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’.