The implosion of the Denver Nuggets organization is well underway following the firing of coach George Karl last week. I’m afraid Denver’s run of being at least a playoff contender every year is gone, and will be for quite some time.
As if losing the young and forward thinking General Manager Masai Ujiri to the Toronto Raptors wasn’t enough to set the Nuggets back, team President Josh Kroenke decided the Nuggets need a complete head office overhaul and fired Karl a few days later. The news punched me in the gut. I wasn’t alone in feeling it.
“All of this is crazy and unexpected, don’t know what to say,” Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson told The Denver Post.
“So, we lost a GM now and a coach, what’s next?” Kenneth Faried tweeted.
“It’s a sad day for me, my staff and my family,” Karl tweeted after was he notified of Kroenke’s decision. “Difficult decision to understand but memories with the Nuggets are the best I’ve ever had.”
The firing of Karl, who had one year left on his contract, comes after a franchise record 57-game win season. Karl was named NBA Coach of the Year. Full of youth, speed and intensity, the Nuggets were the most exciting team in the NBA this year, and that was partly because Karl knows how to motivate young players to work as a team.
Of course, Karl’s resume includes an inability to lead a team deep into the playoffs or to the NBA Finals. In his eight seasons as head coach, Karl’s Nuggets made it to the playoffs all eight years. The knock on all of that success is that Denver only made it past the first round one time, when they went to the Western Conference finals in 2009.
This leaves us with the question: Is making the playoffs good enough to keep your job as head coach, even if you can’t make it past the first round? Obviously in basketball markets like Los Angeles, Boston or New York, it’s definitely not OK...In fact, you need to make the Finals or lose your job in those places. In Denver, though, I’m not sure that’s the case. Regardless of what I think, Kroenke wants to win an NBA championship and he believes the path to that championship is with someone other than George Karl at the helm. I commend Kroenke for his desire to be the best but I don’t agree with his decision to get rid of Karl.
As I’ve written in this column before, Karl should have been able to coach the Denver Nuggets as long as he wanted to coach the Denver Nuggets. He’s made Denver a successful team. Not the best, but certainly worth watching year in and year out. In reality, Denver has become a basketball town once again because it has a team worth watching.
The sports geeks at The Denver Post have written a few columns about the Karl firing calling it a tough but necessary decision. Apparently Karl was interested in the Los Angeles Clippers head coach vacancy and at the same time was pushing for a contract extension with Kroenke. Coming after the most successful season in Nuggets history, Karl was pushing his hand a bit to fashion himself a better future with the Nuggets. As it turns out, Kroenke didn’t like the bind Karl was putting him in and decided to go in another direction.
While Kroenke is the boss, he could have taken a step back and told Karl that he believes the Nuggets are close to a championship, let’s see what happens next year and then we’ll talk about an extension. If Karl goes to the Clippers, Karl goes to the Clippers, and the Nuggets would be in the same situation they are in now. In that case, Karl would be the bad guy and the Nuggets would have to go find a coach anyway. That scenario would have given Karl the respect he deserves.
Instead, Kroenke decided to drop him right then and there without looking to the future. And it is this unknown future of the Nuggets that has me so pissed off right now. The fact of the matter is you don’t fire a coach like George Karl without knowing you have a chance at someone better – at another, bigger name head coach. The Nuggets do not have any options at a big name head coach right now.
So far, Kroenke has indicated that Pacers assistant Brian Shaw is a possibility and former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins (also recently fired, despite making the postseason) are frontrunners for Denver’s coaching vacancy. Nuggets Vice President of Basketball Operations Pete D’Alessandro is also a possibility but he’s been given permission to talk with the Kings about a job in Sacramento. So he’s one big question mark.
There are other Nugget names being thrown around as well, including Chauncey Billups and Alex English. While I have no problem with either one of these guys, hiring one of them as head coach would indicate that Kroenke loves splashy coaching hires at bargain prices. The hiring of Patrick Roy by the Avalanche is a good example of that. They make good stories, but not necessarily good coaching hires, especially with a team that has as much potential as the Nuggets. (With Roy and the Avs, all they can do is go up from here.)
In short, firing a coach as successful as George Karl can only be done if there is another, better, bigger-name head coach waiting in the wings. The Nuggets do not have that right now. As much as I hate to say it, I think the Nuggets’ recent era of regular playoff appearances is over. Denver’s young, talented players are going to begin to split away and join teams that have a team-building atmosphere, not an implosion led by a one-man operation.
Mid-season next year, we are going to wish we had coach Karl on the bench.