The Denver Nuggets are officially on the hunt for a new head coach after parting ways with George Karl, the recipient of this past season’s NBA Coach of the Year award.
The firing came as a pretty big shock to Nuggets fans and players alike, after Karl led the team to a franchise-record 57 wins and a 10th straight playoff appearance (nine of which came under Karl).
Finding one concrete, logical answer for why a surefire Hall of Famer coming off a 57-win season was fired is difficult to find, but there are a few possible factors.
ESPN cited a source that said that part of management’s problem with Karl was his reluctance to give significant minutes to JaVale McGee, who recently signed a four-year, $40 million deal with the team.
McGee’s big contract would suggest he’s the franchise center for at least the immediate future, but the 18 minutes a game Karl played him would suggest otherwise. Denver wants to get their money’s worth out of McGee and he can’t prove himself on the bench.
He has been effective while on the floor, averaging 18 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per 36 minutes and posting a player efficiency rating above 20. Perhaps the new coach will be more willing to give McGee the minutes associated with a franchise center.
Another possible factor for letting Karl go could be his lack of success in the playoffs. The Nuggets went down in the first round in eight of the nine playoff appearances under Karl. There is certainly something to be said for the consistency required to get to the playoffs nine straight years, but they can’t seem to get to the next level.
George Karl’s Nuggets have been known for a fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball that plays very well during the regular season. But things slow down in the playoffs. Defenses tighten and the game becomes more physical. Denver hasn’t been able to adjust to a playoff brand of basketball under Karl.
On top of not playing McGee and not advancing in the playoffs, simple dollars and cents may have been an issue. George Karl was seeking an extension with Denver while entertaining the possibility of coaching the Clippers. Sounds like a leverage play. Referring to Nuggets president Josh Kroenke’s reasons for letting Karl go, the Denver Post’s Benjamin Hochman had this to say:
“Kroenke informed Karl, 62, early Thursday that he would not bring him back. Kroenke said the combination of Karl pushing for a contract extension, and the uncertainty surrounding Karl's possible interest in the Los Angeles Clippers job this week, led him to believe it was best to go in another direction.”
When you look at all these factors together, letting Karl go seems a bit more plausible, though certainly not easy given his success. And it hasn’t been easy for the players as well. Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale detailed the reactions of several players following the move. Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson and Evan Fournier all expressed disbelief. Andre Iguodala hinted that it may affect his free-agent decision.
The most important reaction is obviously Iguodala’s. Re-signing him will be critical to the Nuggets contending for a Western Conference title next season. He’s one of the top perimeter defenders in the league and has great vision for a wing, averaging over five assists a game in six of the last seven years.
Playing uptempo basketball is fun, and Iguodala’s skills (great court vision and ability to finish at the rim) are suited to the open court. If Denver hires a coach that is less willing to play that style of basketball, Iguodala may look for a team that better fits his skill set.
Denver president Josh Kroenke can’t afford to ignore that while searching for a new coach, but he also shouldn’t make that the deciding factor.
Now that the George Karl era is over in Denver, Kroenke must decide where he wants to take the team now, and he has three huge items on the plate: hiring a new coach, hiring a new general manager (following Masai Ujiri’s departure to Toronto) and re-signing Andre Iguodala. Priorities one and two have to be the coaching vacancy and Iguodala; they’re related and Kroenke can take on the general manager’s responsibilities until he hires a new one.
In another recent article, Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale named five candidates for Denver’s head coaching job: Kelvin Sampson, Jerry Sloan, Brian Shaw, Lionel Hollins and Jeff Van Gundy.
The two who most intrigue me are Jerry Sloan and Jeff Van Gundy.
There aren’t a lot of things that seem to raise a potential coach’s stock quite like a stint at ESPN, and Jeff Van Gundy might follow his former colleague Mark Jackson from the network’s lead NBA commentating team to an NBA bench.
Van Gundy has expressed at least some interest in a return to the sideline and the young talent in Denver should be enticing to anyone looking for a head-coaching job in the league.
When the playoffs started, Denver was a trendy pick to meet the Heat in the NBA Finals, but Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson torched their defense and sent them packing after one round. They need to toughen up, particularly on D.
Van Gundy showed a no-nonsense, old school approach in New York and Houston. He pushed defense first and knew the importance of a half-court offense when the break wasn’t there. Reining in Denver’s uptempo attack entirely would be a mistake, but they could certainly be more disciplined on both ends of the court.
Sloan’s system did wonders for John Stockton and Deron Williams, and would do the same for Ty Lawson. The Nuggets point guard may be the quickest in the NBA and has shown flashes of brilliance as a distributor. He averaged 6.9 assists a game last year, but with the amount of responsibility a point guard in Sloan’s system has, that number could jump to around 10.
Sloan is old school as well. Some of Denver’s young players are extremely gifted physically, but lack focus and discipline. That is a description that has never applied to a team led by the former Jazz coach and Hall of Famer. He would help the Nuggets gain the toughness they need to reach the next level.
While Van Gundy and Sloan seem like the best fits to me, they’re both long shots. Brian Shaw or Lionel Hollins may be more realistic targets. Though not as high profile, they both come from teams whose toughness helped carry them to the conference finals (the Pacers and Grizzlies).
Whomever Denver decides to go with needs to aim toward improving the team’s defense, adding discipline (without neutralizing the Nuggets’ strengths of speed and athleticism) and valuing individual players. Who the players will be comfortable with (particularly unsigned Andre Iguodala) should be a factor in the decision.
With no general manager or head coach, the Denver Nuggets’ future looks murky right now. But the young, talented roster should still give fans reason to be excited as they eagerly wait to see what direction Josh Kroenke takes the team.