Should the Grizzlies hire Coach Karl? The argument for doing so may be this simple: he's a Hall of Fame Coach. Typically, if you have the chance to get a Hall-of-Fame-Anything, there better be overwhelming evidence to think twice. The last 21 teams Coach Karl has coached have had non-losing records. The last time he had a losing season was in the late 1980's. I was seven years old.
But the above does not complete Coach Karl's resume. Let's take a look a little deeper.
Not a playoff coach - Though he has made the conference finals once with the last 3 teams he has coached (and the NBA finals with the Payton/Kemp Sonics), Coach Karl has the reputation of being a bad playoff coach. Being the first head coach to be upset as a 1 seed in the first round has that effect. Criticism of Coach Karl's postseason track record seems to take the form of either "he doesn't adjust well" or "he's a good regular season coach, but not a playoff coach." While the first criticism is fair (footnote: adjustments are either labeled as "genius" or "hair-brained" depending entirely on the scoreboard, rather than the thought process), the second is a bit of a non-sequitor. After all, winning in the playoffs is hard! Coach Karl has struggled in the playoffs, without a doubt. But that is true of almost every coach in the league.
Coach Karl's postseason record is 80-105, 25 games under .500. If that were his regular season record, he wouldn't be headed to the Hall of Fame. In contrast, Coach Rick Adelman's record is 79-78, 1 game over. Coach Karl has made it to 3 conference finals and 1 NBA finals. Coach Adelman has made it to the NBA Finals twice, and the conference finals twice (footnote: 3 of these appearances occurred from 1989 - 1992 or, in other words, before Tony Wroten was born). Who is the better playoff coach? Probably Rick Adelman. But not by "that" much. After all, shouldn't Coach Karl get some credit for making the playoffs 6 more times?
I feel some of this criticism is undeserved. Though his teams have been bounced frequently in the first round, many times that has happened as the lower seed. Obviously, recent history does Coach Karl no favors. This year's 57 win Nuggets team was upset as a 3 seed to a Stephen Curry led Warriors team. (Footnote: I believe Stephen Curry is still hitting 3's over Denver defenders).
Coach Karl definitely deserves some blame for losing that series - he had the better team, and home court advantage. He yanked around his starting lineups once he got down in the series, but that is an easy thing for sportswriters to rip or praise based on the results. The truth is this Nuggets team's strengths were built for the regular season. Their deep and athletic roster is tailored to playing at altitude. Playing a mile high is difficult when an opponent flies in late the night before. Less so when you've been settled in for even a day or two. Take away Danilo Galinari's floor spacing (more on this later), and Kenneth Faried for Game 1, and the series becomes a heck of a lot closer. I'd be scrambling for a Plan B too if I had lost a starter only a week before the playoffs.
Ultimately though, I think it is fair to say that Coach Karl is a better regular season coach than playoff coach. That is true of most coaches, even the successful ones. Should it be a detriment to hiring him? Probably not.
"Run ‘n Gun," Not "Grit ‘n Grind" - One common argument against Coach Karl that I've heard quite a bit is that the Grizzlies roster doesn't fit his "system." While it is correct that Coach Karl teams are generally not defensive minded, it would be a mistake to think that he coaches a system predicated on athleticism and fast breaks. His Denver teams have played at a breakneck pace since he arrived in '04-'05 - top five in possessions per game (pace) every year. But this is a product of having athletic rosters that smartly take advantage of Denver's altitude.
While in Milwaukee, Coach Karl's teams played much slower - ranking 22nd, 16th, 10th, 17th, and 19th in pace - despite being perimeter dominated teams. While in Seattle, Coach Karl's teams did finish top 5 in pace twice, but otherwise played about a league average pace. This is still much faster than the walk-it-up Grizzlies, but a far cry from Mike D'Antoni's "7 Seconds or Less" too. But if Coach Karl isn't a Run and Gun coach, then what is he?
Offensive Genius - Equally as impressive as Karl's win streak is his offensive track record. Based on points scored per 100 possessions, he has coached a league average offense only twice - his first 2 years in Denver. Every other team has been top ten, with most being top 5. For 21 years.
Coach Karl crafts, almost always, elite offensive teams.
His teams almost always feature big men that shoot 3's. Whether it be Sam Perkins ("Big Smooth," for those that remember), Tim Thomas, or Danilo Gallinari (footnote: other gentleman that have attempted over 145 3's for Coach Karl include Detlef Schrempf, Eduardo Najera, and the "I did not know you existed" Yakhouba Diawara ) the spacing that comes with a big man that can shoot is paramount to Coach Karl's offense. A question worth pondering: if Coach Karl is the next Grizzlies coach, what could that mean for Zach Randolph?
Interestingly, though Coach Karl's teams have generally been better on offense than defense, he has coached great defensive teams as well. Every year in Seattle, Coach Karl's teams boasted a top ten Offensive and Defensive Rating (Points Scored and Points Allowed per 100 possessions), including 3 years in the top 6. For reference, this year only Oklahoma City posted Offensive and Defensive ratings in the top 6. Those Seattle teams were awesome teams cursed to play during probably the most talented era in league history.
At odds with Management? - Almost immediately upon his departure, whispers crept out that Coach Karl was unwilling to play certain young players more, including Javale McGee and rookie Evan Fournier. Sound familiar?
I give Coach Karl a bit of a pass on this count, certainly more of a pass than I give Coach Hollins for similar transgressions. What's the difference? Denver's roster features almost no dead weight. 12th man Anthony Randolph is a former lottery pick. Jordan Hamilton is a former 1st round pick himself, whose shooting numbers are somewhat promising. There are only so many minutes to go around.
Clearly management is stating they would have rather seen a different plan for those minutes, but even this charge is a bit tenuous. Javale McGee played only about 400 fewer minutes than Kosta Koufos, which seems strange on the surface. Dig a little deeper and you will see that Denver outscored opponents by a whopping 19 points (by far the best mark on the Nuggets) when Kosta Koufos played. Koufos also was a better rebounder than McGee, (who rebounds at roughly the same rate as Jon Leuer, if you need a Grizzlies comparison).
Does this mean Koufos is a better player? Not by any means. It does mean that Koufos is no slouch, and deserved the playing time he got.
What does this all mean? - For starters, Coach Karl has coached some damn good players, and damn good teams. You don't achieve dominance in any season without being blessed with great talent. But look at the diversity. Karl went from coaching a powerhouse blessed with 2 superstars (Payton/Kemp), to a perimeter oriented team based around the best long range shooter the game has ever seen (Ray Allen). His early Nuggets teams were built around Carmelo isolation until the Nuggets traded Melo. Karl filled the void - on the fly in midseason - with the likes of Gallinari, Raymond Felton and Wilson Chandler. They never missed a beat on offense.
How would Coach Karl fit with the Grizzlies? Though he has never coached a player like Marc Gasol, it would be foolish to think he couldn't figure out a way to maximize Gasol's offensive repertoire. There is legitimate concern as to whether the Gasol/ZBo tandem would flourish under Coach Karl like it has these last three years under Coach Hollins. It is very possible that hiring Coach Karl would spell the end for Zach Randolph. But there is no reason to assume that Coach Karl couldn't adapt to a twin towers offense, if management held firm. The Grizzlies must add 3 point shooting, and it doesn't necessarily have to come from the power forward position. Remember, Coach Karl's teams are more often elite offensively than they are not. You don't achieve that without being flexible, coaching to your team's strengths, rather than bending them to your system.
The Grizzlies' defense would probably suffer some (especially if Coach Joerger moves on after being passed over for the head job), but probably not as much as the Grizzlies' offense would improve. The Grizzlies probably aren't turning into a near elite offensive team overnight, but a jump to slightly above average would mean quite a bit.
I began writing this article pretty confident that Dave Joerger is the best man for the job. I am less sure of that now. Coach Karl's offensive track record and, more importantly, the diversity of rosters with which he has achieved success, have nearly swayed me. Could he take the Grit and Grind of this roster, and add a dose of offense and floor spacing? If anyone can get it done, Coach Karl is the man.