The other day, a personal acquaintance and longtime follower of the Denver Nuggets came up to me with a broad smile on his face.
"Finally, the Nuggets did the right thing," this fellow said. "They got rid of that SOB, George Karl. Now maybe they can go all the way, right? That's what a lot of us think."
Not so fast, all you self-proclaimed experts — including those of you in the Denver media, who so quickly turned on Karl after Nuggets president Josh Kroenke announced the veteran head coach would not be returning.
In fact, here's a message for the bloodthirsty masses of Nuggets Nation: Be careful what you wish for.
In all honesty, do you think Denver will find a better coach than George Karl?
First, the league didn't name him the NBA Coach of the Year just to be nice. And where were those naysayers from mid-February to mid-April, when Karl guided the Nuggets on a 23-3 run to finish the regular season with a 57-25 record? Who was screaming for Karl's scalp when, after star forward Danilo Gallinari blew out a knee April 4, Karl held everything together and the Nuggets won six of their final seven games to secure the Western Conference's No. 3 postseason seed? That's surely what earned Karl the honor, and brought respectful applause from the league.
Second, anyone could tell that Karl was, and is, a headstrong and egotistical coach. So are most others at that level. But suddenly, after his dismissal, Karl's detractors treated it as an exorcism, as though he had been a self-centered monster.
Really? Yet why did the team continue playing so hard for him down the stretch? Because they hated him so much? No, because he was more shrewd and crafty than ever.
Third, I wonder if Kroenke realizes how much Denver's franchise has alienated Karl's fan club of high-profile NBA people, such as good friend Gregg Popovich, who's won four NBA titles in San Antonio, and Doug Moe, who remains the Nuggets' winningest head coach with 432 victories from 1980 to 1990. (Karl leaves with 423 wins in nine seasons.)
Moe, now a 74-year-old Denver icon who was an assistant to Karl for a few years before retiring, said this to the Denver Post late in the season. "George has been absolutely terrific. ... He's stepped up and taken a lot of good players and made them into a great team. Just done the maximum that could possibly be done."
In other words, don't expect Moe to be helping rally Nuggets Nation now. It's hard to imagine Denver's Kroenke finding a better fit to coach the team's superstar-less roster. Karl didn't need Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Nenê or the others traded by Denver in recent years.
Not having a superhero, many of those experts insist, tells you why Karl's last Denver team capsized in the playoffs, along with the fact that his fast-paced style never has worked as well in the slower half-court grind of the NBA postseason. Never mind that the team's best shooter, Gallinari, wasn't around to make a difference in those half-court playoff games.
So, again, what coach could do better, especially at playoff time? Kroenke won't be hiring Phil Jackson or Pat Riley, but Denver probably needs a coach with star power who could win over the fans and keep them loyal as the next regime goes through tough times. That's why we're hearing names like Denver native and ex-Nugget Chauncey Billups. Given that Kroenke just brought back Patrick Roy as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche, the same approach might anoint someone like Billups — with a proven former NBA head man as top assistant and mentor.
If not Billups, or another surprise with marquee value (such as the University of Colorado's Tad Boyle), you have to wonder why the Nuggets discarded someone who delivered nine consecutive winning records, and that 23-3 finish this spring.
George Karl and his ego are gone. But his many successes might well go with him.
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