Karl’s Criticism of Wolves’ Trade Is Its Best Defense

May 8, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl during the press conference announcing him NBA coach of the year at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

In a roundtable discussion yesterday on ESPN, former Denver Nuggets coach George Karl pulled no punches in assessing the trade that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland and netted the Minnesota Timberwolves Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young. “This is the steal of the century for the Cavs,” he said.

To give up Love for Wiggins, Bennett, Young and a first-round pick is crazy to me. With Wiggins, you’re only talking about potential. You’re not yet talking about productivity. Yeah, I think he goes on to be good. But this bothers me: He is a young player, and if any of a number of things happen — he gets injured, the team is the wrong fit, he gets bitter about the game, doesn’t have the passion, doesn’t have the love . . . There’s a significant chance he might not even be an All-Star, just because that’s the way things work.

Bennett, I’m sorry, I saw him play in the summer league, and he was goofy, man. Yeah, he has physical tools. But he’s got to be trained. He doesn’t have the highest basketball IQ and commitment. So if you’re the Cavs, and you give both those guys up and a future No. 1 pick, and you don’t have to give up Anderson Varejao or Dion Waiters, and you actually get another team to give up a guy like Young — I mean, I’m thinking this is a conspiracy!

It’s safe to say Karl’s opinion is a bit of an outlier. The general consensus is that Minnesota got the best deal possible for a player who was leaving either way — Tim Bontemps at the New York Post rated it as the best deal for a superstar in the last decade. Even Kevin Pelton — who is of the opinion that the Wolves got the short end of the stick — gave them a grade of B-, which hardly qualifies the Cavs as having pulled off the “steal of the century.”

By most measures, Karl is an excellent coach. His 1131 wins make him the sixth winningest coach in NBA history, and his .599 win percentage is higher than Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Rick Adelman and Larry Brown. In a field where the standards are well above impossibly high, Karl has been consistently successful.

But here’s the thing: Because of his coaching bona fides, his intense criticism of this trade actually works as a defense of Flip Saunders as a GM.

As the Wolves’ coaching search stretched out over the summer in the wake of Rick Adelman’s retirement, the prospect of Saunders as a combination coach/GM became an ever clearer possibility and there were reasons for concern. In many ways, the relationship between the coach and the GM for a team should be one of checks and balances, of separate lanes. The GM needs to have an eye on both the future and the bottom line, always mindful of how those things interact. The coach needs to focus on the here and now: how to make the most of what has been assembled by the GM.

Saunders himself gave the best rationale for this at the press conference announcing the trade when he said he hadn’t talked to Ricky Rubio about it. “I don’t believe it’s really fair to both the players, fair to the organization or fair to anyone when you get the players almost too involved in what’s going on,” he said. “It’s giving them too much pressure.” That kind of pressure is essentially what he opened himself up to by taking on a dual role.

There’s reason to hope that the process by which Saunders became the coach as well as the GM is a sound one. If they had a list of three candidates, none of whom would take the job due to the uncertainty around Love, it’s far better for them to make a provisional move now than hire someone they don’t actually want to a longer contract. If the Wolves make a more permanent coaching hire after this season once the team has established some kind of trajectory, that will back up this view of the process.

Skepticism about that being the case arose, though, when word about Thaddeus Young’s involvement in the deal began to leak out. Here, it seemed, was evidence that Saunders was making a move for a player who could help them win now, and this was seen as evidence that Saunders the coach was getting in the way of Saunders the GM — especially if the move had been to send Bennett to Philadelphia for Young.

But since officially completing the trade, Saunders has hewed to the line that getting Young represented a chance to get a veteran who could help provide a competitive environment for the younger players to learn and grow in. “More than anything else,” he said at the presser, “he’s a super character individual. He will add as much to our locker room with his presence, his leadership as he will with his athletic ability.”

So when Karl says, “I want a player! I want a guy I can play!” he’s not evaluating it as a GM but as a coach. He continued: “You have to understand, with the Carmelo Anthony trade, we got five players. We got [Raymond] Felton, we got Wilson Chandler, we got Gallo [Danilo Gallinari], we got Timofey Mozgov, we got Kosta Koufos, and we got picks. I think for Minnesota, to only get three players out of it, it’s a bad deal. They should be looking at three starters, and more. I mean I’m shocked they made this trade.”

The Nuggets certainly surprised everyone the year they traded Anthony by making the playoffs, but they didn’t surprise anyone by losing in the first round. It’s what they had done the year before, and although they made the Western Conference Finals the year before that, that was after five straight years of first round exits. The first full season after Anthony’s departure they made the playoffs again and lost in the first round. And the year after that.

And then they fired George Karl and missed the playoffs last year.

To that end, Karl deserves a tremendous amount of credit as a coach for taking what he was given and competing with it. But four years down the line the Nuggets are in worse shape, not on the upswing. The most promising individual player of the group that came over from the Knicks remains Danilo Gallinari (the picks so far have yielded Quincy Miller and … that’s about it) and Gallinari will be coming back this season after missing all of the last one with an ACL injury. It seems a little unfair to criticize Wiggins for the possibility that he might get injured or not reach his potential and then hold up as exemplary a package of players that includes several who missed time or struggled for a variety of reasons, from Chandler signing in China during the lockout to Felton’s dissatisfaction with a bench role to Gallinari’s injury.

The bottom line is that Karl is viewing this trade through the lens of a coach, and any coach worth his or her salt wants to compete, not rebuild. It remains to be seen how Saunders deals with this roster once he gets them on the floor. It’s likely he’ll face a few moments where he would wish for a more seasoned team. But as a man with two different jobs, it is strangely to Saunders’ credit as a GM that he was so willing to make his other job harder.

Steve McPherson

Steve McPherson is an editor for Hardwood Paroxysm and his writing has appeared at Grantland, Rolling Stone, A Wolf Among Wolves, The Cauldron, TrueHoop, Complex, Narratively, Polygon and elsewhere. His Twitter handle is @steventurous.

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  • gagu

    A brilliant article! Saunders really proved himself well by sacrificing his upcoming record as a coach in order to strengthen the long-term future.

  • Frank North

    Steve, it’s a really great take. Mine is much simpler and probably just as accurate:

    he wanted to coach the Wolves and did not even get an interview. The bitterness of that situation is very obvious. Everyone else on the panel can see how this trade works. None of them would have wanted to trade Love, but in the end all of them would have made the exact same deal based on the situation Flip dealt with. Karl talks a good game but also notice, he does not throw out an actual option. Klay, Lee and Barnes were never a real option. Nor do I believe a better deal. Karl spewed a lot of vitriol over a perceived slight by the Wolves. But in the end which team would you take in three years. The Wolves team or what Denver has now.

    Doubt Karl picks the Nuggets, Not with a straight face….

  • mgrformgrs

    I got one question for Karl… if the risk of Wiggins getting hurt makes the trade bad for the Wolves, what does the risk of Love getting hurt do to the quality of the trade for the Cavs?