George Karl is going to the Hall of Fame, even if he doesn't win this year's Coach of the Year award, which he probably will. He's overcome throat cancer twice, his own famously feisty temperament and the turbulent world of NBA coaching, in that order of importance. Every season, his teams keep winning and he keeps surviving. In a sense, every day is a victory, a reason to celebrate.
Really, how could you not like and admire the man, for what he's done, for what he's gone through, for the new and wiser person who emerged from the personal and professional thunderstorms, and for the no-star team he coaches?
"More than any other team," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, "[the Nuggets] exemplify a group of guys accepting roles on a consistent, night-in basis. And that's due to him. He's done a great job of keeping that together. In my mind it's hard to think of anyone who's done a greater job."
Well, if the Nuggets get chopped down by Steph Curry and lose this series to the Warriors, we're about to discover that even coaches like Karl hear folks calling for their scalps. The rumblings in Denver -- not from within the organization, which values Karl -- have already started, and here's what they're screaming:
The Nuggets won 57 games, were a league-best 38-3 at home and should be title contenders.
The Nuggets bring a higher seed and more experience than the Warriors and should've wrapped this up by now.
The Nuggets are gagging like nobody else in the playoffs, even more than the Lakers, who didn't have Kobe Bryant.
And here's the salt-in-the-wound zinger that has plenty of people nodding their heads in agreement:
After winning 50 games for the fifth straight season in Denver, Karl looks wobbly in the first round once again, down 3-2 to Golden State.
"We've got a challenge in front of us, no question," he said.
Might as well state the cold, hard and harsh facts here. Of the eight members of the 1,000-win coaching club, Karl has the most first-round flops. Thirteen times in his 21 trips to the playoffs, Karl made early vacation plans. That's more than half. It's almost become habit.
The mother of them all happened in 1993-94 when the Sonics, coached by Karl, won a league-best 63 games and were up 2-0 in their best-of-five series with the Nuggets. Denver stormed back and became the first eight-seed to beat a one-seed. Center Dikembe Mutombo fell to the floor at the buzzer and clutched the ball over his head, laughing. Karl didn't see the humor.
They're pretty sensitive to one-and-dones in Denver right now because the Nuggets have left early six times in seven playoff trips with Karl. His playoff record in Denver is a pedestrian 18-33, so naturally, plenty of angst and dreadful feelings of deja vu are following the Nuggets into a must-win Game 6 on Thursday night in Oakland, where they were clobbered twice last weekend.
What the numbers don't do a fair job of explaining are the circumstances. Only four times in his entire career, which covers 26 years, did Karl lose to a lower seed in the playoffs. One of those times, he was out battling cancer. A good many of his teams had the misfortune of running up against better teams with better players: Karl Malone and John Stockton in Utah, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson in Phoenix, Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, Allen Iverson in Philly and, lately, the Spurs, Lakers and Oklahoma City -- all better than his Denver teams. His timing is lousy. So Karl isn't exactly the Marty Schottenheimer of NBA coaches. That's a bit of a stretch.
He also had the tricky task of trying to arm-twist a young and selfish Carmelo Anthony into make sacrifices without the ball and play a team game, which didn't work out so well in the playoffs. Only now is Melo much more mature and wiser, and the Knicks, not Karl, are reaping those benefits.
Actually, besides the 1993 first-round flop, the most serious coaching crimes committed by Karl had nothing to do with the playoffs. In 2002 his Bucks, who fell a game short of making the NBA Finals the previous year, choked away the division lead after the All-Star break and shockingly missed the playoffs on the final day of the season. Later that summer, Karl coached the first team of NBA players to lose in international play when Team USA finished sixth (no misprint) in the World Championships, and Karl clashed with Paul Pierce, who was benched in the last game.
In that tournament, Karl suffered somewhat because a few top players chose beach over basketball. Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal, who won the NBA title weeks earlier, skipped the tournament, same for Kevin Garnett. Ray Allen, a necessary shooter for the international game, was hurt. And here we are, a decade later, we find Karl in a similar bind with the Nuggets. He's coaching a team without a single superstar. Since conventional basketball wisdom says you can't go very far in the playoffs without one, is it all that surprising Karl is having issues here in the spring?
Is it the coach with a suspicious playoff history, or the way the Nuggets are built?
You can see just how much a superstar means in this Nuggets-Warriors series just by watching one in the making. Curry picked the right time to come of age, dropping shots and crossing up the Denver defense and causing all kinds of hell for the Nuggets. When the Warriors need a bucket, they find their bucket-maker. Yes, the Nuggets were bailed out by old Andre Miller in a tight Game 1, but where's he been since? He's not a star. Nor is Danilo Gallinari, who's hurt and out for Denver. Meanwhile, Curry helped the Warriors win three straight games and is clearly the one player on the floor that anyone fears.
The player Karl turns to is Ty Lawson, who's under six feet and, bless his heart, isn't your typical franchise player who makes a major difference.
The Nuggets won in the regular season because the game is played at a faster pace and nobody prepares for one team. In the postseason, the tempo slows, the demand for outside shooting increases, the other team figures you out quickly and the need for a star to bail you out is higher.
Karl doesn't have that player. He's the most successful coach the Nuggets have ever had after Doug Moe and maybe, along with Mark Jackson, did the most with the least in the NBA this season. The front office supports him and maybe a segment of the fans as well.
Karl survived three separate stints in the CBA, two years of unemployment during his coaching prime, four NBA jobs, an ego that nearly got the best of him before his career gained traction, two scary confrontations with a deadly disease and the loss of Anthony, the only franchise player he ever had in Denver.
And now: Will he overcome the Warriors and an annoying, frustrating stigma? It's not his biggest challenge. But with the season on the line, it seems that way.