Keep in mind Doug Moe has seen this before. He was the Denver Nuggets’ coach in 1990, coming off nine straight playoff appearances, when the organization decided to go in a different direction.
Here’s a list of the directions they chose:
Paul Westhead (44-120)
Dan Issel (96-102)
Gene Littles (3-13)
Bernie Bickerstaff (59-68)
Dick Motta (17-52)
Bill Hanzlik (11-71)
Mike D’Antoni (14-36)
Dan Issel (84-106)
Mike Evans (18-38)
Jeff Bzdelik (73-119)
Michael Cooper (4-10)
Fourteen and a half seasons later, they finally resorted to George Karl, who went 423-257. After missing the playoffs for 11 of the 13 seasons after Moe was fired, the Nuggets embarked on a streak of 10 straight postseason appearances, the last nine under Karl.
Considering the polarities of their personalities, Moe and Karl have a lot in common. They’re former players from back in a day when pro basketball was not yet a license to print money. They carry Carolina blue basketball blood. They came to Denver a generation apart and coached some of the fastest, highest-scoring basketball the National Basketball Association ever saw. Following Karl’s dismissal last week, they’re likely to share the franchise record for consecutive playoff appearances for quite some time.
Karl did better in the regular season (.622 to .548), coming within nine wins of Moe’s total in 109 fewer games. Moe did better in the postseason, getting out of the first round four times to Karl’s once.
Neither coached in a championship series while in Denver, and neither has anybody else. The Nuggets have never been there. These two are the royalty of Nuggets coaches through nearly a half-century of existence. Each made the conference finals once; each lost there. (Karl, of course, made it to the NBA Finals in 1996 with the Seattle Sonics and lost in six games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.)
More than a decade after his last NBA gig, Moe agreed to serve as a bench assistant to Karl shortly after his arrival. He was like a tour guide on a new planet, explaining the elevation thing and how it made Hakeem Olajuwon suck oxygen out of a bottle on the bench. Moe left the travel grind behind — again — as soon as he could without hurting anybody’s feelings.
Karl leaves a young roster where Moe left an old one. The rebuild that was inevitable after Moe’s firing isn’t inevitable now, although it remains to be seen whether the current roster is a fit for the new coach.
So Moe is a Karl guy, and might be expected to defend him. But he’s also an irreverent Brooklynite, condemned to say what he really thinks because he can’t keep from laughing at the other choices.
On the Logan show Monday, for example, when Logan asked Moe, a resident of San Antonio these days, whether Spurs fans think their team can win three in a row over the Miami Heat and capture the Finals without going back to Florida:
“Are you serious?” asked Moe. “You’ve got to be kidding. I mean, it’s like a lock. Miami has no shot. This is San Antonio, this isn’t some other place in the world. That’s a comical question.”
But what does Moe think will happen?
“Oh, I think Miami will probably end up winning, mainly because normally I think the team that wins the third game wins, in a series where one team’s a little better than the other. But San Antonio, having three games at home is, you know, if they win two of them that’s great and then they’ve got to go back and a team as good as Miami, they should be able to hold their home court on two final games. So I think the 2-3-2 really helps out Miami and I think they probably end up winning it.”
Moe has systems, ideas that turn long division into shorthand and make it easy to know what you think. Whether it helps you find the right answer in any particular instance is a different question.
“I always go on the theory . . . like what happened in the previous series,” Moe said. “As soon as Miami beat Indiana in the third game, it was over. As soon as San Antonio, and they were awful in the first two games against Golden State and should have lost both of them, but as soon as they won the third game, it was over. So I go on the third-game winner is the team that will win the series.”
This is Moe’s explanation for what happened to the Nuggets in their first-round series against the Warriors, too. Before we got to that, I asked him what he thought of the decision to fire Karl.
“Well, George is terrific. George did a great job, and I think it was a bad move. I think it will turn out to be a bad move. But in this business you can’t get upset at anything that happens. They want to go in another direction and it’s kind of a whole new face on the organization and stuff, so, those things happen. I feel totally confident George will end up in a pretty good place.”
And the roster?
“The roster’s good. It’s a nice team, a good team. But I think one of the big question marks they’re going to have is who they get in, can he handle the job. They could go right down the tubes. I mean, that’s a possibility.
“It’s not a great team, it’s a good team. They have a lot of depth and that was the strength of their team last year . . . There’s enough good teams in the league, or teams with average talent, you know, you slip, you can drop out of the playoffs.”
Moe does not believe the Nuggets are suited only to the full-court cirque du soleil displays they’ve made famous in the last couple of seasons. But he does give Karl, the sixth-winningest head coach in NBA history, credit for what versatility they displayed.
“I happened to see the Memphis games,” Moe said. “And the Memphis games were all basically half-court games. (The Grizzlies) got ’em slowed down. (The Nuggets) won ’em all. They can play that style. At least, they could last year. George was a good enough coach, he could adapt to things, and I didn’t think they had any problem. In fact, I remember saying to myself when I saw them play there, if it came down to the playoffs, they had to play Memphis, they could beat ’em in any style. That was my thought.”
The Nuggets took three of four from the Grizzlies last season, sweeping the two in Denver and splitting the two in Memphis. Neither team scored 100 points in any of the four.
I asked Moe about the playoff series that seems to have cost Karl his job, the first-round loss to the Warriors.
“Again, I thought the Nuggets had to win the third game out there, and they didn’t. It turned out to be their downfall,” he said.
“To be perfectly honestly, they didn’t step it up enough defensively. They just didn’t make it tough enough on Golden State. Golden State was hot during that period. It was one of those things. They ran into a team that couldn’t miss and they weren’t able to take ’em out of it.
“I saw the same thing down here. I went to the San Antonio-Golden State games. San Antonio totally, 100 percent, lucked out in the first game, got killed in the second game, but they were able to step it up and actually shut down Golden State defensively and that was the difference in that series. And Golden State was the type of team you probably had to put a little more pressure on defensively than Denver did, looking in hindsight.”
As for Karl’s future?
“I think he’ll coach this year,” Moe said. “That’s my opinion, but then again, what do I know? I think he’ll end up with the Clippers, and that’s a totally wild guess. I mean, I haven’t talked to George. I’ve just seen a couple of things said. But that would be my guess, that he ends up with the Clippers.”
As for the playoff follies that got Karl fired — seven first-round eliminations in eight tries (not counting the year he underwent treatment for neck and throat cancer and Adrian Dantley coached them in the playoffs) — Moe offered the calm reason of a 75-year-old retiree:
“You’ve got to remember, Denver was playing against L.A. and San Antonio most of the time in the playoffs, which makes it a little bit more difficult to get out.”