George Karl is an NBA coaching construction supervisor. He builds things. He takes blueprints – players and schemes and theories – and puts them on paper, puts them together and transforms one losing franchise after another.
After all these years, after all these coaches, after all the failed experiments the past decade with the relatively inexperienced Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus, Kenny Natt, Keith Smart, Michael Malone, Tyrone Corbin and one unfortunate visit by Paul Westphal, the Kings finally got it right by coming to an agreement with Karl on Wednesday.
George Karl. Absolutely George Karl. With an official announcement pending and a formal news conference expected next week in Sacramento, his résumé speaks for itself, speaks for him. He is sixth in NBA coaching victories, guided his last three teams (Seattle, Milwaukee, Denver) to the playoffs in 18 of 19 years, and has not had a losing season since 1987-88.
But forget about the numbers for a moment. A more accomplished, capable and innovativecoachisn’t available. And, yes, he has the gravitas.
If the Kings front office had waited until the end of the season to make a change, the list of candidates would have included Alvin Gentry, Nate McMillan, Mark Jackson, plus current head coaches Tom Thibodeau (Bulls) and Scott Brooks (Thunder) if either were to become available. Yet Karl still would head the list.
The players are smart to zip their lips. The box scores contributed to this need. Any hint of a pulse would have tabled the coaching conversation and allowed Corbin to finish the season. Instead, since Michael Malone was dismissed Dec. 14, the Kings players have brooded, virtually daring management to make a move.
That 7-21 record under Corbin comes with an asterisk. He never had a chance; he wasn’t Michael Malone. But Malone’s future in Sacramento wasn’t long term, either. He privately fumed about the frequent phone calls and suggestions from majority owner Vivek Ranadive and had not been on speaking terms with general manager Pete D’Alessandro for several months.
Center DeMarcus Cousins’ absence due to viral meningitis, and the team’s 2-8 record during that stretch, accelerated Malone’s departure. And while management’s plan was to proceed cautiously, the team’s ongoing funk and an increasingly disgruntled fan base prompted officials to proceed more quickly.
So enter George Karl. This is not a safe hire. The special coaches in this league are never safe. They are hired to be fired and proceed accordingly, which is to say while owners control their coaches’ always tenuous job security, the coaches control their locker rooms, their philosophies, their lineups, their approaches. These special coaches are all sort of crazy and more than a little eccentric.
Karl, a Pittsburgh native, is well traveled. Along with stops in Cleveland, Oakland, Seattle, Milwaukee and Denver, Karl, 63, has coached in the minor leagues in Albany, N.Y., and in the pro leagues overseas. It was after former SuperSonics general manager Bob Whitsitt summoned him to Seattle that his career arc began its steady ascent. The only thing missing from the résumé is an NBA championship, though Karl took the Sonics of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp to the 1996 NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s Chicago Bulls.
His failure to win a title gnaws at his gut, but Karl loves the challenge of turning around bad teams, which is what brings him to Sacramento. Legacies often are determined by timing, talent and opportunity, and they don’t all read the same. Karl’s affinity for this community and the hardships of the past several years is no secret. A self-proclaimed “Seattle guy,” he spent time in Sacramento broadcasting games for ESPN and became a fierce advocate of the Kings during relocation talks two seasons ago. He also has long been intrigued with Cousins, the All-Star center who was particularly attached to Malone, and had solid relationships with Kings executives D’Alessandro, Mike Bratz and Dean Oliver during their time in Denver.
Karl will show up and do what he does: teach teams how to win.
He will woo Cousins effectively with his offensive creativity and brilliant basketball mind and take the fifth-year veteran to the next level; those gaudy individual stats eventually will translate into victories. Karl’s defensive plans will also provide structure where none exists. He is detailed, dynamic and demanding, and a stickler for ball and body movement.
And, yes, his one size doesn’t fit all.
While Karl got along with the volatile Payton and the erratic Kemp, he clashed with Ray Allen and was fired after a Coach of the Year season with Denver (2012-13) partly because he refused management’s insistence that he start highly paid center JaVale McGee. But he’s hardly the only coach to tussle with players. The respected Gregg Popovich dumped Dennis Rodman, Hedo Turkoglu and Richard Jefferson, and was no fan of Chris Webber. The highly regarded Larry Brown once insisted David Robinson was too distracted by outside interests to win an NBA championship.
It happens. Coaches are human, their bulging bank accounts notwithstanding. And Karl? A two-time cancer survivor who insists he is older, wiser, calmer, he is still never short of drama.
He has a presence with his stocky 6-foot-2 frame, but speaks softly after undergoing treatment for throat cancer. He allows everyone to peek into his moods, his passion, his intellect, his ambition. He is an everyman with an unconventional mien. The father of two grown children, including cancer survivor Coby, he also has a 10-year-daughter with Kim Van Deraa, a woman he describes as his “life companion.”
But the Kings and George Karl? The Kings and Cousins? The Kings need Karl. Cousins needs Karl. Fans overwhelmingly wanted Karl. If it doesn’t work out, no one will be tossing tomatoes at Ranadive or D’Alessandro. For this time and this town, this was the only play.
Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.
BEHIND KARL’S HIRING
George Karl, 63, has coached 25 seasons in the NBA. Assessing the pluses and minuses:
Why it works: Karl digs in and wins wherever he goes.
Why it might not: Karl is a demanding, dynamic, independent thinker.
Who is happy: Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive, general manager Pete D’Alessandro and fans.
Who might not be happy: Players who refuse to put forth an effort Karl will require.
And the Cousins factor: Kings center DeMarcus Cousins has never met George Karl. Give him time. He wants to win. This will work.