Nuggets face uncertain summer with George Karl, Masai Ujiri gone
It isn't as simple as this, but still: NBA Coach of the Year George Karl won a franchise-record 57 games with a young starless roster, and his reward was to be fired Thursday by the Nuggets.
Karl was pushing for a contract extension. He didn't want to enter the final year of his deal under a new GM who will be hired to replace Masai Ujiri, the reigning NBA Executive of the Year who moved onto Toronto last week.
Here's the bottom line: The Nuggets peaked because they benefited from two of the NBA's best leaders, and now they look ahead to next year from an entirely new and unpredictable perspective.
They may yet discover that their roster isn't as talented as it appeared to be this season. There is no star in Denver who is capable of carrying the Nuggets offensively. Karl was one of the few coaches in the NBA who viewed -- or at least claimed to view -- that weakness as a strength. He embraced the team's makeup while creating a uniquely aggressive style of play that enabled the Nuggets to hide their flaws during the regular season.
A season-ending knee injury to Danilo Gallinari helped ensure a first-round upset loss to the Warriors, but the outcome proved what many in the league knew already: The Nuggets absence of go-to leadership could not produce victories in the playoffs. Instead of being credited for earning the No. 3 seed in the West with an inexperienced roster that had one player 30 years or older and no one averaging 17 points or more per game, Karl was blamed for the team's inevitable failure in the postseason. It was as if he would have been better off not raising expectations in the first place.
While the disappointment of the playoffs surely played a role in Karl's firing, the more important factor appears to be the Nuggets' imminent decision on a GM, and the team's pursuit of a new identity going forward.
In addition to Ujiri's assistant Pete D'Alessandro, who is the leading in-house candidate, the most likely replacements for Ujiri appear to be Tommy Sheppard of the Wizards and Jeff Weltman of the Bucks, each currently serving in the No. 2 role for their current teams.
Sheppard, Weltman and D'Alessandro make sense because the Nuggets are a franchise that expends limited resources. Sheppard and Weltman each have worked for the Nuggets, they have longstanding relationships with owner Stan Kroenke and his son Josh and they will understand how to work seamlessly within the organization. There will be no learning curve or wasting of time because nothing will be foreign to them. Not only are Sheppard and Weltman both viewed around the league as leading GM candidates who have paid their dues, but they'll also understand the inherent point of view that led to the dismissal of Karl.
It's a strange basketball world when two coaches who led their teams to record-breaking seasons are not invited back. Could the Clippers replace Vinny Del Negro (who was not re-signed after winning 56 games) with Karl?
We'll also see how Denver reshapes its identity. Even if the Nuggets succeed in hiring Lionel Hollins or Brian Shaw, they'll be unlikely to win 57 games again next season. Not only was Karl the best coach for this roster, but he and his staff ranked among the best in the NBA at developing young talent. The Nuggets' next GM is going to face a big challenge in finding a coaching staff that can match the accomplishments of George Karl.