As a new season has dawned, ESPN posted a preview page for the Denver Nuggets upcoming season. On that page is a box with George Karl’s coaching win/loss record for the regular season, which is an impressive 1074-731 and good for a .595 winning percentage. Below that is his post-season coaching record, an underwhelming 78-101 which is a .436 lifetime percentage. I have seen his regular season record a million times and have always been impressed by the fact that he has won 60% of the games in his coaching career, which is now entering its 25th season. As a follower of the Nuggets, I am well aware of his post season struggles since his arrival to the Mile High City. It never occurred to me that his playoff limitations might have existed prior to his stint in Denver. Let’s take a closer look at the coach’s career to see the real story.
George Karl’s journey as an NBA coach began as an assistant in San Antonio after he wrapped up his playing career. From there he landed his first head coaching gig in Montana for the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Coincidentally, the team Karl coached there was named the Golden Nuggets. He won two CBA Coach of the Year awards in 1981 and 1983. Andre Miller is the only current Denver Nuggets player that was alive when Karl earned these accolades.
The success in the CBA brought Karl opportunity to become a head coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers. While there he got his first taste of the NBA playoffs with a 3-1 first round loss. Karl was fired 67 games into his second season with the Cavs. He bounced back quickly landing with the Golden State Warriors. In his first season by the bay, he lead the Warriors to the second round of the playoffs. He resigned the next year with 18 games remaining in protest to his 3 top scorers being traded. Karl would step away from the NBA for 3 seasons, returning to the CBA and then coaching overseas.
When Karl finally returned to the NBA, his first period of great success as a coach followed with the Seattle Supersonics. He took over the team in the midst of the 1991-92 season, leading the Sonics to a 27-15 record under his guidance. In his six full seasons as head coach in Seattle, his teams won 55 or more games each year with players like Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. The high point was the 1995-96 season when Karl reached the NBA Finals for the first and only time in his career. It just so happened that his best chance to win a championship fell on the same season that Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to an all-time-record 72 wins. Karl’s best prospect to win was against arguably the best player, team and coach in modern NBA history. Nevertheless, Karl’s Sonics pushed the series to six games only to come up short. Karl compiled a 40-40 (.500) playoff record in Seattle bringing his overall playoff record to a respectable 45-49 (.478).
The Milwaukee Bucks offered Karl a lucrative deal to return to the Eastern Conference. Under his regime, the Bucks developed into an elite team in the East with a core of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson. Karl continued his reputation of being a fiery coach unafraid to confront his star players or to call them out. Sometimes he would even do this through the media. Eventually, the internal strife caused the team to fall all the way out of the playoffs in 2001-02 after losing in the Eastern Conference Finals the year prior to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers. After another disappointing season in 2002-03, the embattled coach was fired. Karl’s playoff record with the Bucks was 14-18 (.437), making his career playoff record 59-67 (.468).
Karl took another sabbatical from the NBA and worked as an NBA television analyst. He returned to the NBA on January 27, 2005 to coach the Denver Nuggets. He led the Nuggets to a 32-8 record to finish the season in one of the greatest in-season turnarounds in NBA history. Karl’s career was rejuvenated in the Mile High City. The joy of that feat was short-lived as the Nuggets were vanquished by the eventual champion Spurs in 5 games and Karl was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Karl would defeat prostate cancer and return to the bench in time for the 2005-06 season.
Karl came back even more relaxed than he had been previously. No longer was he living up to the nickname “Furious George.” The Nuggets would again lose in 5 games and the following season this would be repeated despite having Carmelo Anthony and Iverson on the roster. Perhaps some solace can be taken in the fact that they once again lost to the eventual champion Spurs in 2007. However, the next season’s playoff run was even more abrupt with a 4-game sweep by Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. It appeared Karl’s time could be coming to an end in Denver. Fans were calling for his head and there was even a website dedicated to removing him from the bench called FireGeorgeKarl.com (now known as DenverStiffs.com).
Ownership felt that it was time to make some changes and the front office shipped out Marcus Camby in a salary dump. Two games into the 2008-09 season Iverson was traded to the Detroit Pistons for hometown hero Chauncey Billups. This move would revitalize Karl as he now had a coach on the floor type of player in Billups. Finally, he could get his message across to the entire locker room. On December 31, 2008 Karl won his 900th game as an NBA head coach. Denver advanced past the first round for the first time since 1994. Then, they advanced past the second round and found themselves in a rematch against the Lakers. This time it was in the Western Conference Finals. The last time the Nuggets had made it this far into the postseason was in 1985. Karl’s superstar, Carmelo Anthony, was 1 year old the last time this happened. The city was alive and electric during this entire postseason run. The Nuggets would fall two inbounds plays shy of defeating the Lakers and moving on to the franchise’s first NBA Finals. Once again, Karl’s team would fall to the eventual champion.
The Nuggets became the NBA’s darling team and were poised to challenge the Lakers for Western Conference supremacy in 2009-10. The Nuggets were at the top of the standings in the West for the first half of the season leading Karl to be the coach of the Western All-Star team. Following All-Star Weekend, Karl revealed in a press conference that he was diagnosed with throat and neck cancer and took a leave of absence during treatment. In Karl’s absence the team fell apart and lost to the underdog Utah Jazz. The 2010-11 season revolved around Anthony’s imminent departure from the team. Despite this chaos, Karl coached the team to their seventh consecutive postseason appearance under his watch and eighth overall. Once again, the Nuggets were dispatched in 5 games. The front office decided to stay the course with the team first mentality for 2011-12 and it paid dividends by unexpectedly pushing the Lakers to 7 games in the first round.
The expectations are mounting for the upstart Nuggets. Many prognosticators are predicting the team to finish first in the Western Conference. George Karl’s playoff record in Denver is 19-34 (.358) that is his lowest winning percentage of all of his NBA stops. He has dropped the “Furious George” mentality from his coaching style. Seeing the game of basketball as something more Zen-like in a Phil Jackson-lite kind of way. He likes to play unconventional lineups. Often playing small lineups with 2 point guards on the floor at the same time or playing a 6’9 forward as his center for stretches in games against an opponent with multiple 7 footers. Karl has done many things that drive fans crazy, not the least of which has been the lack of winning in the postseason.
Maybe Nuggets fans have become spoiled and forgotten what it was like to root for a team that missed the postseason for an entire decade. It is easy to forget that the last decade Karl-coached-teams have run into superpower teams such as the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, the Spurs with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. This has been the story of George Karl’s entire career. Right place, wrong time. He has been unfortunate to not have the best player in the league at any point of his coaching career. But, also fortunate to be a good enough coach to have advanced into the postseason, often facing the best players in the league on the road toward an NBA title. In his coaching career Karl has had many of the all-time great players block his path to a championship: Jordan, Kobe, Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone and John Stockton.
There are only 7 NBA head coaches in the exclusive 1000 Win Club. Of those 7 coaches, only Karl, Jerry Sloan and Don Nelson have failed to win an NBA championship. Nelson and Sloan are not currently coaching. So that leaves only Karl. NBA titles: 0.
That zero is painful to look at knowing this man has spent 24 years coaching some of the finest athletes on earth in pursuit of a singular goal, still striving to reach it after defeating cancer twice. Perhaps George Karl is content at this point in his career to have a perennial playoff team knowing that in the grand scheme of things, a championship is not as important as one’s own mortality. He’s already beat a tougher opponent than Bryant’s Lakers, Duncan’s Spurs and Jordan’s Bulls. Possibly, those victories mean more to Karl as a man than raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy once meant to him as a coach. Fans can only hope that the coach’s victories as a man will inspire his players to deliver the supreme NBA prize to the ultimate basketball lifer.
Peter Sherwill is an NBA junkie and blogger, never short on opinions. Has appeared as a guest on Denver sports talk radio and hosts the 5280 Hoops Show Podcast.