It’s awards season in the NBA, and the Nuggets are cleaning up like Adele at the Grammys. Last Tuesday, George Karl won his first NBA coach of the year honor after a quarter century on the sidelines and almost 1,900 wins in his hall-of-fame career. Then, last Thursday, the league announced that Nuggets’ general manager Masai Ujiri had copped the prize for executive of the year.
Both sets of hardware are well deserved. Ujiri cleverly wedged his way into the blockbuster Dwight Howard trade last summer and shipped off the spare parts that brought Andre Iguodala to Denver, and he made a couple other low-fanfare moves that helped build the team’s deep roster. This happened not long after he engineered the Carmelo Anthony trade, a move that some question but no one—least of all George Karl—regrets.
Karl took the personnel Ujiri gave him, wove them into an exciting outfit that won the most games in franchise history, and continued his own incredible streak of regular season success—he hasn’t posted a losing coaching record since the first set of Bushes roamed the White House halls.
Unfortunately, these trophies arrive with a considerable amount of pain. As in all pro sports, the NBA awards are based on regular season accomplishments, so playoff outcomes don’t factor into the decisions—voting concludes before the playoffs even start.
The playoffs, of course, are where the rub is for the Nuggets. After Golden State dispatched Denver, the team’s ninth first-roound exit in 10 years, the local (and national) sportsyak revolved around whether Karl’s coaching style is unsuited for playoff success, and therefore, whether it might be time for him to move on.
It’s a common reaction to an unexpected postseason ouster: We have the guys we need to win, but we also need someone new pulling the strings before it will all come together. It’s how dynasties happened when Chicago replaced Doug Collins with Phil Jackson and when the Lakers flipped Paul Westhead for Pat Riley.
But this doesn’t seem to be the way to go with the Nuggets. For one thing, the Bulls had Jordan and Pippen, and the Lakers had Magic and Kareem. The Nuggets have a broad range of very good players but no true stars. Given Denver’s geography and demographics, none will arrive here via free agency. The Chris Pauls and Dwight Howards and LeBrons simply aren’t signing in a smallish, non-coastal city. The team may not even be able to keep Iguodala after he opted out of his contract to test the market.
Does anyone really think that this roster could win anything significant with someone other than Karl on the bench? While everyone was worried about how the team’s free-flowing style would play in the grind-it-out playoffs against more physical squads, the Nuggets got derailed by a team that plays almost exactly the same way as they do. The difference is that while the Warriors have several tremendous shooters, the Nuggets are streaky at best; during the regular season, Denver took the 6th-most 3-pointers per game but finished 12th in percentage. (The Warriors were third and first, respectively.)
Until the Nuggets can make those numbers match a little more closely—either by players honing their stroke this summer, or by Ujiri working more of his offseason magic to get some legitimate snipers on the roster—there’s not a lot Karl or any other coach will be able to do. It would be great for the game if this wide-open approach could win, because it’s fun to watch and it showcases the NBA’s best asset: its breathtaking athleticism. For now, we fans should trust—for a little longer, anyway—that the award-winning men running the team know what they need to do next to keep the hardware coming.
—Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.