Making Sense of the George Karl and Masai Ujiri Departures From the Denver Nuggets

If you’re like me and Kenneth Faried, in recent weeks you’ve been wondering “WTF is going on with the Denver Nuggets?”

It’s not just you, me and Kenneth Faried. Here’s what George Karl had to say in an interview with the Denver Post: “I think it’s very stupid.”

By golly, George, you’re right. You just won Coach of the Year, guiding the Nuggets to 57 wins, a 38-3 record at home and the third seed in the loaded Western Conference. And if it hadn’t been for an ill-timed injury to Danilo Gallinari and Steph Curry going certifiably Beast Mode in the first round, you might still be coaching the Nuggets against the Miami Heat.

Josh Kroenke, George Karl and Masai Ujiri pose for Karl's Coach of the Year award. That was short-lived.

Josh Kroenke, George Karl and Masai Ujiri pose for Karl’s Coach of the Year award. That was short-lived.

Yet now George finds himself on the unemployment line, and has apparently met with the Grizzlies and the Clippers about their vacant positions. The ironic thing about those two teams is that they also made the playoffs, yet chose not to retain Lionel Hollins (he was interim) and Vinny Del Negro (because Chris Paul didn’t like him). Karl would be assuming the helm of a team where he would have similar potential to be let go even after having a great season.

I think that’s very stupid. When we talk George Karl, we talk about one of the best coaches in NBA history. In 25 seasons, he’s had three losing seasons. He hasn’t had a losing season since 1987. His career winning percentage is .599. He has consistently taken teams that were underachievers before he arrived (Denver, Seattle, Milwaukee) and transformed them into contenders.

The main gripe about him is that he’s never won a championship. He came close a few times. He took the Sonics to the Finals in 1996 with the team that featured the great NBA Jam combo of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, but let’s face it, that team was never going to beat you know who. The team he had in Denver with Carmelo and Chauncey gave the Lakers a serious run in the 2009 Western Finals, but that was when Kobe and Pau were in their primes. In the end, Karl has always unfortunately run into a freight train.

That’s not his fault, in my opinion. He has extracted the most of the talent that has been given him, and this season was no different. A Nuggets team that had no bona fide superstar featured six players with double digit scoring averages and led the league in awesome fast break dunks, utilizing their youth and athleticism to give other teams fits. In the end, without Galinari, they just didn’t have enough shooting to match Golden State.

Karl got fired for a few reasons. One, he wanted a contract extension that Nuggets president Josh Kroenke didn’t want to give him. I can understand that, because Karl is 62 and while he looks like he’s in pretty good shape, anyone still has the right to wonder about the fatigue factor at that age. Second, the Nuggets probably wanted him to play Javale McGee more. Karl only played him 18 mins a game last year, certainly not the minutes you’d expect a player making $11 million a year to get. I don’t blame him, though. McGee is dumb. Not in the slang sense, in the literal sense. I met a girl in grad school who said she went out on a date with him and he was the dumbest person she had ever met. There’s even a YouTube video to prove it:

How do you expect Karl to play him big minutes when you can’t trust him to not pull the kind of stuff he is in that video? Karl also made the point that McGee and Faried have such similar games that it doesn’t make much sense to play them together.

But what the firing also might come down to is the departure of Masai Ujiri. I ranked Ujiri No. 9 on my list of best general managers in sports list a few months back, and he went out and did me a solid by winning the NBA executive of the year. That’s right, the Nuggets are losing both the coach AND executive of the year in the same offseason.

In this case, Ujiri decided to jump ship and head for greener pastures in Toronto. Actually, that’s not true at all. It’s even colder there and the team sucks. From what it sounds like, Masai simply wanted to get paid to the tune of 5 years and $15 million, which Denver most likely would not have come close to matching. He also has a strong relationship with Bryan Colangelo, and might be wanting a new challenge. Those are the only explanations that I can offer, since Toronto is awful and basically the outpost of the NBA.

Ujiri bolting could have prompted Kroenke to get rid of Karl too because then he wouldn’t have to worry about him meshing with a new GM. Or he could have realized that this Nuggets ship had run its course already, and wisely wanted to make a move now while he had the chance. Andre Igoudala is not likely to resign, and Gallinari is going to be out until midseason with his knee injury. In other words, winning 57 games again is unlikely barring a huge step forward from Ty Lawson, Faried and McGee. And as I mentioned before, this Nuggets team does not have a superstar to get it over the hump against Oklahoma City, now or in the next ten years while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are in their primes. Kroenke might be weighing that question in his mind – am I content with 50 win seasons and first round playoff exits or do I take what I have now and head a new direction in search of a title?

It’s the toughest question for good-but-not-great teams in the NBA and it’s a unique one in professional sports because franchise basketball players are so few and far between, NBA contracts are guaranteed and chumps like Joe Johnson get max deals from teams desperately seeking that missing piece. Sure, the Nuggets could have kept Karl, try to resign Igoudala and then try to keep Lawson, Gallinari and Faried down the road. Where does that get them? More 50 win seasons and first round exits, but now with added financial strain. With the flexibility they have now, maybe they make a run at one of the free agents in 2014 that actually deserves a max deal and continue to use the draft to find a potential stud.

So George, while it might seem stupid now, it might be good for both you and the Nuggets down the road. Can’t wait to see you in Los Angeles.