Coaching Profile: George Karl

May 6th, 2014 | by Laura Thompson
Chris Humphreys - USA Today

Chris Humphreys – USA Today

In today’s coaching profile, we tackle a few areas and see how George Karl might be a good fit for the Jazz.

Leadership

In a wonderful piece written by Kevin Ding last week, he talked about leadership and its huge role in that of a head coach. Ding discussed what the organization, the players, and the fans are looking for in a coach, and how unifying all of that is instrumental:

“What the Lakers need from their next head coach is someone who can make all those people believe a championship is coming. They need that before we can even begin a conversation about who might have the experience or proof or valid reason to think he can coach the team to that championship.

Look at all of the Lakers’ recent coaching failures: Del Harris, Kurt Rambis, Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni. There are some skills there, no doubt, but the common thread is a lack of innate leadership. None of those men were commanding and cocksure; all of them ultimately failed to inspire belief and trust in those around them.”

If innate leadership is so key—and I agree with Kevin Ding that it is—would George Karl fit the bill? Can he and his sheer force of personality—“commanding and cocksure” as Ding put it—be considered a leader of that degree for a team like the Jazz moving forward? Ding also talked about how the next Lakers head coach “has to have true confidence.” That applies equally to the Jazz coach position, as well. (Seriously, Ding’s column is great; go read it and see how perfectly Doc Rivers is nailing the concept of coach/leadership right now) Those are qualities that have often been used to describe Karl: confident, cocky, demanding, even difficult. Even still, Karl contends that he doesn’t fully understand why he was fired a week after winning the Coach of the Year Award in 2013 after a great regular-season run with the Nuggets. He still believes he did a great job and, given the Gallinari injury situation and how that affected their chances in the playoffs, I mostly agree with him there.

History

George Karl’s first coached in Cleveland, taking over for Tom Nissalke who led the team to a 28-54 record in the 1983-84 season. In his first season as a head coach, Karl improved the Cavaliers’ record to 36-46, an improvement of 8 wins. Unfortunately, the team regressed the following year to a record of 25-42 and he was fired near the end of the season.

Karl’s next stint as a head coach was the following season in Golden State, taking a team that had gone 30-52 the year prior, to 42-40 in 1986-87 and to the second round of the playoffs. Once again, however, the first-season improvement was followed by a second-season regression where the Warriors were 16-48 before Karl resigned mid-season. Interestingly enough, Karl came in second in Coach of the Year voting in 1987 (interesting, given what happened after his last season of coaching).

Karl then coached the Albany Patroons of the CBA to a 50-6 record, and the Real Madrid team in Spain to a 17-7 record when Seattle called. The Sonics had been 41-41 in their previous two seasons and were sitting at 20-20 when Karl took over. They finished 47-35 (27-15 under Karl) and made the playoffs, losing to the Jazz in the second round. Given Karl’s history with the two previous teams, some fans may have been bracing themselves for a sophomore slump. Luckily, the Sonics went 55-27 in the 1992-93 season to buck that trend. After that, the Sonics never won fewer than 57 games while Karl was coaching, reaching the NBA Finals in 1996.

After his time in Seattle, Karl went to Milwaukee where they hovered between average and pretty respectable, reaching the Conference Finals once. Karl then went to Denver, where he spent nine years leading a Nuggets team to many 50-win seasons and created a rivalry with the Jazz.

What does this history lesson show us? Karl is great at a quick turnaround. He took teams that were well below .500 and often brought them up to .500 or above immediately. While that didn’t always stick in his sophomore campaign with each team, he did eventually buck that trend. On the other side of things, Karl’s teams rarely make it far in the playoffs. Is that coaching philosophy? Lack of in-game or between-game adjustments? Lack of talent? It’s probably some combination of all of the above plus any number of other possibilities. But it’s hard to look at his track record with the Nuggets, see only one season in which they advanced out of the first round, and get excited to become another first-round-and-out team once again.

Offense/Defense

George Karl is a noted offensive mind, adapting systems and schemes to fit the personnel. That might sound refreshing to Jazz fans that have longed for a faster pace of play the last few years, given the roster’s youth, athleticism, and length. Karl took a young, athletic team in Denver and had them playing a run-and-gun game that was well-suited both to the roster and the high altitude of Denver. That could also bode well if he we were to coach the Jazz.

One of the knocks I’ve continually heard on Karl is defense. I was curious where his Denver teams ranked. In the two seasons before Karl coached the Nuggets, the team was ranked 4th and 9th in defensive efficiency. In Karl’s first season, 2004-2005, they were 6th and, in subsequent years, were 8th, 9th, 6th, 8th, 16th, 16th, 19th, and 11th. While he might not be considered a defensive genius, the rankings weren’t as bad as I was expecting, though the trend over the last four years of his coaching stint in Denver might be an unsettling one, especially when defense is one of the three D’s about which Dennis Lindsey discusses as vitally important for this Jazz organization moving forward.

Conclusion

Would Karl want to come to a rebuilding Jazz team? Part of me says yes, because he’s done it before and he’s had some success with it, but the larger part of me thinks this might be too big of a rebuilding project for him to want to tackle, at least for anything long-term.

Would he be a good offensive fit? Absolutely. The athleticism of Hayward (assuming any offer sheet he receives is matched), the explosiveness of Burks, the offensive skillset of Kanter and the improving offensive game of Favors make me think Karl could have a lot of fun molding this squad into a run-and-gun team.

Would he be a good defensive fit? Probably not. His Denver teams at the beginning of his tenure with the Nuggets were pretty good defensively, but that focus seemed to shift in his later years there. Given that the Jazz don’t currently have a superstar or an offensive powerhouse to take over games (like Carmelo could do in Denver), defense has to be an essential component of the team moving forward.

Does Karl possess the leadership qualities necessary to help the team create a solid identity? Yes. He’s a strong, demanding personality who’s known to get along well with players, if not always management. His confidence in his own abilities and in his players could only bleed over onto them and help them create cohesion.

Overall, I don’t see Karl coaching the Jazz this next season, but it would definitely make for an entertaining season if he did.

Laura Thompson

Laura Thompson

I grew up in California, but have been a Jazz fan pretty much since I was in diapers; I went to Karl Malone's basketball camp when I was 11 and I flew up to Utah in 1997 to go to Game 3 of the Finals. After graduating from BYU in 2008, I moved back to California to work in Marketing and have been doing that for the last five years. My favorite things in life are the Utah Jazz, basketball, food (whether cooking or consumption of), reading, church, black Labs, and the beach (though hopefully not in that order).
Laura Thompson

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2 Comments

  1. cw says:

    I lived in seattle during the Karl years. He was know as a defensive coach then. His teams pressed and trapped all game long. Some people thought that was why he had so many first round exits, because with more time to game plan the pressing trapping defenses were exploitable. He was also kind of a dick. He criticize players in the press and would pick on particular players over and over. Kendal Gill is a good example. He also has had problems with his front offices. That’s one reason he was fired in Denver. In seattle he got fired becasue he couldn’t stop criticizing the FO in the press. He seems to have a really hard time not saying stupid things to the press which is why they love him. I think he is also one of those coaches that insists on compete autonomy. He is not open to collaboration, which is an old school kind of thing, but it doesn’t make sense to have a FO and a coach persuing different aims.

    I don’t think Lindsey is going to hire Karl and I don’t think Karl is going to want to coach a bunch of young role players waiting for a star. That’s a job for a first time coach.

    • Laura says:

      Very interesting insights. Thanks, cw! In my research (which is obviously much less than your having lived in Seattle), it did seem like he rarely had someone in the FO who was in his corner and he has had the reputation of being difficult. Your comment about Karl’s not being open to collaboration also makes me think he wouldn’t be a Dennis Lindsey pick; that seems to be one of the characteristics that he’s really big on. Thanks again, cw!

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