Proving Why George Karl Deserved to Win NBA Coach of the Year
After a decent 34-22 start to the season, the Nuggets finished the year 23-3 to give Denver a franchise-record 57 wins.
Furthermore, the Nuggets accomplished this without a superstar or one specific go-to person. They had nine players averaging at least eight points per game and dished out a third-best 24.4 assists.
Other coaches deserve recognition as well. Erik Spoelstra made the most dominant team in the NBA even better. Mike Woodson improved his Knicks team to second-best in the East. Mark Jackson revived the Bay Area and got the Warriors back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Nevertheless, Karl took an average team and reached new heights. Denver was the fourth-youngest team in the league (via HispanosNBA.com), and the veteran head coach had them beating the toughest teams from November until April.
Here's why Karl deserved the honor.
Multiple Franchise Records
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Fifty-seven wins wasn't the only Nuggets record Karl accomplished.
Denver's 38 victories at home was the best in franchise history and led all teams in the NBA for 2012-13. Additionally, the three losses the Nuggets suffered at the Pepsi Center were by a combined 13 points.
While the 38-3 homestand was impressive, the more outstanding achievement was the 15-game winning streak.
The Nuggets just got on the other side of the All-Star Game and suffered a 119-113 loss to the Washington Wizards. It was their fourth defeat in five games, and Denver had given up at least 118 points in three of those losses.
With no days of rest until the next game, on the road no less, the switch flipped. The Nuggets ran off 15 straight wins, eight of which were against playoff teams. Two of them were also against the Western Conference regular season champions, Oklahoma City Thunder.
Maybe it was the seven dunks by JaVale McGee against Charlotte that initiated the spark. More likely though, it was the simple team concept of sharing the basketball and getting the rock to the hot hand. During the run, five different Nuggets players were a leading scorer in a game and none of them were named Andre Iguodala or Kenneth Faried.
Lastly, the Nuggets ended the regular season on a franchise record of 23 straight home wins and extended that to 24 by winning Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs.
This is quite the resume for a club with 37 years of history in the NBA.
Earned the No. 3 Seed Only Two-and-a-Half Years After Losing Melo and Company
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As Ian Begley of ESPN.com points out, the question on who won the trade between the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks is still being debated.
Either way, it's an incredible accomplishment to take nearly an entirely new team to the third spot in the West this quickly.
It wasn't just the 2012-13 scoring champion in Carmelo Anthony that departed for New York. It was the engineer of the offense in Chauncey Billups and eventually the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year, J.R. Smith. Those three players led the Nuggets in scoring during the 2009-10 season and combined for 63.1 points per game.
Still, Karl compiled a rotation and system that led the NBA in points per game (106.1), points in the paint (57.3) and fast-break points (19.7). The Nuggets were also the best offensive-rebounding team in the league at 13.3 boards and tied for second in total rebounding with 45 grabs.
While all these rankings are worth something, the defensive efficiency is where the Nuggets improved to climb all the way to the No. 3 seed. Naturally, the Nuggets will give up more points because of their fast pace of play. However, after having the 20th-ranked efficient defense in 2011-12, Denver moved all the way to 11th this season, including the seventh best at home.
Karl gets a lot of the attention for what he does on offense. His defensive improvements should be noted as well. He accomplished all this despite not sending one player to the 2013 All-Star Game.
Beating the Best
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Sometimes when a team raises its game and hits a new benchmark, beating up easier competition will be one of the contributing factors. That wasn't the case with the Nuggets.
Denver posted a 30-13 record against playoff teams that included a 20-7 mark against the teams from the West. The Nuggets also had a winning record against every Western Conference playoff team with the exception of the San Antonio Spurs (went 2-2). As far as the East went, the only team Denver failed to beat in the two attempts was Miami (lost by a combined eight points).
Here's how it broke down:
|San Antonio||2-2||New York||1-1|
|Los Angeles Clippers||2-1||Indiana||2-0|
|Los Angeles Lakers||3-1||Atlanta||1-1|
So what does this mean? The Nuggets went 27-12 against the teams that didn't make the postseason. The percentages are similar, but Denver did slightly better against the playoff teams.
The Nuggets won games on the road at a fast pace, like the 114-104 victory at OKC. They also protected home court at a slower pace, such as the 87-80 win against Memphis.
While the Nuggets didn't always play at their ideal tempo, they found ways to win. Karl deserves credit for putting together a team that was capable of beating every team on any given night.
Finished with a 10-3 Record While Dealing with Injuries
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With the exception of Wilson Chandler until the middle of January, the Nuggets were pretty much a healthy squad.
Then, as Denver was in the middle of its 15-game winning streak and chasing the No. 1 seed in the West, the injuries piled on. Plus, they were all happening to the best players.
It all started with Ty Lawson's torn plantar fascia (per Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post). Even though the Nuggets' leading scorer was sidelined for three weeks with a limited appearance against San Antonio in the middle of the absence, Andre Miller stepped up in the starting role and the Nuggets looked to be okay without him.
However, as Dallas was leading Denver in the Pepsi Center, matters got worse. Danilo Gallinari, the second-leading scorer for the Nuggets, drove to the lane and went down holding his knee in a good amount of pain. It was a torn ACL and he was done for the year (via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports).
Yet, despite trailing in the game and not having Gallo or Lawson, Denver rallied and Andre Iguodala converted the game-winning layup with 2.8 seconds remaining.
Lawson returned to the action one week later against the Mavericks before returning to the starting lineup against Portland. Finally, Denver was going to have its lineup set in stone just before the playoffs got underway.
Not so fast. Kenneth Faried, Denver's leading rebounder and one of its biggest playmakers, injured his ankle (per Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post) and missed the last two games of the regular season and Game 1 against Golden State.
It would have been a lot easier to deal with these injuries if they were spread out or earlier in the season. Nonetheless, Karl's balanced attack allowed Denver to overcome these obstacles and still achieve 57 wins.
JaVale McGee and his 20.8 PER stepped up and turned the momentum around in the San Antonio win on April 10. Karl found a way to incorporate rookie Evan Fournier into the rotation, who eventually landed a spot in the starting lineup for a few games. The head coach balanced the increase in minutes for the other players across the board to fill in the missing pieces.
Even though the Nuggets couldn't get past the injuries and the Warriors in the playoffs, NBA Coach of the Year is a regular-season award.
Second-Most Clutch Team with No Superstar
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One of the hottest topics about the Nuggets the entire season was if not having a superstar would cost them in close games down the road.
While the people who said "yes" might be right when it came to matching Stephen Curry's ridiculously amazing run, Denver was one of the clutchest teams in the regular season.
We all know LeBron James or Dwyane Wade will get in the pick-and-roll and get to the middle of the lane, but aren't afraid to kick it out to Ray Allen or any of the other shooters for three. Carmelo Anthony will take the last shot for the Knicks, unless J.R. Smith has the hot hand and has a good matchup in isolation. Kobe Bryant will always take the last shot no matter how well defended he is, unless Derek Fisher or Robert Horry is on his team.
With the Nuggets, it's different every time.
Ty Lawson got in the pick-and-roll against Oklahoma City, forced the switch on defense and nailed the game-winning jumper. Andre Miller penetrated the lane to draw the double-team versus Chicago and found Andre Iguodala for three. Corey Brewer was on fire against Philadelphia and drew a foul to put the game away at the free-throw line.
There's always a different plan of attack. Karl understands who is on during a specific game, but more importantly, how to give that player the best chance of succeeding on the play.
Having said that, Karl has one year left on his contract according to Hochman's article. He must improve his playoff performance in 2013-14 if he wants to stay with the Nuggets.