George Karl is still more perplexed than angry. A week after Josh Kroenke fired him as Nuggets coach following the best regular season since the team joined the NBA in 1976, he’s still trying to figure out how anybody looks at a 57-win team without any all-stars and decides the coaching staff needs to be blown up.
But a week after the fact Karl was finally ready to talk, so we sat down over breakfast Thursday morning and went through it.
“I think I called it stupid,” he said, recalling his final meeting with Kroenke, the one where he was dismissed after eight and a half seasons. “I think I did say, ‘I want you to know I think this is really stupid.'”
He said he’s had preliminary conversations with the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers about their coaching vacancies, but nothing substantive to this point. And he admitted he feels a little hypocritical about that because he doesn’t think Lionel Hollins or Vinny Del Negro deserved to lose their jobs, either. Each won 56 games last season.
But Karl suggested that his regular-season success in Denver — the Nuggets have won 62 percent of their games since he took over Jan. 27, 2005 — made it seem easy, and that perhaps a young CEO like Kroenke, who has never been affiliated with a pro team not coached by Karl, sees only the potential upside from here, and not the potential downside.
“I think (former GM) Masai (Ujiri) and Josh both thought it was easy to win,” Karl said. “It is not easy to win.”
But let’s start at the beginning . . .
“I had felt since the trade deadline that Masai and Josh were over here and we were here and it seemed like we were getting further and further apart,” Karl said.
“But I thought it was just my paranoia and just coaching. It seemed like I would piss them off with what I said in the papers or how I handled the game or whatever. But the harmony of our team, I thought, was in a very good place.
“There’s never a true, beautiful love affair between player personnel and management and coaches. There’s always going to be a window of conflict. I could feel that Masai was edgy on some situations, but I didn’t think it was ever a problem.”
“Situations, games. Mostly about quotes in the paper and stuff like that. I don’t really want to go into detail. There are mistakes that you make when you talk to the press so many times. You make little mistakes. Sometimes it bothers the management, sometimes it doesn’t. But that was the only thing.
“And then Masai had a meeting with the coaches after the season. It was not an easy meeting, but I thought it was a fair beginning of re-evaluating where we’re going, what we’re going to do, day by day.”
I asked him how much the first-round playoff loss to the Warriors weighed on that meeting.
“It was, I think, a week after the playoffs, maybe 10 days. Everybody expressed their disappointment. The coaches were disappointed, but excited. The team is an exciting team to the coaching staff. We thought we had guys that could have great summers. It’s the first time we could have Wilson Chandler in during the summer because of injuries and circumstances of the lockout and stuff like that. We think we could help him become a better player.
“There were all types of things that were energizing — (Kenneth) Faried and Ty Lawson making the USA team — that suggested to us we could have a great offseason and continue the process into another great year next year. That was the coaches’ feel, I thought. Obviously, upstairs they were thinking something different.”
Kroenke explained his decision to fire Karl largely in terms of his contractual situation. Two years ago, coming off two seasons dominated by Karl’s neck and throat cancer (2010) and the Carmelo Anthony trade (2011), Kroenke gave Karl a three-year contract with a team option for another three. It was an unusual structure. Options are more often for single years, and easier to pick up, than for multiple years, requiring a commitment similar to that of a brand-new contract.
“It turns out to be a bad option,” Karl said. “It put me and them in a bad position. But the only meeting that I had directly with Josh, I was very, very aggressive, I thought. I think it was on a Sunday (June 2). The first 15 minutes, I was definitive, and I want the fans to know this, that I wanted to coach this team. I had no problem coaching the team on a one-year deal. I was fine with a one-year deal.
“I mean, I want to coach, maximum, four or five more years. I would love it to be in Denver. And I said that to him: ‘I want it to be in Denver.’ But do I think I deserve a three-year extension? No.
“I said, ‘And if you want me to coach next year on a one-year deal, I’ll coach. But there are ramifications to that situation.’
“And I explained that to him — my coaching staff, how I protect my coaches, the passion for the game, the anger of being on a one-year deal will fester up and then it will go back down. You’re on a winning streak, it won’t be a problem. You’re on a losing streak, it’ll be a problem.
“That’s the discussion we had. Maybe I convinced him that it’s not the best way to go; I have no idea. But I want the fans to know that I definitively wanted to coach this basketball team, and if I had to do it on a one-year deal, I would have done it. I was just trying to explain the environment it might bring.”
Karl has made good money during his career and is financially secure. So his concerns about a one-year deal had more to do with his assistants. He has fretted privately over the years about the steady exodus of assistants who left for bigger pay days. He was afraid that an entire staff in the last year of its contracts would be ripe for poaching.
“The negative scenario for me was, like (Oklahoma City coach and former Karl assistant) Scottie Brooks loses an assistant coach. Like, (new Detroit head coach) Mo Cheeks, gone. Say Mo Cheeks takes another guy, and someone comes in here and takes John Welch or Chad Iske from me and offers them a four-year deal for $1.3 million. The thing that worried me on a one-year deal was losing my staff. We’ve been doing that for a long time and it’s frustrating to me. We lose guys every year — Scottie Brooks, Jamahl Mosely, Stacey Augmon. I mean, the list is long.”
So that’s how they left it. According to Karl, he made it clear he would coach the final year of the deal if necessary, but that there were drawbacks to that situation. He felt he had planted the seed of an idea that maybe killing the three-year option and adding one more year to the year remaining on the deal might be a workable compromise.
“I thought it was a very positive meeting and I was energized by it,” he said. “We had a couple of workouts on Monday and Tuesday. It was fun being in the gym, starting to talk about the draft. And Wednesday night he said, ‘Let’s meet Thursday morning.’ That meeting took 30 minutes and his mode was he wanted a change. It was basically, he wanted to go a different way.
“I thought about fighting, but I didn’t fight very hard. I didn’t want that emotion. I wanted to control myself and I did, I think.”
Did he ever mention explicitly the contract compromise he had envisioned?
“I said, ‘There could be a compromise here.’ Did I say there had to be a compromise? I don’t think I ever said that. He might have envisioned my passion for that as that, but I know I said, ‘I’m ready to coach this team. I want to coach this team.'”
The basketball issues
Much of what Karl has read about the club’s motivation since his firing perplexes him because he doesn’t recall meetings with Kroenke or Ujiri at which the criticisms now coming out were brought up.
“This stuff that I didn’t play the young players. I don’t remember those meetings. First, the quote should be that I didn’t play the young players enough, because I played a lot of young players. I didn’t play JaVale McGee enough. I didn’t play Jordan Hamilton enough. Evan Fournier probably should have played more minutes, but even he got a good rookie year. I think he got a good rookie year and we won 57 games and he’s ready for next year. He’s going to be in a great place.
“Kosta Koufos is a young player and he’s turned into a 25-minute NBA basketball player. Kenneth Faried is in a great place. Could he have played a few more minutes? Probably. But I think the maturity of understanding winning and what it takes to win and seeing why certain things win, seeing how a smart and experienced player is maybe better than a young and talented player, all those things, I think JaVale McGee has gotten better because of it, I think Kenneth Faried understands it better now than he ever has.
“And the next step was ready to be made: ‘OK, Kenneth, you want this responsibility? Remember, you’ve got to take the responsibility that Al Harrington showed. You’ve got to be a leader in the locker room.’ There are little things other than just the games and the stats of the games.
“I don’t remember the meetings where anybody ever told me that if you don’t play this or don’t do this it’s injuring where we want to go. They’re making it out that I was insubordinate. I don’t remember that. Other than my attitude of playing and winning and trying to win, possessed by winning, being aggressive to win.”
I mentioned the criticism of his loyalty to veteran Andre Miller, who won Game 1 of the Warriors playoff series with a last-minute shot but went downhill from there, finishing the series with a .420 shooting percentage.
“I think that’s a fair assessment,” he said. “I think that’s a fair evaluation of the games. But Andre Miller, the year he had, he’s a foundation of the team. I thought he earned that. I thought he had an incredible year. I didn’t expect a year like that out of Andre Miller. And then he’s basically the reason we won Game 1. By Game 6 you’re bailing on a guy who just won Game 1?”
The complication for Karl was that he had mostly played a three-guard rotation of Lawson, Miller and Andre Iguodala, with Corey Brewer moving to the backcourt at times when he wanted more length. But in the playoffs, Brewer disappeared about the same time Miller did, which left Karl with only inexperienced options like Fournier, a 20-year-old rookie, and Hamilton, who had barely played during the regular season.
“Corey wasn’t playing very good,” Karl said. “The next guy was Evan. I’ll admit that in hindsight maybe I should have tried to build his confidence up rather than, as the series went on, pull the plug on him.”
In any case, it was Ujiri who kept pointing out that the Nuggets had the third-youngest roster in the association. Karl assumed that meant the front office saw the same growth curve he saw.
“From the one meeting I had beforehand, I never felt something was about to happen, but my friends in the league had started saying, ‘Hey, George, be careful.’ I probably had half a dozen phone calls from guys in the league saying that.”
The postseason issues
Karl’s career regular-season record is 1,131-756, a winning percentage of .599. The last time he had a losing record in a regular season was 1987-88 with Golden State — 25 years ago.
But his postseason record is 80-105, a winning percentage of .432. This is mostly what his critics point to when they talk about the Nuggets taking the next step — winning in the playoffs.
How does he view his postseason record?
“Disappointment,” he said. “I don’t think I have a big foundation to fight my record. It’s not good. But I think my last five years is better than people think it is.
“Four years ago, we went to the conference finals. Three years ago, I think we would have gone to the conference finals if I didn’t get sick.”
Karl was forced to leave the team down the stretch in 2010 to be treated for neck and throat cancer. Assistant Adrian Dantley coached the team to a first-round playoff loss to Utah.
“Two years ago, we make the Melo trade. I don’t care what you want to say, we did a hell of a job keeping that team together and playing Oklahoma City pretty damn well in that playoff series. We lost one on a referee’s call, and (Kevin) Durant started his greatness in that series by kicking our ass, stealing a game from us. Disappointing? Yes, but if you go back and put that video on today, I think you’ll see a lot of good stuff.
“The next year was the lockout year and the Nene trade, so we’ve made another major change and we now have a team that basically has one guy from the conference finals team — Ty Lawson. All new faces, Nene gone, everybody gone, and we almost beat L.A. Without Wilson Chandler.
“And this year, disappointment. No question, disappointment. Did we think we could win without (Danilo Gallinari)? Yes. We went 7-1 without Gallo down the stretch. Maybe that was an illusion we should have been more worried about.”
So what happened?
“A good young team got the momentum and cockiness in their head. I thought we fought hard from Game 3 on, but both series, including L.A. the year before and this year, and this is on my shoulders, we had trouble getting into the fight, understanding the playoff fight, understanding it is cutthroat, mean, dirty, ugly. We came in with our kind of regular-season attitude. It’s a different world.
“That’s on me, but it’s on the young guys, too, to understand. You’ve got young guys out there trying to figure it out. In the Laker series, when you’ve got (Pau) Gasol, Kobe (Bryant) and (Ron) Artest going against Gallo, Corey Brewer and Ty Lawson, it’s interesting.
“I remember after the series Ty coming up and saying to me, ‘Do you know what Kobe told me in the fourth quarter? He told me, “I’m going to foul you every time down and they’re not going to call it one time.”‘
“That’s the type of intimidation that comes into a playoff series. There is verbal, mental, emotional intensity that you have to live in to learn about. And this year that was probably my disappointment, is Golden State found that magic and I thought we could be the team that found that magic. If we would have found that magic and won that series, scramble around and maybe steal Memphis, and the reality is that’s not that far from happening.”
I asked Karl if he has had contact with any of the teams now looking for head coaches.
“I will say I’ve had preliminary conversations with both the Clippers and Memphis,” he replied. “Nothing that’s to say something’s going to happen. I definitely think it’s in the first stage of a process that has however many stages. I have interest in both jobs. I think both teams are very good.
“The one thing I don’t like about it . . . I feel bad. I feel a little slimy, because I don’t think Lionel should have lost his job and I don’t think Vinny should have lost his job. So all of a sudden now I’m being hypocritical because I’m bitching about, ‘This should not have happened, this is wrong, this is the wrong stuff for basketball.’
“It might be the right stuff for Josh Kroenke, but it’s the wrong stuff for the game of basketball. And it’s sick and a little sad that coaches are losing this much respect or appreciation. I don’t think the game is going to be healthy if we continue down this path of blowing up coaches who have done well.
“But I also want to say that the Kroenkes have treated me well. My eight and a half years is a special eight and a half years. I found a home. I’m going to live in Denver. And the fans, for me, I mean, the connection the fans made with me here was deeper than it was even in Seattle. And both ways. The fans who don’t like me are pretty intense. But I mean, I get people who are pretty emotional coming up to me now, almost crying, making me cry.
“In time, it’s going to be eight and a half great years, and eight and a half fun years of coaching. A lot of different personalities on the court, in the front office. The league is going through a tremendous change right now from the standpoint of marketing and internet and media coverage and social networking. It’s eight and a half years of an amazing amount of interchange and information and I think we did it pretty good.
“The stories are tremendous. Coaching staffs, the people who came here and left here and went on to do pretty good. Brooksie in Oklahoma City, Chip Engelland in San Antonio, Jamahl Mosely (in Cleveland), Stacey Augmon out in Vegas. Coach (Tim) Grgurich.
“And I think we’ve got three great assistant coaches now. I think Chad Iske and Melvin Hunt are NBA head coaching candidates. John Welch is such a great basketball guy that if he wanted to be a head coach, I think he could be, but he loves the gym so much I don’t know if that’s what he really wants. But those guys are A+ coaches and I have no idea what the next guy wants to do with those guys. I know I want them on my staff. And then the guys underneath them, Patrick Mutombo, Ryan Bowen and Vance Walberg, are tremendous guys. We have six NBA guys, and that family is very close to me. That family is why I probably fought the ugly battle that probably cost me my job, or they’re accusing me of, because they’re the ones that need security.
“I’m old enough, I got enough money, I’m going to be fine. Security to a 40-year-old guy that has three kids in fifth and sixth and eighth grade, security is a lot more important to him than it is to me, who now has a million dollars in the bank. And they do so much work for me and show so much loyalty to me, I think it’s my right to fight for them. And if Josh thought that was wrong, so be it. I’m going to probably continue to do that in my next job. I’m going to fight for the guys that fight for me.”
His message to fans?
“Thanks for touching my inners. Most fans, it’s always outside. But because of my cancer, because of my identity with the community and the closeness I’ve gotten with some hospitals, I think there’s a soulfulness to what I’ve gone through here that I don’t want to give up, and I probably won’t give up.”