Professional basketball is a strange, strange business.
The Denver Nuggets fired head coach George Karl today despite Karl leading the Nuggets to a franchise record 57 wins with a roster devoid of any true superstar talent. Karl won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award this season, his first such award in 25 years of coaching.
Though none of Karl’s teams have won an NBA title, his career winning percentage of .599 and his 1,887 career wins make him one of the best coaches of all-time. Per NBA.com stats guru John Schuhmann, in the 21 full seasons Karl coached, 18 of his teams finished in the top 10 in the league in offensive efficiency. That’s an incredible statistic that reflects how brilliant Karl is at building an offense.
Former Denver general manager Masai Ujiri is now running basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors and, with Karl looking for a contract extension with only one year remaining on his deal with the Nuggets, Denver ownership has decided to change course.
The most interesting aspect of this move is the seemingly “cursed” Coach of the Year award. In the last 10 years, only San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, and Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks are still coaching for the same team for which they won the honors (technically you could add 2008-09 winner Mike Brown, as he is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he was fired a year after winning the award).
- In 2004, Memphis coach and second-time award winner Hubie Brown retired due to health issues.
- Mike D’Antoni left the Phoenix Suns three seasons after winning the award, and his career has been tumultuous ever since.
- Avery Johnson won Coach of the Year and led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2006, only to lose to the Heat and be fired by Mark Cuban less than two years later.
- Sam Mitchell coached a surprising Toronto team to a 47-35 record in 2007, finishing with a first-round playoff exit. He was 41-41 the next season and 8-9 when he was fired early in 2008.
- Byron Scott led the New Orleans Hornets to a 56-26 record in 2008 and won Coach of the Year. He was fired nine games in to the 2009-10 season after starting 3-6.
- The aforementioned Mike Brown won the 2009 award, largely on the strength of LeBron James and some brilliant defensive schemes. Brown was unceremoniously dumped after the 2009-10 season as the Cavaliers tried to woo James into staying with the team. At least they had the good sense to hire Brown back a few seasons later.
You could even argue that Popovich, Thibodeau and Brooks haven’t totally escaped the curse. All three have had (relatively) disappointing playoff finishes in the last few years. Popovich, of course, also won the award in 2002-03 and has won three titles since, so perhaps he is immune.
For Karl, the future isn’t exactly clear, but with 11 (and possibly 12 pending the future of Memphis coach Lionel Hollins) head coach openings this offseason, this year’s Coach of the Year is expected to be roaming the sidelines for an NBA team again very soon (Clippers, anyone?). He’s survived cancer twice and a slew of firings throughout his coaching career, and I suspect he’ll weather this storm as well.