In a matter of hours or days, but surely sometime soon, Kings coach George Karl will tie Phil Jackson for fifth place in NBA career coaching victories.
The list of luminaries is small for a reason. This league chews up and spits out coaches by the dozens. Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkens, Jerry Sloan and Pat Riley endured and were inducted into the Hall of Fame because they changed with the times, held talented teams to the highest standards, demanded that even their superstars grab an oar or get out of the boat.
Ditto for Larry Brown (at No.6) and Gregg Popovich (No.7), who is separated from his good pal Nellie by a few hundred wins and, um, five titles. Another of his good friends, Karl, isn’t such great buddies with Jackson, but respects his former adversary and thinks the whole numbers game is sort of a joke.
“Phil has kicked my ass so often,” Karl said after practice Saturday, laughing, “it will be fun to be ahead of him in one thing I’ve done in my career. He has 11 rings and I have … none.”
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The two men collided in the 1995-96 NBA Finals, with Karl’s Seattle Sonics of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf and Nate McMillan losing in six games to Jackson’s 72-win Chicago Bulls featuring Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, John Salley and James Edwards.
Poor Phil, right? Not much talent there, right? While Karl transformed franchises in Milwaukee and Denver, taking his teams into the playoffs in 20 of 21 seasons prior to his Sacramento arrival, the Zen Master inherited the Lakers of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. And we all know what happened in the Western Conference finals in 2002. The refs. The (allegedly) spoiled room service burger. The blown opportunity here at home in Game 7. The bad taste that lingers.
Which brings up the Kings and Karl. No one who has survived two bouts of cancer complains about a common cold. This time of year, even cranky players can appear loveable. Yet here again are the Kings (12-17), promising at times, maddening almost as many times, and still hinting at an identity.
So let’s get out front with this before welcoming in the new year: Majority owner Vivek Ranadive hired Karl to sort out this mess, so let him sort out this mess. Silence is both emphatic and empowering.
This is an undeniably significant, historical season, and despite the revival of Rajon Rondo and the emergence of Omri Casspi, too little is known about these Kings. Are they worthy of a playoff chase or mere pretenders? Can they overcome the absence of an elite defender? Will crisp, willing ball movement ever be more than just a concept with this bunch?
Gay is an enigma, but his elegant, electrifying offense whips around like a weather vane. Darren Collison is only recovered from a serious abdominal injury. Ben McLemore’s skill set darts all over the board. Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein showed flashes, then got hurt. Marco Belinelli hits big shots when the ball moves and his teammates set screens, and when they don’t, he forces attempts and becomes a defensive liability. Kosta Koufos is a solid backup and physical interior presence.
Ultimately, of course, the Kings’ more immediate prospects rest with the enormously talented DeMarcus Cousins, a generous, teddy bear of a presence within the community, but a mercurial veteran who is still seeking the formula that translates statistics into victories. His conditioning struggles are of increasing concern, with his nagging injuries slowing him down, at times to a limp, and cramping the Kings fast-paced style. And in today’s NBA, the league waits for no man.
As Chris Webber reminded me during his recent visit to Sleep Train Arena for the TNT telecast of Kings-Knicks, he was 30 years old when he blew out his knee that fateful day in Dallas, effectively dooming his career.
Cousins is 25 and in his sixth season. He can disagree with offensive schemes and philosophies and conditioning routines until he becomes an old man. But this is why Karl is such an important piece to solving this Kings puzzle. He has coached All-Stars, All-League defenders, Hall of Famers. He has to feel free to raise his voice, to drop down the hammer.
“I think we are improving defensively and getting to know each other offensively,” he said, after the recent 2-2 road trip.
These next several weeks should be illuminating. The trade deadline always creates interesting dynamics. The conference is no longer the powerhouse of the league. There will be openings and opportunities, and one or more teams will surprise.
True, Karl’s next victory is only a number. But imagine if he passes Phil Jackson (ital) and (ital) leads the Kings back into the playoffs? That would be memorable, and long overdue.
Climbing the ladder
A look at where Kings coach George Karl stands among the winningest coaches in NBA history with 1,000 or more victories:
1. Don Nelson 1,335
2. Lenny Wilkens 1,332
3. Jerry Sloan 1,221
4. Pat Riley 1,210
5. Phil Jackson 1,640
6. George Karl 1,154
7. Larry Brown 1,098
8. Gregg Popovich 1,047
9. Rick Adelman 1,042