The voters have crowned George Karl as coach of the year. I couldn’t disagree more. All year long I’ve said that Karl is more of a hindrance to the Nuggets’ winning than a contributor. But let’s break down the arguments people use to support the claim that Karl is coach of the year, and why they aren’t accurate.
“The Nuggets overperformed”
Let’s be straight: the key reason Karl got this award is that the Nuggets won 57 games — a franchise best! And many think this was more than people expected. Enter wiLQ at Weakside Awareness! He tracks what analysts predict at the start of the season and how well they do. Of the analysts wiLQ tracks, 8 thought the Nuggets were a 55 win team or better, including John Hollinger and Wages of Wins (yes, we do agree occasionally). The average analyst that wiLQ tracked thought the Nuggets were a 52 win team. ESPN’s panel of 215 writers averaged the Nuggets at 50 wins. In short, to start the season, everyone thought the Nuggets were a very good team. Many thought they were a great team. So, it’s baffling at the end of the season to hear how everyone is shocked they overperformed. I guess 82 games is a long time and easy for people to forget.
“The Nuggets don’t have a star”
Something I hear quite often is: “basketball is about more than scoring”. But when I point out players who are great despite a lack of scoring, I’m told these players can’t be stars. The Nuggets had one of the best rookies last year in Kenneth Faried. In the offseason, they acquired Andre Iguodala. Both of these players produced more than 10 wins for the Nuggets this season. Last season, in limited minutes, Kosta Koufos played at a star level. This season in more (albeit still limited) minutes, he played close to a star level. Prior to this season, Ty Lawson had played very well. Although he had a down year, he did get some of his groove back at the end of the season. Regardless, that’s four very good players on a team, including two very good bigs. Even though people don’t consider these players to be stars, they still win games!
Tack on the fact that the Nuggets have even more good players in Andre Miller, Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, and (I’ll hate myself for this) Wilson Chandler as a small forward, it’s not surprising that the Nuggets are a good team. It’s a team full of good players.
Why the Nuggets win
Now, in analyzing the Nuggets greatness, it’s worth asking: Why do they win? Let’s review:
|Stat||Denver’s Rank (out of 30)|
|Effective Field Goal Percentage||7|
|Offensive Rebound Percentage||1|
|Free Throws to Field Goals Ratio||10|
|Opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage||13|
|Opponent Turnover Percentage||8|
|Opponent Offensive Rebound Percentage||27|
|Opponent Free Throws to Field Goals Ratio||7|
By far the most important things the Nuggets do are shoot well and crash the offensive glass. They were also pretty good when it came to getting the line, and avoiding and forcing turnovers. And while the Nuggets’ defense has improved, it’s worth noting that offense is the main driving force behind their wins. So let’s examine that.
Why are the Nuggets good on offense?
When it comes to Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG%), the best three players with major minutes are: Kosta Koufos, Javale McGee and Kenneth Faried.
What about offensive rebounds? Kosta Koufos, Kenneth Faried, Javale McGee
Getting to the line? Danilo Gallinari, Javale McGee, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried.
The Nuggets offense is really good and the three players that consistently show up are Koufos, Faried and McGee!
Does Karl know why he wins?
Alright, last fun test. The driving force behind the Nuggets were three talented bigs. This is a pretty proven recipe for success.
So clearly Karl played them a lot, right?
Playing time and rank for Denver’s big three, regular season:
- Kenneth Faried – 28.1 MPG, 4th
- Kosta Koufos – 22.4 MPG, 8th
- JaVale McGee – 18.1 MPG, 9th
Uh…what? Karl has two good seven footers that rock on offense (the thing driving his team’s success) and he can’t even play them a combined 48 minutes a game?
Alright, well in the playoffs — where teams shorten their rotations and increase their best players’ minutes — surely Karl realized their importance and upped their time, right?
Playing time and rank for Denver’s big three, playoffs:
- Kenneth Faried – 29.0 MPG, 4th
- JaVale McGee – 18.7 MPG, 7th
- Kosta Koufos – 16.7 MPG, 8th
What?!? In the playoffs, Karl increased Faried’s playing time by 54 seconds per game, increased McGee’s playing time by 36 seconds per game, and actually decreased Koufos’s playing time by 342 seconds per game. The net result? Karl played his big three a grand total of 252 fewer seconds per game in the playoffs!
Editor’s Note: Thanks blue for correcting an earlier math error in this section.
A few playoff notes
I would like to mention a few caveats on the playoffs. First, Faried was injured in game one, and it appears he was still a bit off in game two. Danilo Gallinari was out completely. Additionally, the Warriors had one of the best three point shooting games in the league and the Nuggets had one of the worst three point defenses in the league. So, there were some disadvantages facing Karl in round one. However…
Karl is a bad coach, period!
Alright, the Nuggets won 57 games this season because they had good players. Grabbing Iguodala, who earned 10 wins this season, pretty much accounts for all of the Nuggets improvement. And as I mentioned, this is not a surprise.
We find that most coaches don’t improve their players (which is why Greg Popovich and Phil Jackson are so valuable). Their most important skill is playing the right players. The Nuggets built a roster of good players, particularly good big players, and Karl didn’t play them. He didn’t play them in the regular season. He didn’t play them in the playoffs.
We should not give an award to a coach if they actively work against the very thing that makes them successful! Let’s pretend Steve Jobs introduced the iPod and said “This is not a very good product. Sure, we’ll sell it. However, our other great products like the Newton are what will really make us great!” [Editor's note: what, you don't remember the Newton?] Would he have been kept on as CEO? The key difference in the NBA is that many people (coaches, front offices, media members, award voters, fans) are bad at talent evaluation. They’re impressed by results, but can’t explain them. The Nuggets won due to a very common and predictable reason in the NBA — they had very good tall players. And the reason the voters think the Nuggets won is because of George Karl. Now that Karl has the distinction of losing in the first round of the playoffs with 57+ win teams three times (Seattle in 1993-94, Seattle in 1994-95, and Denver in 2012-13), should we really think he knows what he’s doing?