Refreshed, happier Karl enjoying dream job with new-look Nuggets
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It wasn't one of those nights George Karl was talking about, when at least 30 percent of the game is made up of mistakes and the potential for finger pointing is ripe from selfish players.
His Denver Nuggets were up 30 points on a defenseless Kings team midway through the third quarter, when the locals began leaving out of spite for what they had seen. Or jealousy, perhaps. Ball movement, selflessness and impassioned play are foreign concepts here and in many other NBA arenas, but none of the few fans who remained seemed to appreciate it as much as Karl.
The 58-year-old returned to a professional nightmare after prevailing in a second exhausting battle with cancer nearly two years ago that forced him to miss the end of the 2009-10 campaign. His star player was orchestrating his exit to New York and his team was held hostage by the "Melo-drama" that didn't end until last February. The on-floor experience wasn't any more pleasant, with Denver's ball-pounding personnel hardly matching Karl's coaching personality that was shaped by his time with Dean Smith at North Carolina some 40 years ago.
But now? Now Karl has a well-deserved dream job with a 13-5 team that has continued what it started post-trade (18-7 after the deal last season). The Nuggets lead the league in assists (24.7 per game), their top three scorers are separated by 2.5 points per game and six players are averaging double-digit scoring (small forward Danilo Gallinari leads all at 17.7, while reserve point guard Andre Miller is averaging 10.4). A new star emerges every night, with all involved claiming their stats don't matter nearly as much as the collective success.
And all of it makes Karl -- who has had 19 straight winning seasons and needs one more to tie Phil Jackson for the league record -- so happy about the culture change that has taken place that he's hardly trying to hide it.
"We don't have superstar players, but we have a lot of guys who can play basketball," he says one moment.
"It's refreshing to have a more coach-able team," he admits in another.
"There's a new chapter, new players, younger players, more energized players, players who don't have a career already defined," he says later.
Nuggets officials would prefer to not discuss the elephant in the room, how their team is winning with an all-hands-on-deck style while Carmelo Anthony's new team -- currently 7-11 -- is losing with a very different way of playing. They appreciate Anthony's role in transforming an organization that endured eight straight losing seasons (including a 17-win campaign in 2002-03) to one that enjoyed eight straight winning seasons and playoff appearances, plus a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2009. They respect the professional manner with which he handled himself last season with the media and intense attention while they waited for the sort of trade that could accelerate the rebuilding process once he was gone.
To be fair, the relevant changes that led to the new-look Nuggets went beyond Anthony. No more J.R. Smith means no more need for nightly doses of Excedrin. The talented but tumultuous shooter became a free agent last summer and can't return to the NBA until March, when his deal in China expires. The loss of forward Kenyon Martin to free agency and a Chinese deal is a gain (though it hurts temporarily in grittiness and on the glass). And the arrival of players who have brought a selfless style has had an impact on Karl and his refreshed outlook.
"[Anthony] is a great player," said Ty Lawson, the third-year point guard out of North Carolina who is flourishing as a full-time starter. "He fills up the stat sheet, but coach, I guess, wanted a different style of play, and that's what he's getting right now.
"[Karl] is definitely happier. There's a lot less stress on him. He's walking around telling jokes. He's having fun. Before the trade, he wasn't too talkative, wasn't joking too much, but now he's a different person."
Said forward Al Harrington, a close friend of Anthony's who signed a five-year, $33 million deal in the summer of 2010, in part, because of Anthony's presence: "I know [Karl] is extremely happy about the way we're playing. I guess it's the way he's envisioned this team playing for years, or whatever. So from that aspect, I'd say yeah he's happier.
"It is what it is. [Anthony] wanted a change. He got the change he wanted, and George wanted a change, and he got the change he wanted."
Karl, who is seventh all-time in coaching wins (1,049-708 in 23-plus seasons), has always been as candid as they come. But you get the sense he enjoys speaking truths more than ever now.
He takes that tact willingly when it comes to Anthony, but it isn't an attack of his former player as much as it is an analysis of the league's obsession with stars as a means to a championship end. And to say Karl disagrees with that premise would be an understatement.
"Now the thing is, '[The Nuggets] are a regular-season team,'" said Karl, whose team lost in five games to Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last April. "Hell, there's only about 25 of them in the NBA, but we are labeled the regular-season team. The Lakers get the benefit of the doubt that they'll be ready for the playoffs. Why can't we be ready for the playoffs? Why can't we grow and prosper and be ready for the playoffs?
"'Ah, 'they're a regular season team.' It's ludicrous the stuff that people write. It has nothing to do with trying to win and being a good team -- a really good team that has a lot of good players. Wow. That doesn't seem to be that strange to me, but it is [to others]. 'You've got to have superstars,' [they say]."
If a team is going to have superstars, Karl explained, better to have the kind who steal the spotlight only when they must.
"What you need is a Melo [type] who lets the team happen first," Karl said. "And then when he needs to save us, he saves us. I saw Michael Jordan do that so many times with Chicago at the end of his career:
'Oh, it's Pippen's night tonight. Oh, we're going to let the triangle work tonight.'
"That's part of the game. ...The team has always got to be first, and there a lot of people in the NBA that don't want to sign that contract."
Count Karl in, though, with a signature and a smiley face.
"Every NBA team has headaches and nightmares, but this team hasn't had a whole lot of them, and so it's fun to come here," he said. "It's a team in a lockout season. You're coaching a lot in a different way. You're trying to figure out what to put in, how to prepare differently because you don't have the same pattern as you've had for years. And the guys have been really kind of receptive to the extra [work].
"These guys are pretty receptive to understanding that this is going to be a unique year and we have a chance to be really good and take the opportunity for what it's worth."