MIAMI — In the end, it was just the way the Nuggets do business.
Just as with their now former general manager Masai Ujiri, the Nuggets’ refusal to even contemplate a new contract for their now former coach, George Karl, led to their decision Thursday to fire Karl after nine seasons. And so, a team that was seeded third entering the Western Conference playoffs in late April, and which sported the reigning Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, now has neither in the space of six weeks.
The ripple effects remain to be seen.
The Nuggets have to re-sign forward Andre Iguodala, for example, a free agent this summer. Asked Thursday how Karl’s ouster would affect his decision, Iguodala texted, “Good question. Need some time to let it sink in.”
The Nuggets’ 33-year-old president, Josh Kroenke, the son of team chairman Stan Kroenke, is taking a major gamble by firing Karl and his 1,131 career wins, which ranks six in the history of the league. Karl has gotten a lot of heat locally for the Nuggets’ inability to go very far in the postseason on his watch; though the team made the playoffs in each of his 10 seasons there, the Nuggets only advanced past the first round once, when Denver made the Western Conference finals in 2009.
But nationally, Karl remains highly respected, not only for his part in making the Nuggets a relevant NBA franchise again, but in how he has stoically dealt twice with bouts of cancer, the last of which caused him to miss most of the second half of the 2009-10 season and Denver’s first-round loss to Utah. It is hard to see, outside of somehow convincing Phil Jackson to come to the Mile High City, how Kroenke is going to find a better coach than Karl.
Karl kept winning while the Nuggets used the first half of the 2010-11 season working out a potential trade for Carmelo Anthony, the team’s superstar who wanted out. And after Denver moved Anthony to New York, the Nuggets kept winning—though, again, they did not get out of the first round that season.
This season, Karl won Coach of the Year honors after Denver posted a league-best 38-3 home record, and looked like a major contender in the west. The Nuggets had won a franchise-record 57 games this past season, but their first-round defeat at the hands of sixth-seeded Golden State shook the organization, and Karl never recovered.
Afterward, Denver simply would not discuss a new contract for Karl, who had a year remaining on his current contract and a series of one-year team options following that. The 62-year-old Karl, one of just one of eight coaches in NBA history with more than 1,000 victories, wanted the security of a new deal, especially with Ujiri, with whom he’d worked well the past two years and trusted, leaving last week for the Raptors’ GM job—and more than doubling his salary in the process.
The team had also been slow to reward Ujiri, viewed around the league as the driving force behind Denver getting such a huge haul for Anthony from the Knicks, skillfully pitting the Knicks and Nets against one another as their offers for Anthony increased.
Going forward, management was uncertain that Karl would accede to its increasingly urgent request to play some of the team’s younger players. Karl had opted to start rugged center Kosta Koufos this season instead of high-flying JaVale McGee, whom Karl did not believe was as consistent defensively as the less-regarded Koufos.
But the Nuggets had given McGee a four-year, $44 million extension last summer, and believed he was the team’s center of the future, having traded the veteran Nene to Washington in 2012 for McGee.
Karl was “pushing” for a new deal, a source said Thursday—“in his mind, not unreasonable. He felt he needed to have it. The uncertainty of Andre Iguodala, the uncertainty of when Gallo (forward Danilo Gallinari) would be back (from his ACL tear, suffered late last season). He felt like after 10 years of proving himself as a coach, he deserved it. They just didn’t feel that.”
Karl’s representatives and Nuggets management had been talking for weeks, including several discussions held during the Chicago pre-Draft camp in April. The more Karl pushed, the more “reluctant” the Nuggets became to discuss a new deal, the source said.
Josh Kroenke was up front with Karl. He told Karl he didn’t want to put him in the position of having to order him next season to play the young guys if management felt that was the way to go, knowing Karl would balk because going young would certainly impact his win-loss record. Yet management remained firm that it would not give Karl an extension.
“It came down to the point that they realized, if they couldn’t get anything done (with Karl), was there any point in going forward?,” the source said. “Josh was very direct, very honest. He was very, very clear every step of the way.”
But, in the end, Kroenke opted to clean house, leaving himself alone atop the team’s power structure—though he is not expected to take control of basketball operations, having just been named president of the NHL’s Avalanche as well; Stan Kroenke owns the Avalanche.
The Nuggets have already reached out to Pacers associate head coach Brian Shaw, asking for permission to speak with him about their vacancy, according to CBSSports.com. Josh Kroenke is also a big supporter of his team’s assistant GM, Pete D’Alessandro, and may well elevate him to GM to replace Ujiri.