We're now 15 days into this NBA morality play. Fifteen days of Thunder-Nuggets.
Kendrick Perkins and Nene going nose-to-nose. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combining for 167 points in three games. Scotty Brooks being called cocky. The NBA saying, yep, Denver, you got screwed.
Enough days and enough ballgames to know what this series is all about. The Thunder has the better team. The Nuggets have the better coach.
No offense to Foreman Scotty, but Denver's chances hinge on how far George Karl can take them. How far this basketball lifer, who looks half Bluebeard, half conehead, can prod his Nuggets.
First, Phil Jackson. Now, Karl. NBA legends both. One of these playoff series, Brooks is going to get to coach against someone his own size, though if Brooks survives Karl, Gregg Popovich likely awaits.
Karl's Nuggets trail the series 1-0 heading into Game 2 Wednesday night, but count him out at your own risk.
Karl came back from two bouts with cancer. Came back twice from coaching in the Continental Basketball Association. Comes back time and again when his rebellious coaching attitude is counted out.
“I've always been a little bit of an out-of-the-box thinker,” Karl said Tuesday, after his Nuggets practiced downtown.
You have to have a dominant center to win a title? Why? Jordan's Bulls didn't.
You have to have two or preferably three stars to win a title? Why? The Pistons didn't.
Karl loves trying to disprove convention.
Which is how he got to 1,036 NBA coaching victories, seventh-most ever. Which is how he got three franchises to conference finals.
Which is how he has the Nuggets in a tug-o'-war with the Thunder even though Denver traded Carmelo Anthony in February and was declared dead to NBA contention.
“Every year you have a different hand,” Karl said.
“Sometimes you have a young team, sometimes you have an old team. A challenged team, a troubled team, a dysfunctional team.
“Figuring those things out is the fun part of the regular season.”
Karl has been an Oklahoma City adversary before. And not just in the Hornet and Thunder era.
Twenty years ago, Karl coached the Albany Patroons in the mighty CBA. Even was a three-time CBA coach of the year, with the Montana Golden Nuggets and the Patroons. He was mentioned at one point as a candidate for the Oklahoma City Cavalry.
OKC probably couldn't afford him. The CBA had a coaching salary cap back in those days, $50,000, which Karl now admits was fudged in Albany, a confession he might want to remember the next time he clamors about an unenforced goaltending rule.
“The CBA was fun,” Karl said. “That was a great teacher on how to coach. You grow up very quickly. You don't make as much money (as in the NBA), and they fire you, too.”
Karl grew up in Pennsylvania, went to the University of North Carolina and played point guard for Dean Smith. Now he's the most ardent of Tar Heels.
Both Nugget point guards (Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton) are Tar Heels. Karl can tell you how many Duke players ever have won an NBA title (two, Danny Ferry and Jeff Mullins; you'll lose count on the number of Tar Heels). And despite 38 years in pro basketball, Karl's roots remain tied to Tobacco Road.
“He's an old-school guy in a sense ... his upbringing, the Carolina way,” said Nugget broadcaster Scott Hastings, who played 11 NBA seasons. “Play hard, play smart, play tough.”
Karl calls his time at Carolina the best years of his life and the UNC basketball brotherhood the greatest fraternity in sports.
“We love coach Smith, coach (Bill) Guthridge, coach (Roy) Williams,” Karl said. “We're dedicated to the tradition of the Tar Heels.”
But Karl didn't become an iconoclast from Dean Smith. Don Nelson is more like it.
Nelson, the NBA's all-time victory leader among coaches, befriended Karl decades ago, and now Karl has assumed the mantle of the league's most unorthodox coach.
“I liked how he went from a defensive team in Milwaukee to when the spacing game came in, he became a specialist in scoring,” Karl said.
So now Karl is unafraid to play a 6-foot-6 forward over a 6-10 center, or play two little point guards. Unafraid to make superior opponents work for their victory.
Karl is never mentioned with the Jacksons and the Popoviches. Karl still chases that NBA championship; he's only coached one NBA Finals team, Seattle in 1996, when the Sonics lost to Jordan.
But Karl also coached the 2001 Bucks to the conference finals, with Scott Williams and Mark Pope platooning in the pivot. Coached Denver's pirate ship of Carmelo, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and Birdman to the 2009 conference finals. Has coached these written-off Nuggets to the playoffs, where nothing will come easy for the Thunder.
“I can't deny that it bothers me that I haven't been able to win a title,” Karl said. “I don't know how many teams I've had that had the ability to win.
“I've delivered a product of excellence, delivered a product that basically overachieved.”
Karl's teams have won just 14 of 34 playoff series.
But beware. Twenty-two days shy of his 60th birthday, the guy who won ballgames in Great Falls, Mont., and Albany, N.Y., still knows how to win games in CBA cities, even if they've graduated to the NBA.
And he's still doing it in unconventional ways.
“He's been rejuvenated since the (Carmelo) trade,” Hastings said.
Said Karl, “To get where we're at right now is tremendously exciting, playing a team that's the future of the NBA.”
And he said very clearly what he wants everyone to hear.
“We think we can beat this team.”
If Denver does, it can thank its coach.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
The George Karl file
Born: May 12, 1951, Pittsburgh
High school: Penn Hills, Pa.
College: North Carolina
Pro playing career: San Antonio Spurs 1973-78
Coaching career: San Antonio assistant (1978-80), Montana Golden Nuggets-CBA (1980-84), Cleveland Cavaliers 1984-86, Golden State Warriors 1986-88, Albany Patroons-CBA (1988-89, 1990-91), Real Madrid-Spain (1989-90), Seattle SuperSonics 1991-98, Milwaukee Bucks 1998-03, Denver Nuggets 2004-present.
NBA Victory Leaders
1. Don Nelson 1,335
2. Lenny Wilkens 1,332
3. Jerry Sloan 1,221
4. Pat Riley 1,210
5. Phil Jackson 1,155
6. Larry Brown 1,098
7. George Karl 1,036
8. Rick Adelman 945
9. Bill Fitch 944
10. Red Auerbach 938