Kinder, gentler Karl enjoys being back, and doing things his way
DENVER – The star player is offering only average production and average effort, so he sits and watches the fourth quarter from the bench. An assistant coach, well liked by players, doesn’t fit in with the new coach’s program, so he is reassigned within the team.As Carmelo Anthony and Michael Cooper can attest, new Denver Nuggets coach George Karl doesn’t mind making tough decisions. And with the Nuggets winning 16 of their first 21 games after Karl’s arrival, it’s been hard to argue against the veteran coach.”Everybody thinks I’m such a terrible guy,” Karl said. “But believe it or not, I want to make basketball fun.”He is making it fun by lifting the Nuggets out of the “hell” – Karl’s term – they were in for the first 42 games of the season – a team with too much talent to start the season 17-25 even with myriad injuries.But fun can be work, too, and those not willing to do it Karl’s way usually find themselves in a different role than they imagined.Cooper, an up-and-coming assistant who spent 14 games as the interim coach after Jeff Bzdelik’s firing, was reassigned because Karl felt there was too much focus on the past when he came aboard.
Karl replaced him with Doug Moe, and the results were immediate. Moe, the winningest coach in Nuggets history, is helping teach the passing game that made this team unique and exciting in the 1980s. It’s a work in progress, but the overall theme – pushing the pace and getting away from the one-on-one, post-up game Karl detests – is sticking.Anthony is buying in. His scoring average (20.1) has increased by 4.5 points since Karl arrived Jan. 27. But there have been moments when he doesn’t do it quite the way the coach wants, and when that has happened, Anthony has sat on the bench.It happened Feb. 25, when Anthony watched the last several minutes of a 97-94 overtime win over Memphis. It happened again March 13, when Anthony sat the final 17 minutes of a 106-101 loss to Phoenix.But instead of backlash, there was just the opposite. The Memphis benching resulted in “the best talk we’ve had. It stimulated lots of good things,” Karl said.Three days after the Phoenix benching, Anthony moved and flowed within the offense, scoring 25 points in 21 minutes.”It wasn’t a big deal to me, to coach Karl, to the organization,” said Anthony, who proclaims the utmost respect for his new coach. “It wasn’t a big deal.”Although he runs things his way, the 54-year-old coach, winner of 724 games but no championships, doesn’t want to be confused with the guy who left Milwaukee two years ago in a sea of turmoil.
“I’d gotten away from being hands-on and a communicating coach,” Karl said. “Why? People said it was because I got a big contract (two years, $14 million), got arrogant, whatever they want to say. But I did realize that in Milwaukee, I walked away from problems and let them grow because I was stubborn or whatever. I’m not going to do that again.”Two seasons on the sidelines gave him a chance to look at the game from a distance, and though he missed the NBA, there were things he didn’t miss.”The game has a cloud of (whininess) to it right now,” Karl said. “Being out of it, you see it from another perspective. You should be happy to be part of this. It’s kind of a more humble and respectful point of view.”In his early stages with the Nuggets, Karl is benefiting from two things: First, he’s got experience and knows how to win; predictably, players warm to that. Second, he’s got a three-year contract, so if they don’t get on board, it’s likely they’ll be gone, not the coach.General manager Kiki Vandeweghe said he talked at length with Karl about his reputation of not always getting along with players – Ray Allen, Sam Cassell – and management – Wally Walker, Herb Kohl.”I felt comfortable with him because he’s always about getting the best out of his players,” Vandeweghe said. “I think players want to be coached. They want to be told when they’re doing well and when they’re not doing well, and I think that’s important.”
Karl never stops communicating – verbally, in writing, by using the bench.The greaseboard in the Nuggets’ locker room is filled with his writing – game plans, words of wisdom and goals, lots of goals, both short and long term. One of those goals is to avoid losing two in a row, and so far in his tenure, that streak is intact.”If we can do that, it’s almost a sure thing we’ll make the playoffs,” he said.He has mastered this kind of turnaround before – in Seattle, where he took over with the Sonics midway through the 1992 season, and the team went 27-15 down the stretch.So far, the turnaround with the Nuggets is on an even more impressive pace. The players are responding. All his decisions seem to be paying off. Mostly, though, he is glad to be coaching again.”It’s not an easy job, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “Some things in this job are very unfair, very mean at times. At the same time, it’s a job you have a great time with. This is your family. You horse around, have fun and giggle, and you get to compete, which probably stimulates my life as much as anything.”
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