George Karl: A Career Made in Operational Curiosity

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George Karl: A Career Made in Operational Curiosity
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

George Karl isn't a basketball genius. He merely approaches his craft with an unparalleled open-mindedness and serves as the most extreme example possible of coach adaptation. He's the league leader in savoir-faire—a master of adjustment, a steward of circumstance and a man altogether unimpressed by basketball's self-imposed limitations. 

He's the kind to run a team nine-deep (and perhaps 10, if either Rudy Fernandez or Wilson Chandler were healthy) in the playoffs because it suits him and his roster, and the kind to scoff at the notion that teams can't sustain a transition game in the playoffs.

Karl, the Denver Nuggets and the business end of a dominant win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night indeed say otherwise. And though that victory alone may not offer the Nuggets a second-round berth or grant Karl any grand validation, it speaks to what's being missed in a league often consumed by trumpeted truism.

Truthfully, these Nuggets might not have won a single game in this series without Karl, and surely wouldn't exist in their current form without his willingness to experiment. The roster would undoubtedly be more conventional and likely less talented, and the size of the Lakers wouldn't be as successfully mitigated as it was on Thursday night.

They'd be a franchise still devastated by the departure of Carmelo Anthony, sapped by a situation that practically dictated that they wouldn't receive fair-market value on any traditional terms.

But because Karl is Karl, it all went according to plan—insomuch as Karl has anything resembling a predictive script. He doesn't have a system so much as guiding principles shaped by his own intellectual curiosity. Karl is, to borrow the words of Glenn Nelson in his 1992 piece on Karl in the Seattle Times (via Beckley Mason), "a tinkerer," and one that perhaps isn't as outlandish as he's often depicted:

He has allowed Kelci, his 12-year-old daughter, to pick members of his starting lineup. Last month, he started rookie Rich King against New York superstar Patrick Ewing because King was working hard in practice and because the team trainer and equipment manager favored the move. In the mystery-novel world of Seattle SuperSonic coach George Karl, forward Derrick McKey defends point guards, center Michael Cage shoots three-pointers and Nate McMillan, erstwhile point-guard-for-life, starts at small forward.

'I hope I never limit my players,' Karl said. 'I want to teach the game, so they can play it well. I don't want to structure the game, or direct the game. I want to teach the game. I want my teams to be free, fast, athletic and aggressive.'

Karl hasn't reinvented the wheel, but simply had the audacity to spin it forwards and backwards, just to see where it goes. It's who he is, and while that persistent desire to tweak may not provide as vivid an image as the "mad scientist" persona he's cultivated over the years, it's a characterization far more consistent with his basketball identity, and, by extension, far more consistent with his basketball success.

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