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Merilatt: George Karl is a conundrum

He’s considered by some to be one of the team’s greatest assets. By others, he’s thought of as the franchise’s top hindrance.

When debating about George Karl, it’s impossible not to think of a line delivered by Joe Pesci in the movie JFK.

“It’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

The topic is fascinating, aggravating, divisive and polarizing. It’s interesting, thought-provoking, controversial and repetitive.

In short, Karl is a conundrum. He’s arguably the greatest coach in franchise history, yet there’s a growing number of fans who want to run him out of town.

During his nine seasons with the Nuggets, Karl has guided Denver to a 401-254 record, an impressive .612 winning percentage. By comparison, Doug Moe, a guy who is revered in the Mile High City, was 432-357 (.548) as Denver’s head coach. Moe got his “432” retired into the rafters at Pepsi Center, while Karl gets constant grief from the fans.

Which begs a very simple question: Why?

On one hand, Nuggets fans should be thrilled with Karl’s performance. His teams flirt with 50 victories every season, play an entertaining brand of basketball and always make the playoffs. There are certainly worse fates, just ask the fans in Charlotte, Minnesota or other forgotten NBA outposts.

On the other, Denver has turned into a broken record. They get into the playoffs every season, but fail to get a high enough seed to make a serious run, and then are bounced early from the postseason. Eight times, fans have seen Karl lead the Nuggets to the playoffs; seven times, they’ve watched his team lose in the first round.

And this year, the feeling is that Denver is a crash course with the exact same fate. At 35-22 heading into tonight’s game against the Lakers, the Nuggets are currently the fifth seed in the Western Conference. So if the playoffs started today, Karl’s team wouldn’t have home-court advantage in the first round and would be an underdog to advance.

Defenders of Karl will point out that the Nuggets are 13 games above .500 this season, despite the fact that they don’t have a star player in star-driven league. It’s a fair point, except that totally discounts the fact that Denver’s current roster is exactly the type of team Karl wants to coach.

After dealing with Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin and a host of other head-strong players, the Nuggets head coach openly lobbied for a squad of team-first guys. He didn’t want prima donnas who took nights off; he wanted a workman-like group who brought it every single night.

The problem is that Karl hasn’t been able to get that type of performance out of his group of B-listers. The theory isn’t working.

This season, the Nuggets have already lost four times to teams 19-plus games under .500, including twice to the lowly Washington Wizards, and more than one-third of their defeats have come to teams eight-plus games below the breakeven point. They’d easily be the four seed, if not higher, without those missteps.

This disturbing trend has been going on for years. In Melo’s final full season in Denver, the Nuggets lost nine times to teams 10-plus games under .500; they finished four games behind the Lakers for the No. 1 seed in the West.

There’s been only one common denominator during this time: Karl. His teams consistently play down to the level of their opponents, losing games they shouldn’t and giving up playoff seeding in the process. Is that all on the coach? Of course not. But when the roster has been completely turned over and nothing changes, it’s certainly difficult to pin it all on the players, as well.

Effort isn’t the only area where the current team struggles at times. Execution is another weak point, continuing yet another alarming pattern under Karl.

When Anthony was the Nuggets centerpiece, the team’s inability to play well in the half-court set was blamed on their star forward. He held the ball too long, stopped ball movement and took his teammates out of the flow. As a result, a Melo-led team couldn’t win in the playoffs, when the game slowed down, because he wasn’t good enough to carry them in those types of situations.

Fast forward two years and Denver suffers from the exact same problems. They still can’t get open looks when playing at a slower pace. They can’t set picks. They can’t run an inbounds play. The list goes on and on. Despite having a totally different cast of characters, the late-game plotlines for Nuggets games read the same as always: They struggle to execute.

Again, this isn’t 100 percent on coaching. After all, the players are the ones on the floor; they have to perform. But it’s hard to believe that Karl has simply been saddled with 30-plus players who refuse to set a proper screen, move without the ball or pass at the right time. At some point, a lack of offensive execution falls on the person charged with putting the plan in place.

George Karl has won 1,109 games as a head coach in the NBA, so he clearly knows what he’s doing. But there’s a growing contingent of Nuggets fans who are starting to think like Albert Einstein.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

And right now, that’s how every Denver game, and this season as a whole, feels to an increasing frustrated fan base. It’s an all-too familiar pattern.

All of which leads back to the conundrum.

In the past nine years, the Nuggets have overhauled their front office (twice) and completely turned over their roster (more than twice). Yet, they keep getting the same results.

More and more fingers are pointing directly at George Karl. But an equal number of people are defending the coach, explaining where the Nuggets would be without him.

A coaching change would be a feast-or-famine scenario. The right guy could perhaps get Denver over the hump, but the wrong one would send them into a tailspin that ends up in the NBA draft lottery.

Karl, meanwhile, is a known commodity with a consistent product. He’s 50 wins and a trip to the playoffs, with the hope that perhaps the next trip to the postseason will produce a better result.

Which path is the better one to take?

For the Nuggets, the answer is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.


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