George Karl could easily be coaching the Denver Nuggets this season after winning 57 games with the club in 2012-13 and being named NBA Coach of the Year.
It was a crowning achievement for the much-traveled coach, especially after he survived cancer and continued to lead the Nuggets’ retooled, post-Carmelo Anthony roster to success.
But if Karl did coach the Nuggets this season, it would have been the final year of his contract, and the 62-year-old pushed the organization for more security. Management’s response was to fire him, blaming him for the Nuggets’ first-round playoff loss to the lower-seeded Golden State Warriors.
Team president Josh Kroenke moved forward by hiring former Celtic and ex-Lakers assistant Brian Shaw to lead a roster of upstarts.
And with that, Karl was out of the NBA. He recently signed on to become an analyst for ESPN, hopefully a respite and a chance to refresh until the next coaching position opens up. But there is still disappointment over his abrupt Denver departure.
“I still think I’m a gym rat and because of that, I want to coach,” said Karl, who led the Nuggets to six 50-plus-win seasons in nine years. “There are so many things now in the world of basketball that have an interest to me that I’ve never had the time to pursue and put my heart into.
“I think everybody understands my passion for the game and this allows me to stay on top of the game and be a part of the game and hopefully to be an ambassador for coaches because the coaches are taking a lot of hits over the last couple of years.”
Thirteen teams made coaching changes in the offseason. Karl, along with Lionel Hollins, who guided the Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals, are unemployed, a testament to the volatile nature of the relationship between coaches and the new generation of club management.
“I was amazed at how quickly I accepted what happened,” Karl said, “because I had 8½ great years and last year was probably my most fun coaching any basketball team I’ve ever been associated with.
“I don’t have a lot of bitterness other than I don’t understand. But not understanding — when you are working in a world of millions, millions, and millions of dollars, there’s a lot of things I don’t understand.
“There’s a lot of contracts we give players that I don’t understand. There’s a lot of trades that I don’t understand. There are a lot of decisions I don’t understand.
“I can’t deny there’s an anger and frustration. But there’s much more celebration in my heart than anything else.”
Karl reached the NBA Finals once in 25 years as a head coach but racked up 1,131 victories and helped resurrect franchises in Seattle, Milwaukee, and Denver.He is considered a brilliant offensive mind.
“There are a lot of truths that change,” he said. “You win 57 games and win Coach of the Year, the truth was it probably did once create security, but the truth now is it doesn’t.
“Lionel Hollins did a great job. The truth is when you do a great job, you should be able to be kept. In today’s world, it’s different. The truth to that is if you don’t adjust to that, you’re probably not going to survive.”
Karl was a victim of a trend of dumping veteran coaches for hot assistants or analytics gurus. But he is trying to use his television stint to learn more about the league and sharpen his résumé for the next move.
“There’s all types of trends that happen in sports,” he said. “They go hire college coaches. They go hire assistant coaches. In football, they go hire offensive coordinators and then they go hire defensive coordinators.
“What I think is good about the game of basketball is the real guys who know how to do it survive, and hopefully I’m one of those guys who continue to survive and get another opportunity.
“If that doesn’t happen, I think I can be OK with it. I’ve had a great career and I think I’m healthy enough and energized enough to go another four or five years, and hopefully someone else out there will think the same thing.”
Once upon a time, Jeff Van Gundy went to work at ABC to take a break until his next coaching offer. That was six years ago. He hasn’t coached since.
“I can’t predict [how I will do in TV],” Karl said. “My window of coaching every year will be a little smaller, and I thought more about trying something else. But after last year, it was the most fun I’ve had in coaching, so it’s probably not closing very much.
“I talked to Jeff and I think Jeff is going to coach again someday. But I don’t know when. He’s enjoying what he’s doing now. I’ve just got to figure out what’s best for me.”
Crushing loss is motivation
While the Miami Heat are still basking in the glory of their second consecutive NBA title, the San Antonio Spurs can only look back in horror at their Game 6 collapse, one that prevented them from winning a fifth title and led to a disappointing end to what was a stellar season.
The Spurs did everything right for 47 minutes in Game 6 and then everything wrong for the next six to lose in overtime. Ray Allen’s fadeaway 3-pointer will be considered one of the great clutch shots in Finals history, but it never should have come to that if the Spurs had hit their free throws or grabbed a defensive rebound.
So San Antonio’s offseason plan was rather predictable. The Spurs essentially brought everybody back for one more run, even the aging Manu Ginobili. They replaced Gary Neal with Marco Bellinelli and are banking that Kawhi Leonard will emerge as a frontline player after his sparking Finals performance.
“As a team we have to get over it, use it as fuel, and see how this season goes,” said Ginobili. “It is a process. At first you have to do it by yourself. But then as a team, you need to do it, too. It’s a good thing we kept most of the team together. We were close enough to win it to deserve another chance.”
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich actually approached Clippers coach Doc Rivers about the pain of losing a Game 7 — as Rivers’s Celtics did in 2010 — and whether it ever fades. “No, it doesn’t,” was Rivers’s brutally honest response.
“However we ended up the year before, we talk about it, we close that and move on,” Popovich said. “We had our opportunities, especially in Game 6, to win, we didn’t take advantage of it. And that’s unfortunate. I thought we came back really well in Game 7 after such as devastating loss.
“We had a great year and we expect to come back this year and try to do the same thing if we can. Suffice to say that I’ve thought about it every day, and wondering if it will go away and anxious for it to happen. And it hasn’t happened yet.”
Leonard’s development is critical to the Spurs’ success this season. He averaged 13.5 points, 9 rebounds, and 1.8 steals against the Heat and played strong defense in stretches against LeBron James. Leonard is just 22 years old and is a budding superstar, so his emergence as the second scoring option behind Tony Parker could give the Spurs a new wrinkle.
“I think Kawhi, he’s the new Parker-Ginobili-[Tim] Duncan kind of guy; he’s going to take over as star of the show as time goes on,” Popovich said. “Timmy and Manu have obviously figured out a way to continue to play very well and be at the top of their games at their age. Tony Parker is still young enough to be the star that he is. But he’ll get older too, and that’s where Kawhi comes him.
“He’s been phenomenal. He’s improved more quickly than any player that we’ve ever had. His mind-set is such that he wants to be great and he has every reason to be.”
Westbrook not ready to play
Generally, players return from torn meniscus injuries in about six weeks to two months, so something appeared strange when Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook addressed the media last week and said he wasn’t quite ready to return after sustaining the injury in April. The team then revealed that the speedy point guard underwent another right knee procedure and will miss 4-6 weeks.
The Thunder have championship aspirations, but there are some major issues. They don’t have a legitimate point guard behind Westbrook.
Former Boston College standout Reggie Jackson flourished with increased playing time when he spelled Westbrook last season but he’s not a natural point guard. Derek Fisher re-signed with the Thunder in the offseason but at 39 may not be able to log starter minutes.
Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti, as he does with nearly everything, took the setback in stride, promising that Westbrook will return to an improved team. But the Thunder need scoring, and former UConn star Jeremy Lamb could be a key this season.
“I think it’s important to know that Russ has not been feeling any pain,” Presti said. “His performance levels have been tremendous and he’s looked great in the parts of practice that he’s been cleared to go through. We’re very, very encouraged in that respect. But when the swelling wasn’t subsiding, we made the decision to have him evaluated.”
Presti said that during surgery to repair a loose stitch in the right knee, doctors found that the meniscus was fully healed.
“We’d like to have him on the floor as soon as possible, but in this case, although we lost a little bit of time, we gained a tremendous amount of confidence in the actual progression of the recovery process,” Presti said. “His work and his diligence through this process has been nothing short of spectacular. He’s obviously disappointed because he feels great and he looks great.”
Westbrook did not accompany the Thunder on their European trip because he wouldn’t have had enough time to rehabilitate. And Jackson and others should benefit from the first-team reps.
“Given that our team has unfortunately had to play without Russell previously, we should be better equipped to be without him, and also of note, the last time we were without Russell it was without any preparation,” Presti said.
“In this case, we’re going to have some time during the preseason and part of the regular season to work through some of those things, and I really feel strongly this particular group of players and also our coaching staff will do a tremendous job with that.”
Presti is stressing patience with Westbrook’s recovery, realizing that having a 100 percent All-Star point guard for the final five months of the season could catapult the Thunder to the Finals.
“What was gained was a tremendous amount of confidence in the healing of the knee,” Presti said. “Combining that information with the way he has looked in practice and the way he was moving in practice, I think he understands this bodes well for him, not only this season but also for the foreseeable future with the Thunder.”
Four-time MVP LeBron James earned another honor last week when it was announced that his jersey was the best seller for the 2012-13 season. It was the first time James’s jersey was tops in world sales. Derrick Rose, who did not play last season because of a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, was second, followed by Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade. Rajon Rondo was the highest-ranking Celtic at 10th, while Kevin Garnett’s Celtics jersey was 14th . . . Grizzlies guard and former Ohio State star Mike Conley recently contributed $500,000 to his alma mater’s men’s and women’s basketball programs. And for that, the school will name their strength and conditioning room after the 26-year-old . . . Former Bulls first-round pick Rodney Carney has been invited to New Orleans Pelicans camp along with ex-Marquette forward Lazar Hayward . . . The Cavaliers are getting closer to full health with No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett being cleared for basketball activities after missing all summer following shoulder surgery. Anderson Varejao, who missed the final four months of the season with a blood clot in his leg, has also been cleared for basketball activities, and his play could be key for Cleveland to make a postseason run. After missing all of last season with knee issues, Andrew Bynum still has not been cleared to play and may miss some of the regular season. Bynum’s contract does not take any cap space away from the Cavaliers next season, so his inclusion is a low-risk move for general manager Chris Grant . . . Maine, the Celtics’ NBADL affiliate, will hold open tryouts at Scarborough High School on Oct. 12 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Coach Mike Taylor and his staff will evaluate the prospects. While the Celtics have control of the team, the Maine players who aren’t Celtics draft picks are not Boston property of the team . . . Toronto has been preparing to host an All-Star Game since Tim Leiweke took over as president of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment last spring, and the NBA has awarded the game — in 2016 — to the Canadian city for the first time.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.