Coach Of The Year: George Karl


Had someone floated the idea of this 2012-13 NBA season to George Karl three years ago – the Denver Nuggets’ high-octane overachievement, the fun he would have orchestrating it, this talk of him as a leading candidate as NBA Coach of the Year – he’s not sure how he would have reacted to it.

There was so much uncertainty then. Peering three years into the future? Yeah right. Man plans, cancer wags a long, Dikembe Mutombo-like finger.

“That summer when I had to make a decision whether I was going to coach again, it was a hard summer,” said Karl, who already had deal with prostate cancer in 2005 when neck cancer grabbed him by the throat in February 2010. “I remember, at the end of July, I just wasn’t mentally ready to do it. I had to push myself to … whatever. Get over the depression. Get over feeling sorry for myself.

“I just knew, you have two families: You have your inner-core family that’s blood and people who have always been with you. And then you have your basketball family. I wasn’t ready to leave my basketball family. I wasn’t ready to leave the gym.”

So Karl, 61, returned. Through treatment, through occasional absences, through the Carmelo Anthony drama. He celebrated his 1,000th victory in 2010-11 and kept going, and he labored hard to build and heed new habits for himself, a working style that was sustainable. And survivable.

“I went back with different rules,” Karl said before Denver’s game in Milwaukee. “The rules were balance and ‘I’m not going to kill myself.’ And ‘If I’m stressed, I’m going to delegate. If I’m worried and to the point where I’m out of control, I’m going to walk away, I’m going to take a day off.’ I never would have thought of that when I was in Milwaukee.”

In Karl’s five seasons with the Bucks (1998-2003), same as in his seven seasons in Seattle (1991-1998), there was no minor problem, no niggling little annoyance too small for Karl to plunge headlong into a quest for a solution. He was wilder then both on and off the court, and he wasn’t healthy even before he got sick.

Then he had wisdom and perspective forced on him, the way so many of us do. Beyond his own illness, his son, Coby, faced and survived lymph node cancer. Change became the constant for Karl.

“I love basketball, I love the gym, I love the passion, I love the competition,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to deteriorate my health again.”

So he rants and rails and stays late less, yet enjoys it all more. Especially this year, the most successful regular-season in Denver’s NBA franchise history. The Nuggets’ previous best in victories was 54 and its top home record was 36-5, which was bested by this season’s 57-25 and 38-3 finishes, respectively.

“You’ve got to understand, he’s deal with a lot of stuff in his personal life,” guard Andre Miller said. “To be able to come back and be totally committed to this organization says a lot. … It’s only right for him to be considered for Coach of the Year. It’s a lot of hard work dealing with NBA players and he’s been doing it well for along time.”

The Nuggets play fast, they push into the paint to shoot a high percentage and dominate on the offensive boards, and they do it all without a legit all-NBA third-team prospect. The lack of a marquee star, a ready excuse for many franchises, has been embraced in the Mile High City.

“We have been battered by the notion that we can’t win because we don’t have a superstar,” Karl said. “It’s not that we don’t have a superstar – you just don’t know who the superstar is tonight. But we’re going to have a guy have a great game tonight. You don’t know who it’s going to be, I don’t know who it’s going to be. That can be an advantage.

“I think the team has the personality that they like it that way. Their egos don’t get in the way of realizing this is a team first and if we play team-first basketball, we’ll be successful.”

The home-court advantage that the Nuggets clinched Monday for the first round means so much to Karl and his team because it was long in coming. Denver opened the season playing 22 of its first 32 on the road, and Karl felt they’d be in good shape if they got to New Year’s Day a game over .500. They got there at 17-15.

Since then, it’s been a 39-10 rush to the end. Super-quick point guard Ty Lawson is back from a sore plantar fascia. Forward Danilo Gallinari‘s season is over for knee surgery, but perpetual motion man Kenneth Faried intends to be ready for the playoffs despite his left ankle sprain. Andre Iguodala will get votes for Defensive Player of the Year.

And their coach has savored every game, every practice.

“It’s a team that likes to be coached, let’s us coach them, and you feel like you’re a part of them,” Karl said. “And so much of coaching in the NBA is managing attitudes and egos, and putting the jigsaw puzzle of psychology together rather than coaching the X&O’s of basketball.

“And they allow me to make my mistakes. When we were 20-2, the two games we lost — in New Orleans and [San Antonio] — I thought I had a major part in the game-plan mistakes. I explained that to ’em, ‘None of us coach or plays perfect games.’ In New Orleans, we had a game plan for [Greivis] Vasquez. He doesn’t play, we don’t change the plan and it hurt us. We thought, ‘What we’d do for Vasquez, we’ll do for [Brian] Roberts, it’ll work.’ And it was the stupidest thing we could do. Trapping him was stupid – we should have been zoned up and let him shoot jump shots and not get 18 assists like he got.”

The ones Karl nails outnumber the ones he misses, though.

Said Iguodala: “The thing I notice about him is, he can watch film of a team once or twice and he knows exactly how to beat ’em. I haven’t seen that too much. He’ll say, ‘Here are the three things we need to do to win’ and 95 percent of the time we’ll win the game.”

Karl takes pride in having calmed down, in trusting his experience. This season, he matched Phil Jackson with 21 consecutive seasons finishing .500 or better.

“I’m old, man, I’m old,” he said. “There’s not much I haven’t seen. Bad refereeing, I’ve seen a lot of it. I’ve seen crazy calls, I’ve seen crazy situations, I’ve seen crazy attitudes.

“Coaching to me is a lot seeing and feeling the game before it happens. And knowing where the game is going to go before it goes there. Then trying to stop the bad from happening and magnify the good when it does happen.”

Karl has been stopping the bad and magnifying the good like few others these days.

The other contenders:

Erik Spoelstra — If we’re going to reflect back for Karl, let’s do the same for Spoelstra. A little more than two years ago, buzzards were circling nightly over AmericanAirlines Arena, waiting for a coaching change that seemed inevitable. So what did Spoelstra do? Kept working. He tweaked Miami’s offense, finessed the egos, adapted to roster changes and backed up last June’s championship with a walkaway regular season and favorite’s status for the 2013 Finals.

Gregg Popovich — If the Spurs coach could win his second COY award steering an already old team to the NBA’s best record last season, he certainly deserves consideration for a third with his core a year older. Then there’s the peer factor: If the 30 coaches voted, Pop probably would win every year.

Lionel Hollins — It’s not unusual now for a coach to work to the end of his contract. But Hollins did it — and thrived — despite two significant trades (including the departure of Rudy Gay) for a team that seemed OKC-ready to slip through a championship window. He’s exacting, he’s demanding and he and the Grizzlies stayed strong, and should be proud.

Mike Woodson — Working with players only a few years younger than him, on average, Woodson trounced expectations. The Knicks’ hot start proved not to be fool’s gold, backed up by strong play late in the season. And no matter if Anthony finally grasped the whole team/individual dynamic, it happened on Woodson’s watch after never quite happening on others’.


  1. Nickol says:

    I think Karl is amazing and should absolutely win coach of the year. This article speaks for itself but forgets to touch on what he does for our community here in Denver! We love him and want nothing but the best for him… and the best is… COACH OF THE YEAR!!! He deserves it…. and Patty you need to remove yourself from this conversation… its obvious you know nothing of what an amazing coach/man/community leader looks like. Sooooooo STFU!!!!

  2. Shawn says:

    i think you are not giving proper credit at all to Mike Woodson, it is almost disrespectful. He is probably the greatest leader of all coaches. It is not just the improvement of Melo,come on. His leadership improves the physical, mental and emotional disposition of the players. He holds his players accountable,We watch JR, Shumbert and Copeland become great players before our eyss due to their total development. His use of veteran and young players, the love he seems to generate amongst his players and awesome team work is always a pleasure to watch. To me he is the best coach of our time, and it is shocking to me that you would just attribute his greatness to Carmelo? Really?

  3. ac says:

    I think Karl is a good choice in a year where a lot of coaches should be commended for the great work. For me, watching what Woodson has done with a Knicks team that NOBODY was picking to do even close to this well makes him my choice. Outside of the fact that even if they were healthy nobody was picking them to be this good, the way he’s dealt with the injuries and lineup changes is remarkable. Melo, JR, Chandler, Felton, all are having their best full seasons which again speaks to Woodson’s leadership.

    Outside of him, Thibs has absolutely done a fantastic job for almost exactly the same reasons. Dealing with the injuries, he’s gotten career seasons from Deng, Noah, and even Robinson.

    But I’m down with Karl, he really turned Denver into a dangerous team. Shame they’re without Gallinari, would’ve been awesome to see them in postseason with him in the lineup.

  4. SUPER_CELTICS says:

    Big Al,what a stupid logic.

  5. JAMES YAP says:

    adjusting for your superstars as a coach is definitely a hard thing to do.. that’s why spo should win this award.

  6. Big Al says:

    Karl has somehow managed to turn a bunch of average players into a very dangerous team. But this is also the coach that failed to make the Iverson-Carmelo tandem work. While the Nuggets are the dark horse this season, the current roster doesn’t deserve to be on the list of NBA Champions. The 2004 Detroit Pistons winning it all spawned a dark age in basketball. It’s an infamous final squandered by the Lakers. It should end there. No non-superstar team should ever get a trophy again, and it’s up to those that have superstars to not make it happen.

  7. Marco29 says:

    Mike D’Antoni, anyone? No 🙂

    George Karl should certainly be in the discussion but I don’t see him as a clear winner. Woodson, Thibodeau, Jackson and even Hollins have strong cases of their own. Spoelstra, Popovich and Brooks (he managed to bring OKC to #1 in the West fatre loosing Harden) could be considered too but they are making a quite different job.
    There is only one disctinction for 2 different jobs: some coaches are given a great roster full of superstars and have to manage egos and leave to the high expections. Spoelstra, Popovich, Brooks, D’Antoni and Del Negro were in that situation and managed it with different results. Auerbach, Riley, Phil Jackson were in the same position in the past and were granted COY honors several times.
    Some other coaches are given a less talented roster, a young core and manage to lift those groups to a higher level than expected, bring a chemistry, a defense to a bad defensive team, etc… In this group you would find Karl, Woodson, Thibodeau (if Rose had been healthy, he would probably have been in the other group), Hollins, Jackson. Great coaches like Daly or Tomjanovic were in that group and won COY honors too.
    Both jobs are difficult and deserve some respect but each year, a choice has to be made between those 2 groups. Sometimes, the coach on the best team gets the trophy no matter how many superstars he had on his team, sometimes a coach that managed to have an underdog overperform gets it.
    We’ll see to which category the votes go this year.

  8. I would say Doc Rivers of my Celts despite their record when you really consider all Celts had to deal w/ this year-i know other teams had injuries so it’s no excuse but Celts also had 2 players coming off heart surgery a year ago in Green & Wilcox-Kudos to Doc for a hell of a season despite ups & downs-they kept fighting to make the playoffs-that’s the Spirit of Boston. I obviously know they won’t give it to him sooo…..
    Big time Kudos to Karl-he as a human being has come a loooong way & to cont coaching as he did & do so well while keeping up w/ his personal life is simply awe inspiringly-A-MAZING! Now-he def should win coach of the year-Great Creator bless you Karl & stay healthy Karl!!! 🙂

  9. Gabe says:

    Patty, are you blond? Because from your reasoning you sure seem like one. LMAO

  10. W/E says:

    YES, George Karl deserved it,Karl did an awesome job this year with the new Nuggets roster.

  11. what says:

    what song is that @ 520 it’s pretty good, and yeah coach karl getting this team where they are great choice

  12. horizonteconsulting says:

    I think It should be #1 George Karl #2 Spolestra

  13. beaverbrooks says:

    here are my playoff predicitions: DEN>GSW DEN>MEM DEN>OKC Way to go GK, now go get your championship!

  14. Put a little more says:

    SPO may not be the best coach but he deserves to be on the list, Superstar team doesn’t always equate championships or best record just ask present day lakers, wa nkers like you guys need to think 1st before posting comments here


      Agreed! Pop had all stars and Phil Jackson had legends…. Spo deserves it this year check the team record. Fresh of a championship too. Stars or no stars its not like Denver doesnt have really good players! Iggy has been an all star and the other guys play a team game. GK deserves it but Spo should get this years. 27 wins in a row and 66 wins trumps what GK did this year sorry.

  15. KB24/8 says:

    Aww he deserves a ring but just like the others you gotta fight for it

  16. Frodo says:

    Coach Karl man. 40-10 in 2013. 3-1 against OKC, 3-1 against Memphis, 2-1 against LAC, 2-2 against San Antonio. Hmmm, 10-5 against the top teams in the west and NO all-star on the roster. Yup, Coach of the Year hands down.

  17. Patty says:



    • Shawn Kemp No. 1 says:


    • Willis says:

      You simply cant be serious why George Karl. 57 – 26 without a “Superstar” or an All star. Came back after cancer. Something ridiculous like 22 of 32 games on the road to start the season. A record good enough for #3 seed in the loaded west (a record that would give the Nuggets an easy number 2 seed in the East). Something like 8 or 10 consecutive playoff appearances. A team that simply didn’t go through a rebuilding period after losing a marquee NBA player. One of the winningest coaches of all time. What has Karl NOT DONE?

    • JKey says:

      Hey Patty, stop spamming your dislike on GK and deal with the fact that other people agree that he should be coach of the year.

  18. Andy says:

    Where is the love for Mark Jackson? He helped orchestrate a turn around from a 23-43 record last year to 47-35 this year. Amazing. At least list the man under “contenders”…

  19. rondo says:

    Very happy for karl. Spoelstra doesn’t deserve it because he has 4 stars. Other coaches that deserves this award is popp, and mike dunlap because he led the bobcats to 20 wins.

  20. Willis says:

    *could Spolestra (or any other coach) put together the magical run the Nuggets have already accomplished with the same deck of cards?

  21. Willis says:

    I would say with out a doubt it should be Karl. Tibs and Pop could be in the argument but like steppx said, this is a coaching award not baby sitting super stars and messaging egos award. The Heat had an incredible season there is not doubt, could Spolestra (or any other coach) put together the magical run the Nuggets have already accomplished – and they are just getting started!

    • Patty says:


      • Nuggsguy says:

        A man is still a man even in a loss PATTY! The key is fighting to the end of every game win or lose, and that is exactly what we’ve seen out of coach Karls team! Coach Karl has propelled his team to the 3rd seed in the western conference for the playoffs, WITHOUT A SO CALLED SUPERSTAR! GET IT? George Karl and the Nuggets have not won a championship, but, I hope they do this year. Guess what? With or without a championship George Karl is still THE COACH OF THE YEAR! Good job Coach, good luck to you and the team.

    • Pakyaw says:

      Wow..too much hate on heat,from the players,now the coach…well I guess coach Phil doesn’t deserve this award too,coz he coach a superstar..stupid logic…

      • Marco29 says:

        Fair point. Spolestra should be in the discussion. It is not that easy to keep a group that won a championship focused and manage the ego of so many superstars. Look at D’antoni and the Lakers. Not everybody can do that.

  22. Jay says:

    Cancer puns? really?

  23. ?????? says:

    Does anyone know when the end-of-year awards are being announced?

  24. Denver 2012Champs says:

    Well deserved

  25. justsaying says:

    Coach Tibs should get some love too. He kept Chicago hungry and competitive this season in spite of losing Rose and the “bench mob”.

  26. steppx says:

    Absolutely Karl should win. Good call. Spoelestra doesnt deserve to be on this list at all. Its a COACHING award, not a baby ssit super stars award. Mark Jackson deserves a honorable mention, and probably Thibs too.

    • Patty says:



    • Patty says:


    • Woody says:

      Having Mutiple Superstars on a team doesn’t mean you are going to be successful. Look at the Lakers this year, at the start of year when they got dwight and nash teaming with kobe and gasol everyone thought championship run . You still need Strategy night in night out. You still need to be coached! Plus you have a need for better player management. i’m not saying spoelestra should win coach of the year but he is definately in the conversation.

    • funnynba,com says:

      REALLY?? Spo doesn;t deserves it? Most of the coaches who won the award have a bunch of all-stars
      Thibs got the award despite he has D.Rose, Deng, Noah and Boozer who are an All-Stars ..
      Brooks have Durant, Westbrook and Harden who are also an all-stars
      Popov have Duncan, Ginobili and Parker … so if you’re saying if you have an all stars you don’t deserve it?
      Compare them with Spo, he has a lot of history breaking record like that 27th win streak, best team record, best franchise record and so on..