George Karl’s controversial recent book has brought him back into the focus of the NBA. First, he wrote in an excerpt from the book about some issues in Denver with Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony and blamed any problems with dime store psychology: “Kenyon and Carmelo carried two big burdens: all that money and no father to show them how to act like a man.” Later, in an interview for the book, Karl told New York Magazine that Portland’s struggles this year were attribute to Damian Lillard and that the NBA pulled officiating strings to determine key playoff games in his losses in Conference Finals to the league MVPS in 1993 (Karl’s Sonics lost to the Charles Barkley Suns) and 2001 (Karl’s Bucks lost to the Allen Iverson 76ers).
It is understandable that Karl would resent Carmelo, who demanded a trade from a good Nugget team, but the criticisms do not accurately correspond to Karl’s problems and Karl’s explanation make him look like a paranoid jerk. Is the George Karl of 2017 burned out and bitter or has Karl always walked the edge? Let’s take a look look at Karl’s coaching career, which is littered with feuds and controversy and see how it got is to this point with Karl.
In order to understand Karl, the best place to start is his pre-coaching career. Karl grew up in Pittsburgh and was a good enough player to get a scholarship and play point guard with Dean Smith at UNC. Karl was a tough hustle guy for Smith. Karl was no star but was good enough to be drafted into the NBA in 1973 (4th round by the Knicks, 66th overall). Karl was basically a fringe pick and unlikely to make the Knicks, who already had Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe anyway. For a frame of reference as to how unlikely Karl as a very late pick was to make the NBA take a look at the other late round picks from that draft: there were about 140 picks taken after Karl in that draft and only three had real careers (John Williamson, M.L. Carr, and Harvey Catchings).
Karl was also drafted by the Memphis Tams of the ABA. They failed to sign Karl promptly, so the Spurs went after Karl as well. Terry Pluto tells the funny story of his contract negotiations with the Spurs in “Tall Tales.” Spurs front office honcho Angelo Drossos told Pluto: “We signed George Karl out of North Carolina in a unique way….I got a call from Karl’s lawyer…[after] several weeks [of negotiations] we still were about $40,000 apart. I’m an avid tennis player and I play practically every day….The lawyer seemed interested in tennis, so I said, ‘Why don’t you come to San Antonio, we’ll play some tennis and then talk about George’s contract.’ Then a light went on in my head. I said, ‘Tell you what. I’ll play out for George’s contract. If you win, you get what you want for George. If I win, you take my offer.’…He said, ‘I don’t think you can beat me. It wouldn’t be fair to you.’ I was getting upset. I’m proud of my tennis and I’m an A player….It turned out that the lawyer was Donald Dell, who had played at Wimbledon and was on the Davis Cup team. We never did play for George’s contract, but if Dell had insisted I stick to the bargain, I would have. George eventually signed and I was glad Dell did call, because George was a solid player for us.”
Karl ended being a solid backup behind James Silas for a very good Spurs team. Karl averaged 7 ppg and 3 apg in three ABA seasons. His most notable moment came during a playoff game against the Nets on Easter Sunday 1976. At the time, Sports Illustrated called this contentious matchup “a Psycho Series” and wrote that “[Nets guard Brian] Taylor and Spur reserve Guard George Karl had a punch up, beckoning both benches to join in a five-minute brawl.” The Spurs eventually lost the series but the fight was famously remembered as the “Easter Day Massacre.”
The next season, the Spurs were absorbed into the NBA and Karl’s playing time plummeted. After being a regular rotation player (about 18 mpg in the three ABA season), Karl played only 29 games in 1976-77 and scored 2.7 ppg in 8.7 mpg (his shooting cratered to .342% as well) due to knee injuries and weight gain. Karl played only four games in 1977-78 and he was out of the NBA at age 26.
1984-1986 in Cleveland: Karl v. the World
As soon as his playing career ended, Karl went into scouting for NBA teams and then became a very successful coach in the CBA in the early 1980s. Karl parlayed his coaching success into a front office job with the Cavs. The Cavs were in disarray (primarily because owner Ted Stepien had traded scores of draft picks for mediocre vets). After a terrible 28-54 record in 1983-84, a coaching vacancy opened up and Karl was given the job when he was only 32.
The roster was not inspiring and the Cavs hadn’t won 30 games in season since 1979-80. The Cavs’ goal was to rebuild with promising young players Roy Hinson and Mel Turpin. Karl’s only real scoring option was legendary chucker, World B. Free (he had put up 22.3 ppg in 31.7 mpg on 18.8 shots per game the previous season). The problem was Free was already 31 and was not really a long term option. The other problem was that Karl, the ultimate hustling non-scorer, was not a fan of chuckers who played little defense.
Karl attempted to turn the Free into a role player and dramatically limited his shots. The first ten games of the season, Free scored only 13.7 ppg on 13 shots a game in 25.3 mpg. Karl was also was pulling him for defensive purposes late in games. The Cavs were 1-9 over that time and Free tore his groin muscle. The Cavs were 2-19 by the time Free was ready to play again.
When Free came back, Karl brought him off the bench and tried to still limit his minute. Karl quickly realized this was mistake. In April 1985, Karl told the UPI that: “[h]aving World play more took the offensive load off the rest of the guys. I was wrong to use World as a reserve. We needed him more than 25 minutes or so.” Free told Sport Illustrated that he and Karl were at odds but that they resolved differences when Karl started playing him more: “[i]t takes a hell of a man to admit that he’s wrong. He respects me [now] me, and I play my butt off for him.”
The Cavs went 34-27 the rest of the way and made the playoffs. They even gave the Larry Bird Celtics a tough run in the first round. The Cavs lost the series 3-1 but the three losses were by all by three points or less. In fact, the Celts and Cavs were dead even in points scored in total for the series.
The Karl-Free feud was quickly spun as a redemptive story where Free learned to try a bit to hustle and Karl learned to accept his star and let him shoot. It’s not clear, however, that the numbers totally support that story.
The 1984-85 Cavs can be broken down into four segments: the first ten games where Free’s minutes were curbed, the period where Free was out with injury, his stint coming off the bench, and, finally, his return to the lineup. Here’s a quick rundown of how Free and the Cavs did during each of these segments:
|Free Off Bench||(9-12)||29.5||7.6||16.3||0.466||2.7||4.1||0.5||0.2||1.9||20.2|
|Free Back in Lineup||(25-17)||34.2||9.9||21.2||0.465||3.2||4.9||1.4||0.3||2.1||25.6|
The numbers tell us that Free was ostensibly the same player coming off the bench that he was when he was returned to the starting lineup on a per minute basis. The big difference was that Free stunk early and the team stunk even more when he was out with injury. It’s not clear why Free was so bad early and there are several possibilities (he was in a random slump, he was hurt, he was dogging it in protest to the loss of minutes).
To his credit, Karl didn’t just let Free shoot…he also let Free shoot threes at a rate that few players had to that point. Free was 71-193 from three that year, which was the eighth most by an NBA player ever at that point. Advanced stats also indicated that Free sort of played defense, putting up a DPM of -1.8, the best DPM of his career (I’m not kidding).
The Cavs slumped the next season and Karl was fired after going 25-42. Why was Karl given such a short rope after the magical run in 1984-85? Karl began fearing for his job and loudly complaining about the need for an extension. To underscore the point, Karl took an interview for the job as coach at University of Pittsburgh during the season.
The Cavs immediately fired him and GM Harry Weltman told that press that “[i]n view of the fact that he is actively interviewing for another position, we think it is in our mutual best interests to release Coach Karl from any further obligation to the Cavs in the current season. This will permit Coach Karl to turn his full attention to his current efforts to secure a new position and will allow the Cavs to finish the season with undivided attention to the task of gaining a position in the playoffs.”
Karl’s time with Cavs showed him at his best and his worst. He picked a needless feud with his best player primarily because Karl hated Free’s game. But Karl did realize that this was not smart and he eventually made the right decision and played Free. Karl also never quit and he rallied the team to fight during a hopeless situation. Finally, he forced the Cavs’ hand into firing him with gross insubordination. The Karl rides have always been wild I guess.
1986-1988: Karl’s Brief Stop in Golden State
Karl wasn’t out of work long. He was hired by the Warriors, who were coming off of a 30-52 record in 1985-86. The Warriors were respectable offensively with Joe Barry Carroll, Sleepy Floyd, Purvis Short, and a young Chris Mullin but were very weak on defense. Karl didn’t improve the defense much but the Warriors jumped to 42-40 and upset Utah in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Lakers (including that memorable game where Floyd dropped 51 points).
Despite the success, Karl was still recognized as volatile. Karl acknowledged this in a January 1987 interview: “I have no desire to be as fiery as I come off. I`m young, rambunctious and energetic. Hopefully, someday I`ll settle down and not be as crazy. But you have to use your own personality. If you try to coach like somebody else, the players will see through it and you won`t get what you want accomplished. They have to know that you care.”
But “caring” is a fine line. In “Full Court Pressure,” Curtis Sampson wrote that Karl become so angry with Carroll’s effort that “Karl ripped the door off [Carroll’s] locker and joked bitterly about putting a can of Alpo therein.” The next year, ownership brought in Don Nelson to the front office man and Karl felt that Nelson was angling for his job and began complaining loudly. It also didn’t help that the bottom fell out of the team that season. The Warriors slumped to 16-48 in 1987-88 when Karl left the team and was replaced by Nelson.
1991-1998: Karl’s Peak in Seattle
After the Warriors, Karl was knocked back down a peg. He returned to the CBA and then coached Real Madrid in Spain. It appeared that Karl might be branded as not stable enough to coach in the NBA. But he was very successful in the CBA again and abroad and the Sonics came called part way through the 1991-92 season.
The Sonics had a young underachieving team built around Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. With the Sonics mired at 20-20, Karl came in and lit a fire under the team with a 27-15 finish and a first round upset of his old buddy Nelson and the Warriors.
Karl then had a run of 55 or more wins per year and a top ten defense from 1992-93 through 1997-98. The ride was not as smooth as it seems on paper in retrospect. In November 1993, the Seattle Times wrote a feature on Karl, recognizing that he wasn’t entirely easy to deal with: “Whether it’s handling his players or dealing with the press or making a move on the court, Karl constantly is trying to provoke a response that he can exploit. By deploying that most volatile of factors – passion – he plays a most dangerous game.”
Karl cursed out and benched Payton, Kemp, and Derrick McKey at times but his most memorable blow up came with Kendall Gill. Gill was a young and athletic two-guard, who came over from Charlotte hoping to be a star. Karl rode Gill hard and Gill resented the treatment, eventually suffering an emotional breakdown where he left the team for five days near the end of the 1994-95 season.
After Gill was traded, he held on to quite a bit of anger. In December 1996, the New York Daily News described the dispute: “Gill claimed the feud started when Karl said on his weekly radio show that Gill was overpaid ($3.2 million per season). Gill confronted Karl, who later apologized, and the trouble began. What seemed to hurt Gill most was the league-wide perception he had suffered a nervous breakdown when the Sonics placed him on medical leave from April 4-11 during the ’95 season. Gill was diagnosed with clinical depression, but said the Sonics called it that only because ‘they had to call it something.’” Gill was eventually traded for Hersey Hawkins and the Sonics continued to play well.
In 1997-98, the Sonics went 61-21 and lost in the second round to the Shaq-Lakers. Karl’s contract was up. Despite the success, the Sonics told Karl they did not want him back because, according to an AP article at the time, “Karl has strained relations with [owner Barry] Ackerely and Sonics general manager Wally Walker, and the team cited its inability to trust Karl with sensitive information when announcing that he would not return.”
1998-2003: Karl v. Ray Allen(?)
Karl was almost immediately hired in 1998-99 by the Bucks, who had been stuck in the lottery since 1990-91. Unlike most Karl teams, the Bucks played no defense. Karl adjusted his usual preferences and let a team of scorers (Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, and Glenn Robinson) go ahead and score. Despite the lack of defense, Karl led the Bucks to the playoffs immediately and took the top seeded Pacers to the brink. In 2000-01, the Bucks went 52-30 and came within one game of the NBA Finals.
Again, the ride to success with Karl was not smooth. Karl bad mouthed the players to the press and the team rallied to play well. Allen told Sports Illustrated that: “[y]eah, we came together. Against him.” Allen also told SI the root of Karl’s problem: “George’s way of playing is basketball is different from my way of playing basketball. He liked to fight, to knock people on their asses. He’s always asking me, How many times have you been in a fight?….It’s just different personalities.”
But 2000-01 was an aberration (partly because the East wasn’t great at the time) and the Bucks fell back to .500 the next two season. After 2002-03, Karl was fired. The Chicago Tribune blamed Karl’s firing on his personality: “Karl, known for an unrelenting ego and combative relations with players, tried still another psychological ploy that ruined the Bucks and eventually took him down as well. He demanded the Bucks trade one of the so-called Big Three players, Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell. Or fire him. The club relented, trading Robinson. Then Karl got embroiled in a feud with the popular Allen. That led to the Bucks trading Allen for Karl favorite Gary Payton, who made it clear he didn’t want to be in Milwaukee….Karl fought with Tim Thomas, and they stopped speaking. Karl insisted the Bucks couldn’t compete if they didn’t sign Anthony Mason, then said Mason was a distraction and stopped playing him.”
2004-16: Denver and Sacramento
Turning to the more recent past, the feuds continued. Karl’s next gig in Denver was his best run besides Seattle. They made the playoffs every season with Karl (2004-2013), and won 50+ games five times. On the negative side, Karl made the second round of the playoffs only one time and, as is noted in his book, fought with his stars Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, and J.R. Smith. Finally, Karl went to Sacramento and had his only true failure as a coach, being fired after only a season and half and fought with DeMarcus Cousins spectacularly.
So, what can be learned from Karl’s long career? He is a great coach, who adapts creatively to his talent but he was and is totally nutty. He has a pathological distaste for scorers. It’s just who he is. Read his criticisms of Lillard from last week in New York Magazine: “I was watching the Portland Trailblazers play, and I was trying to figure out, What the hell is wrong with this team? My conclusion is that Damian Lillard is getting too much attention.”
Karl’s knee jerk blaming of Lillard sounds exactly like his complaints about World B. Free in 1984. Despite all the success Karl has had as a coach and his statements that he made mistakes fighting with Free and Gill and others, he hasn’t changed much. He still just wants to fight to rally his scorers.
Karl was a great coach but his baggage apparently will never change. It is unfortunate that his recent lashing out will probably kill his career as a coach because he could probably still be successful in his crash-and-burn style if he got the chance. We’ll just have to appreciate Karl for the original character he was.