Mark Jackson is pushing the buttons on George Karl’s time machine


Note from DJ: Blogging has become difficult in recently. I have time to write occasionally for Freakonomics or Huffington Post, but that’s about it. But Andres Alvarez has encouraged me to give both Facebook and Twitter a try. With respect to the latter, I am now “tweeting” (quick note…that word always sounded somewhat stupid to me) at @wagesofwins. I also post stuff on Facebook (although I keep this page as private as Facebook allows). In both forums I find I can toss out a few quick thoughts here and there. What follows are a few of these thoughts, focused on the amazing coaching of George Karl. As noted below, Devin Dignam was a big help in putting this post together. He essentially took several different thoughts and made it appear that something coherent was being said!

David Thorpe thinks that a key to Denver’s first round playoff series against Golden State is Warriors’ coach Mark Jackson pushing the right emotional buttons. He notes that the Nuggets have a problem because one big man (Faried) is hurt and the other big men are glued to the bench. Well, George Karl is perfectly right to sit his big men against the Warriors. At least, he would be right if this was 1943!

From the first sentence of George Mikan’s bio at

It’s hard to believe today, but until the 1940s basketball was considered a sport better suited to shorter men than to taller, less nimble players.

So to win, all the Nuggets have to do is tell Karl what century he is currently living in. Or maybe Karl is simply protesting everything that has happened in the NBA in the last 70 years (in that case, more drastic action might be called for).

Try to imagine a world where the Nuggets have all their big men on the floor and they are not hurt. Very difficult, I know, but bear with me. Would Jackson still be seen as “pushing the right emotional buttons”?

Shades of 2007

It’s amazing that the Warriors can successfully use the same strategy they used to defeat the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. In case you don’t remember, in that series, the 8th seeded Warriors — then coached by Don Nelson — goaded the 67 win Mavericks — then coached by Avery Johnson — into benching their center (Erick Dampier) and thus negating the Mavericks’ height advantage. Compare that to this year, where the Warriors have convinced George Karl into benching his centers (JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos) and power forward Kenneth Faried in favour of guard-forwards Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer.

Why didn’t teams think of this strategy years ago?! For years, teams with excellent big men — Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq, Olajuwon, and others — have dominated in the playoffs. And their opponents did their best by having another big man on the floor. But the opponents of these teams could have learned from the Warriors. If you pull all your big men, your opponent must do the same. It’s practically a law of coaching! And that would mean that all those excellent big men would have had to stay on the bench. As the saying goes, “height helps but speed kills” (yes, someone paid to know something about the NBA actually said this).

Of course, teams don’t have to sit their big men when their opponent goes small. In fact, if you look at the box scores from the Warriors’ 2007 second round series against the Utah Jazz, you’ll see what a team should do if an opponent insists on playing small ball. You simply play your big players! And those big players will grab a whole bunch of rebounds. When that happens, you blow the small team off the court. You do not — as the Mavericks learned (and the Nuggets are learning) — try to match a small team with another small team.

Basketball is simply not rocket science. This is not a very hard game to understand. Big people have a decided advantage in this game. To neglect this reality — as George Karl has done — suggests that someone might be making this game more complicated than it is.

This does mean that something I have said for years is not entirely true. Our research indicates that most coaches do not impact outcomes in basketball. George Karl is proving this to be untrue. A coach who makes bad decisions about playing time can definitely have a negative impact!

Back to 2013

Up 3-1, the Warriors will probably win this series, which means that we are about to find out whether the Warriors’ next opponents — the San Antonio Spurs — will keep their big men on the floor. I suspect that what happened in 2007 will play out again this year: the Spurs will stay big and blow the Warriors off the court. Because despite what many sports writers think, Greg Popovich is no George Karl.

– DJ (with quite a bit of help from Devin)

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