffs, it will -- in a perverse way -- prove that Karl made the most of what he had this year. And if, on the other hand, they're able to make a deep run, then all the better for their unique approach. Either way, the result of this season stands on its own. It makes Karl a deserving choice as Coach of the Year.