DENVER — Selfless and starless. These were the staples of the exhilarating Denver Nuggets’ NBA franchise-record 57-win regular season.
George Karl kept with that theme Wednesday, sharing the credit far and wide after being named the league’s Coach of the Year for the first time in his quarter century as an NBA head coach.
Karl thanked everyone from his middle school coach who got him into the game to his good friend, the late Rick Majerus, in an emotional news conference at the Pepsi Center.
He credited Nuggets players, assistant coaches, scouts, trainers, front office, ownership and support staff as he eyed the bronze Red Auerbach Trophy in front of him.
“What I hope is everybody understands this is not about me. It’s about a lot of people and a lot of people in my past and I am proud to have that trophy,” Karl said.
The trophy depicts the architect of the great Boston Celtics teams back in the fledgling days of the NBA, Auerbach sitting at one end of the bench with his trademark cigar in his right hand, a rolled up program in his left.
There’s a life-sized statue of it in Boston and Karl said he sat there once, imagining this very day.
“When I was told of the award about a week ago, it was a very humbling, emotional experience, because it made me think about my career,” Karl said. “… A lot of times I wanted to win it and never did win it and now I’ve gotten calloused to winning it. And now I win it because this was probably in my career the most ‘oneness’ of an organization, a basketball team, a coaching staff, a support staff, administrative staff.
“I get the award in my name but it is totally because of the ‘oneness’ that we brought to the table this season.”
Karl worked wonders with a lineup that lacked an All-Star, was beset by injuries to several starters and twisted its way through a brutal early-season schedule in which 22 of the team’s first 32 games were on the road.
Relying on an old-school, up-tempo offense and a deep bench that wore out opponents, especially at altitude, the Nuggets led the league in scoring, fast break production and points in the paint with nary a dominant scorer — Ty Lawson led Denver with 16.7 points a game, which ranked 31st in the league.
They went an NBA-best 38-3 at home, winning their last 23 games at the Pepsi Center in the regular season and going 24-4 overall after the All-Star break.
The third-seeded Nuggets sorely missed forward Danilo Gallinari (knee) in the playoffs, however, and they lost in six games to Stephen Curry and the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors.
That was their fourth straight first-round exit and the most disheartening in Karl’s 8½ seasons in Denver.
“It was an incredible season. That’s why the disappointment is so immense,” Karl said. “I wake up every morning depressed. I woke up about 6 o’clock, I was hoping for sunshine and I got rain and it didn’t make me feel very good, and then I said, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to put a suit and tie on. …”
“Hopefully, come next Oct. 1 … we’ll move on knowing that we have a great young basketball team that is growing, that got better this season, that improved at such a fast rate that we got maybe too cocky and too ahead of ourselves,” Karl said. “And the coaches fall into that category, too. None of us are happy with the result, but I think we’re also motivated by the challenge.”
Denver’s 57-25 record was the fourth-best in the league. Karl received 62 first-place votes, followed by Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat with 24 votes from a panel of sports writers and broadcasters. New York’s Mike Woodson finished third and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who won the award last season, was fourth. Karl had 404 votes overall, far outdistancing Spoelstra’s 190.
Karl is 1,131-756 in his 25 seasons as head coach and 80-105 in the playoffs. In his time in Denver, Karl is 423-257 in the regular season with three division titles and 21-39 in the playoffs. Karl’s 21 straight non-losing seasons tie Phil Jackson for the longest streak in league history.
Karl thanked Dean Smith, Bill Guthridge and John Latz at North Carolina, who gave him the coaching bug, high school teammates Donnie Wilson and Artie Barr, high school coach Dick Mizenhelter and the man who introduced him to the game in middle school, Roger Brobst.
“My friends in the fraternity of coaching have been a blessing,” Karl said. “It’s been a gift, it’s been an honor to be a part of it and now I have for a year to stand and be representative of the greatness of great coaches in the NBA.
“We are in a stage now where a lot of coaches are going to be fired — and some of you want me fired — but the truth of the matter is there’s not very much bad coaching in the NBA, there are some bad situations that don’t work. But from the head coaches to the assistant coaches to the scouts, there are so many talented people that help every organization do their job at a high level. But unfortunately, half of us lose every night.”
Karl choked back tears when he mentioned Majerus, the former standout college coach who died of heart failure in December.
“I miss him a lot,” Karl said. “And he’s a college coach and I’m a pro coach and we had more arguments than agreements in my lifetime. But I learned so much about coaching because of his love for the game and his love for me.”
Karl then turned to his partner, Kim Van Deraa, the mother of their 8-year-old daughter.
“And then so much of coaching is you cheat your family, and I wanted Kim to be here and my daughter, Kaci, because I know I’m cheating them. And I thank everybody,” he said, choking back tears. “OK, I’ll get caught up now. But all I’m trying to say is friends and family are so, so important in what I’ve become and in what I am. And without them you cannot be successful.”
A two-time cancer survivor, Karl changed his coaching style after returning from throat cancer in 2010. He delegated more duties at practice, relying on his assistant coaches to do much of the teaching.
“Before cancer, I was much more dominant and now I’m much more, for lack of a better phrase, democratic,” said Karl, who also beat prostate cancer several years ago.
“I’ve always thought that head coaches were too dominant and I think the balance that I brought was maybe the cancer said I don’t have the energy to do what I did in the past,” Karl said. “And I was aware that stress and unhealthy living creates cancerous situations and once you have cancer, you have more chances to have more cancerous situations. So, I wanted to be careful.”
In many ways, that shift was the wellspring of the unification Karl so credited on Wednesday when he won this long elusive award.
“There’s 15 guys in that locker room, I get to talk to maybe three or four of them every day. So, my staff has to take care of at least seven or eight more guys,” Karl said.
“It’s not about one person doing it well; it’s about how well all of us do it as one.”