Karl never just a spectator
CLEVELAND -- He's just watching, really.
Well, of course he's doing more than just watching. George Karl was doing more than just watching when ESPN was paying him to do just that as an NBA analyst. Even during that 18-month "vacation" from the NBA, he wasn't just watching. He can't.
Just watching• That just isn't Karl. See, even when Karl is just watching, like you, he's seeing stuff you don't -- stuff only coaches for life see.
So when he was watching games involving the Denver Nuggets, he couldn't help but wonder what that group of young, talented, but dreadfully underachieving players might be capable of if an ultra-commanding coach like, say, George Karl -- with all his trademark, Penn Hills-bred toughness -- was more than just watching from afar.
The Nuggets won only 17 of their first 42 games. After a 106-101 victory against the Cavaliers on Friday night, they stand at 6-2 since his hiring Jan. 27.
So why is he here, just watching over these improving Nuggets as they swim upstream in a ridiculously stacked NBA Western Conference and try to navigate a critical five-game road swing, including Friday night's win over the Cavaliers?
Well, for starters, Denver is Karl's fourth gig as an NBA head coach, and despite three firings (by Cleveland, Seattle and Milwaukee) he has locked down the 13th spot on the NBA's all-time wins list.
He's been around, you know.
Karl has seen what usually becomes of NBA teams when a coach in a situation similar to his has attempted to do too much after coming aboard in the middle of a season. In such scenarios, spirits tend to go south quickly.
He'll have none of that. Not in Denver. Karl plans to keep just watching these Nuggets and maybe here and there drop the knowledge a guy gets from having spent 17 years in the NBA.
"I'm going to coach this team a lot better next year than I will this year," Karl said of his future with the Nuggets the day before Denver faced Cleveland, where his NBA head-coaching career began in 1984. "To come in and take over a team in the middle of the year ... you have moments where you're just totally lost."
"Totally lost" is a nice way of describing Karl's state of mind during a disappointing come-from-ahead loss in Minnesota on Wednesday to kick off the Nuggets' road trip. "Funny" is another adjective that will fit -- after the season.
"We sat down during a timeout and some of the older guys said, 'Let's run Floppy Down,' and I was like, 'What's Floppy Down?'" Karl recalled, paused, smiled and then continued, "I didn't even know what play they were talking about.
"I have to learn their plays. I have to take what they have and put my touch on it, direct them where they want to go. I'm kind of just watching."
For a guy who likes to run a basketball team his way, which Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin considers Karl's best quality as a coach, just watching isn't fun. These Denver days might become fun if Karl's watching pays off in the Nuggets rebounding to make the playoffs.
But even if they pull off such a seemingly improbable mission, as their new coach insists they can, the Nuggets won't truly become Karl's team until next season. When that day comes, the famous Karl of old -- demanding, fiercely competitive, ruthlessly honest and an in-your-face kind of in charge -- will likely strike down upon these Nuggets with great vengeance if they're not meeting his expectations.
Make no mistake, Karl's expectations for this group of players is, ultimately, their bringing him and the Denver organization a long dreamed-about NBA title. That hunger to reach the mountaintop is, after all, the reason general manager Kiki Vandeweghe brought him on board.
Vandeweghe understood that his young players needed a coach whose accomplishments commanded respect. Karl's fourth-best winning percentage in NBA history makes him the anti-Jeff Bzdelik (Karl's predecessor who was responsible for Denver's awful start to this season following a playoff appearance last season).
Vandeweghe saw that the Nuggets needed a leader who could both challenge and win-over Carmelo Anthony, a second-year player possessing the type of all-world talent that Karl promised to mold into championship-caliber consistency.
Karl has spent only a few weeks watching Anthony -- who challenged Cleveland's LeBron James for NBA Rookie of the Year last season but hasn't matched the Cavaliers' superstar's sophomore ascension to greatness -- and already has generated a few ideas about taking his young star's seemingly limitless game to uncharted territory.
"So far my relationship with Carmelo has been good, but..." Karl said, the trailing off of his voice hinting at anticipated disapproval from Anthony over the words that are to follow.
"He takes way too many tough shots. If he's going to shoot the ball 20 times a game, he has to have only three or four of those that are contested shots. He'll have to make tough shots at the end of the game, sure; but every shot shouldn't be a tough shot."
In the Nuggets' Friday morning shoot-around prior to their game against Cleveland, Karl stood near the Cavaliers' mid-court logo, arms crossed, chewing on ice, and patiently watched as Anthony received pass after pass and followed each catch with a weak dribble and a jump shot from above the key.
As the basketballs Anthony launched clanked off the rim, Karl waited and waited and waited before finally he could take no more.
He chewed what remained of his ice chunks, swallowed hard, unfolded his arms and moved toward the spot on the floor from where Anthony was playing build-a-house.
"Catch it, dribble hard toward the basket," he said to nobody in particular.
"And Melo, off your toes, off your fingers. Come on, show me something!"
Anthony heeded his new coach's plea.
Karl just watched as his new pupil's shot went swish.