Andres Alvarez—of the stats-focused Wages of Wins website—has been fighting conventional wisdom for some time. One particular trope he rails against is the idea of George Karl as a great (or even good) NBA coach. I struck up an email conversation with Dre about how he can take such issue with a respected HC.
ESS: George Karl tends to use a lot of guys in his rotations. Is the issue that he's using too many players or that he gives a lopsided amount of burn to bad ones?
AD: Ethan, I should bring up two important points before I proceed. I'm a Nuggets fan and Colorado native, which means I know I'm more critical of Karl than I would be if he were doing similar actions on another team. The second is one @NBAMistress brings up a lot. I don't know how many coaches would actually coach this team that much differently than George Karl. And that brings me to my main problem.
The main thing a coach can do is proper minute allocation. The Nuggets have actually been doing a fairly decent job collecting underrated talent. (For instance, Birdman and J.R. had prior "attitude issues". Lawson and Faried were undersized.) The problem with Karl is he evaluates talent in a conventional manner, and this is detrimental to a team like the Nuggets. Karl has biases, such as not playing younger in lieu of "veteran presence" (which has hurt with Lawson and Faried playing very well). He also gives into the Yay Point! mentality, which we see with players like Harrington getting minutes. The Nuggets have done a very good job stockpiling talent, so this doesn't hurt us much in the regular season, where depth is key.
Except, this season George Karl has been insistent on playing Al Harrington despite have much better options (including a scoring one in Koufos) to choose from. Going with this mindset, he is also failing at a very critical coaching decision: playing his best players a lot in the playoffs. Since he doesn't identify players on his team as stars, he attempts to go for depth or matchups.
The problem in the playoffs is that teams play their best players a lot. You can't try and go deep against another team in the playoffs because your depth is outmatched against the opponent's starters. While the Nuggets have been a bottom seed the last two seasons, their best hope is to play their best players a lot. Last season neither Nene or Lawson cracked 34 minutes in the playoffs. Contrast this with Durant (42.5) and Westbrook (37.5). At least through one game so far this postseason, we're seeing a similar story with Lawson and Faried.
The real problem w/Karl is the Nuggets have a front office bringing together an unconventional team, and Karl is trying to coach as if it were a conventional team. He's looking for high point scorers and veteran presences and ignoring talented players that do things to win games. From an advanced stats perspective, I am pleased with most of the Nuggets' moves. I'm not surprised, either, as they have had Dean Oliver on staff and still contact him. That said, it's painful to see a team constructed mostly the right way undone by a coach that didn't seem to get the memo.
ESS: I guess what I'm wondering is: do you think that there's a chance Karl helps foster the kind of environment where his young guys learn how to be the kind of productive players Karl (ironically) doesn't play? Also, to be frank, do you think it's become tricky (or not PC) to criticize Karl on account of his struggle with cancer? Was there a time when folks were more receptive to these criticisms you detail?
AD: It's possible, but I doubt it. In Stumbling on Wins, Dave looked at coaches that had players that showed a significant change in performance (accounting for factors like age and team change) under different coaches.
Most coaches did not show a huge impact (with some exceptions like Phil Jackson). Even if it were true that Karl does make young players well, he doesn't play them, then there is no real benefit. Oh, it has definitely gotten harder with George Karl. Actually, this is true in two aspects. George Karl did have a bout with cancer, which thankfully he won. In the same time frame, the Nuggets got better (in large part due to health to Nene and a Billups trade). I'll deal with the less controversial one first.
My first post for Wages of Wins was criticizing George Karl. Something that hit the cutting room floor (it is a long article) is that in 2008 Karl played his rosters correctly. Yet at the end of 2008, people wanted Karl fired. The problem is people are results-oriented and not context-oriented. With the roster the Nuggets gave Karl in 2008, he did as much as he could with it. In 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, Karl has under-performed relative to the rosters he's been given. However, since the Nuggets improved in that frame, relative to 2008, people were happy. And of course, last season people wrongly believed the Nuggets would get worse without Melo.
In regards to the cancer, it has made things harder, and a large part of this is due, I think, to the Halo Effect. The hardship in Karl's family (for both himself and his son) with cancer was ridiculous. The fact that he fought through it was both miraculous and commendable. The problem is that people are expanding this to all aspects of Karl, including evaluating his coaching. From a fan perspective, I do unfortunately have to evaluate Karl on his coaching merits, which I've stressed are poor. For most, though, the improvement is how they justify Karl as a coach, and Karl's fight with cancer just adds another level of complexity.