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Timberwolves Coaching Candidate: George Karl

Another in what may become a series of profiles on possible Timberwolves coaches. Unless I run out of energy or lose interest. Or the Wolves actually hire someone. Today we look at long time NBA coach George Karl, who most recently coached the division rival Denver Nuggets.


Last week we wrote about Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo.

Now up: Long time NBA coach George Karl.

Career Record: 1131-756 in 25 NBA seasons with five teams: The Cavaliers, Warriors, Sonics, Bucks, and Nuggets. 80-105 post-season record.  Karl also coached in the Continental Basketball Association and spent two years coaching Real Madrid in the Spanish League.

Accomplishments: Karl has reached the post-season in 22 of his 25 years coaching in the NBA. He's won eight division titles, and reached one NBA Finals (with the 1995-96 Seattle Super Sonics).  His 1131 wins is 6th all time in NBA history. He has something of a successful coaching tree, with guys like Terry Stotts, Scotty Brooks, Mike Woodson, Nate McMillan and Dwayne Casey all having played or coached for him.

Karl is the definition of a coaching lifer. He played at North Carolina under Dean Smith, who he acknowledges as his biggest coaching influence, and played professionally for a few seasons before transitioning to coaching in 1980. He has been coaching basketball at some level ever since.

Coaching Style: Karl is associated with an uptempo style of play that relies on pressure defense to force turnovers and quick shots by opponents to allow his teams to get out and run. In truth, it was only his Denver teams that consistently played at a high pace.  Prior to that, he had teams all over the map in terms of pace, though he's never coached an excessively slow team.  His Seattle teams varied from middle of the pack to high paced, and his Milwaukee teams were (by necessity) not particularly fast. In Denver, with the altitude, he ran a fast paced team every year.

Karl has won with a variety of different kinds of teams--ferocious defensive teams in Seattle, perimeter offensive squads in Milwaukee, running teams in Denver. He's won with a big scoring star--Carmelo Anthony in Denver, and with a more balanced approach. His teams have consistently forced a lot of opponent turnovers--his Seattle and Denver teams in particular, though even with a more defensively challenged roster in Milwaukee he had some good turnover teams. That fits in with what the Wolves already do well defensively, as they were 6th in the league in opponent turnover percentage this season.

Offensively, his style has varied based on his personnel, but it seems like he understood the value of the three pointer and free throws fairly early on. Some of his Seattle teams were at or near the top in both 3PA and FTA.  He didn't have free throw drawers in Milwaukee, but increased their reliance on the three pointer throughout his tenure there. In Denver, his teams regularly led the league in FTAs, and most years were at least in the top half of the league in 3PA.

Karl has always been perceived as someone who is honest with the media, shows his emotions, and acknowledges the human side of sports and coaching.  Here is a clip from his coach of the year presser and then the TNT guys talking about him afterwards:

Why Would He Be a Good Hire? Because he wins. Over 1100 lifetime NBA wins with a .600 winning percentage is pretty damn good.  He's the most experienced guy out there, knows how to run a basketball team, and could probably make good use of the roster as it's currently constructed. He's comfortable coaching up tempo teams, which the Wolves are, and has experience with teams that do similar things well, like get to the foul line and force turnovers.  He seems capable of making use of the available talent--Ricky Rubio in the open floor, aggressiveness on the offensive glass from the bigs.

It would also signal that the Wolves are serious about winning.  Karl is not a coach that has to grow into the job, he's been doing this forever. It would be an aggressive move to get the team to the next level as quickly as possible, and it might have a positive effect on possible acquisitions.  Finally, according to Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer loves the guy.  More on that in the negatives section.

Why Would it be a Mistake? Karl is 63 years old, and it isn't clear how much energy he has for the job at this point. We saw with Rick Adelman that older coaches who know they are on their last go around sometimes check out a little bit. Even Ricky Rubio admitted as much in his recent Spanish television interview, suggesting that Adelman didn't give it his all during this final season. There is always concern that older coaches might view this as a chance to get paid one final contract while not completely investing in the job.

Tactically, like any coach, there are things to nitpick.  Corey Brewer loves the guy...well, he had Corey Brewer shooting more three pointers then any other coach in his career, which is not a good thing.  There were complaints in Denver that he didn't play the young guys enough, though who specifically they were referring to other than Javale McGee isn't clear. Kenneth Faried started 80 games and played 2200 minutes under Karl in his second season; he actually played slightly less this year under Brian Shaw.  Ty Lawson was in the rotation as a rookie and played over 2000 minutes his second year under Karl.

Finally, Karl has not been successful in the playoffs, losing 14 first round series, and making only one NBA Finals.  He made the playoffs all nine seasons he finished with Denver, and made it out of the first round only once.  Truthfully, at this point, I don't care much about his playoff record. Get us there.  Worry about the rest later.

What Do I Think, You Ask? If they are committed to hiring an experienced head coach, George Karl is probably my first choice.  Rumor has it that Stan Van Gundy wants complete control of basketball decisions, which is why his negotiations with Golden State appear to be falling apart.  He certainly wouldn't get that here, with Flip Saunders running things.  Karl has been a very, very successful coach in several places with different personnel and different styles.  The last time he had a losing record as a head coach in the NBA was in 1988.  I'll take my chances with that.

Will He Take the Job? Maybe a 40% chance.  He has gone on the record that he would like to get back into coaching, and expects to talk to teams.  However, his comments were made in context of the Lakers job, which I think is one he's more interested in.  He and Mitch Kupchak were college teammates at North Carolina, so there is a connection there, though what that means in terms of the job, who knows?  I suspect that if the Lakers don't hire him, he would seriously consider other jobs, including the Wolves, but it's a wait and see at the moment.  As far as I can tell, there has been no contact between Karl and the Wolves.