There’s a chasm in the NBA between the conventional and the unconventional. Beyond the analytics revolution, the pleas for efficiency and the constant fight against using championships as an implication of greatness lies an even deeper, more salient clash: a discourse on the fundamental ways that basketball should be played that, until recently, were never truly questioned.
On one end of this spectrum is a team like the Houston Rockets, one that disregarded the antiquated mid-range jumper altogether, shot more three-pointers than any team in the league and ran the floor at every opportunity. And if there’s a gap between the two movements, former Denver Nuggets’ head coach George Karl may have become the first victim of the abyss.
Karl’s Nuggets, not all that different from the Rockets aside from their deficiency from beyond the arc, were a prototype for traditionalist hatred. They played small too often, their preferred form of garnering offense was capitalizing on live-ball turnovers and, perhaps the most tantalizing of the three, they didn’t have a go-to guy in crunchtime.
Naturally, Denver finished the season with the third seed in the West, accumulating a 15-game winning streak and the best home record in the league on the way. How’d they do it? Well, the exciting, savvy and versatile lineups that Karl formulated equipped the Nuggets with the highest percentage of points in the paint and fast break points in the league per NBA.com’s Stats tool, one of the best offensive attacks and right on cue, one of the best crunchtime offenses in the NBA.
Still, the dictated wisdom of the past suggested that regardless of their regular season success, the Nuggets’ philosophy was burdened with cracks that would lead to an inevitable playoff loss. So when the Nuggets looked defeated against the Warriors in the first round, the walls started to cave in on the 2013 Coach of the Year. The Nuggets were deemed an experiment — one that was defined and conducted by Karl — so once they lost, the experiment was surmised as a failure and as such, so was the conductor.
Here’s what really happened, though — and why the “experiment” may have been effective all along. Streaky shooting and the orchestrated heroics of Stephen Curry aside, the Warriors defeated the Nuggets by beating them at their own game. They went from scoring just 13.8 percent of their points off of turnovers in the regular season to 17.6 percent — a rate that would have had them in the top 10. David Lee went down and Golden State discovered a diamond in the rough: the beauty of playing small ball with Harrison Barnes at the power forward. Oh, and it didn’t help that Danilo Gallinari — the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer with a net efficiency rating of 7.2 points per 100 possessions and resident ScreenBuster (trademarked by Jordan White) — tore his ACL six games before the playoffs started.
Look at it this way. In a large sense, the NBA is slowly moving towards more dynamic crunchtime sets and away from the dreaded isolation-at-the-top-of-the-key plays. Yet no team stymied the opposing defense with more misdirection and screening in the closing minutes than the Nuggets. In the last five minutes of action with either team within five points, the Nuggets were top-3 in field goal percentage and fourth in offensive efficiency. The teams that preceded them? The Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, otherwise known as the teams that had LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant to helm their late game attacks.
The Nuggets, as we all know, didn’t have one of those guys. In response, Karl tried to compose the next best thing and he managed to do it. He said, “Hey, let’s stop mimicking what the other guys do. We don’t have what they have but we do have something special here. Let’s try and do this the best way we know how.” For NBA modernists, he was a step forward for the league. In the real world though, the results still take precedence over the process and Karl was punished for being ahead of the curve.
The scapegoating of Karl was an illogical crutch but it was an inevitable aftermath in a sports world that has no mercy for the failure to live up to expectations, even when situations changes and expectations are due for reevaluation. Moreover, criticism amplifies when the object of one’s contempt is working against the preserved mode of thinking. In reality, the Nuggets succeeded because Karl refused to give into the ever-present narratives lined up against his team.
All Stats per NBA.com’s Stats tool.