April 20, 2013
DENVER — George Karl sat in a chair in a lower hallway at Pepsi Center.
The Phoenix Suns were walking by, on their way to the visitors locker room.
"Hey, Ralph Sampson!" Karl shouted.
Sampson, a basketball hall of famer, is a coach with the Suns.
"I scouted Ralph Sampson when he was in high school,” Karl said later, under his breath, as if not to date himself. “I told our guys, ‘Yeah, we should keep an eye on him.’”
I describe that scene from last week simply to serve as a reminder of how much Karl has witnessed in the game. Yet three decades of players and games and trades and five NBA coaching jobs later, Karl entered these playoffs Saturday on a mission:
The Nuggets coach is trying to prove the NBA wrong.
Denver is good enough to win the Western Conference. But these playoffs are more than that. These playoffs are a chance for Karl to prove that his style of play — with its emphasis of team over star — can win big on the big stage.
These playoffs are a test of Karl's basketball philosophy. This is personal.
"Playoff basketball is the best basketball in the world," Karl said in the hallway. "It’s the most intense basketball in the world. It’s the most talented basketball in the world.
“But I don’t want to go away from how we play.”
They say it can’t be done, that an NBA team can’t win big without a superstar, that a “track team,” as Kobe Bryant described the Nuggets, can't succeed in the playoffs.
To that suggestion, Karl rolls his eyes. I've watched him roll his eyes a lot, usually at media who question whether this unusual blueprint can win big.
He’s never had a better chance, a roster more perfectly built, to prove his philosophy can win on the highest level.
With uber-scorer Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets were two wins from the 2009 NBA Finals.
“I think the street likes this team. I think they like watching it," Karl said. "I think most people compare it to the team that went to the conference finals, which wasn't fun to watch."
I would disagree, but the point is made: For better or worse, these Nuggets are the antithesis of Melo's Nuggets. Instead of leaning on a single player, they rely on all of them.
"Our philosophy ... is we want to get a top-10 player at every position and have a top-five bench. I think that’s kind of where we are (now)."
One thing about these Nuggets continues to flummox me: Why are they not a bigger story on the national scene?
For all the critics who say basketball is going the wrong way, the Nuggets play the right way.
NBA detractors contend the league is void of fundamentals, that it's all about dunks and "SportsCenter" highlights. But watch how the Nuggets, who led the NBA in dunks, usually achieve that dunk — with the extra pass, the perfect display of unselfish basketball.
With the Nuggets, ESPN had an opportunity to showcase a team that played as one.
Instead, the network showcased the Lakers.
"The energy that drama drains off your basketball team causes negative performance," Karl said.
To win 57 NBA games, a Nuggets record, Karl had to conquer the near-impossible: The coach removed ego from an NBA locker room.
"I think this team has made the coaching side of it fun,” Karl said. “And the management side of it — even though we still have to manage — we don’t have a lot of it.”
Really, the Nuggets faced public drama only once, when Andre Miller told The Gazette he wanted more minutes. And if Andre Miller is your problem, you don’t have a problem.
"I think the word probably is 'appreciation,'" Karl said. “I think as a coach we appreciate a coachable team. I just don’t know how many coachable teams (there are in the NBA)."
As the coach in Seattle, Karl and longtime assistant Tim Grgurich would have a few beers after games.
“We would just complain,” Karl recalled. “I would say, ‘I just can’t stand Gary Payton.’ And Grg would just sit there and say, ‘Yeah, he was awful tonight.’
“The last thing he would say to me was, 'Coach, just remember. Tomorrow morning he’s ours. He’s ours, and we’ve got to coach him.’”
These millionaires still had to be coached. In practice the staff implored Quincy Miller, a rookie, to work harder. It stomached the occasional JaVale McGee moment.
But mostly, "I think all of our guys are committed to the team first and they worry about themselves second,” Karl said.
I joked with Karl this selfless team might have added 10 years to his coaching career, if not hair on his head.
"It's a pleasure to coach. It really is."
Now, can these Nuggets win big in the NBA playoffs?
It is the ultimate test of Karl's basketball philosophy.
Paul Klee is the Denver sports columnist for The Gazette. Reach him via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@Klee_Gazette).