No One Turns Teams Around Like George Karl

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By Whitey Gleason
Special to CowbellKingdom.com

If Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive seriously expects to win more games this year than they did last, then it’s clear whom his next coach should be.  If the Kings’ embattled owner truly does hold out hope of his team making a run at a playoff spot, it’s obvious whom he needs to recruit.  The good news is, that man has already expressed interest in the job.   A quick crunching of the coaching numbers shows that no coach in league history has had a knack for immediately turning teams around as consistently as George Karl.

There are certainly many factors that contribute to a team’s improvement from one year to the next, and coaching is only one of them.  Karl, however, has coached five different teams over the course of 25 years, and each has improved its winning percentage in Karl’s first year.  Each of the five teams he’s coached has made the playoffs in his first season there, including three that had missed the postseason the previous year.   Consider:

In 1984-85, in his first season coaching in the NBA, Karl took the Cavaliers from 28 wins to 36 and a first-round playoff loss to the Celtics.  What’s most impressive here is that those Cavs overcame a hideous 2-19 start.

Karl took over the Warriors in 1986-87.  After winning 30 games the previous season, the Dubs improved to 42-40.  They were knocked out of the playoffs in the second round by the eventual champion Lakers, despite the best efforts of Sleepy Floyd.

It’s not easy for a team to turn things around under a brand new coach midway through the season, but that’s what the Seattle SuperSonics did in 1991-92.  The Sonics were listing at 20-20 when they brought in Karl. They, then, surged to a 27-15 mark the rest of the way and reached the second round of the playoffs.

It was on to Milwaukee for Karl for the 1999 lockout-shortened season.  The Bucks, who had gone 36-46 the previous year, responded with a 28-22 record and a first-round playoff series.

Karl most recently coached in Denver, where he was relieved of his duties after winning 2013 Coach of the Year honors. In his first season there, 2004-05, the Nuggets began 17-25 under Jeff Bzdelik and Michael Cooper.  Karl took over for the Nuggets’ final 40 games.  They won 32 of them, before exiting the playoffs in the first round.

The two seasons in which George Karl took over teams in mid-year could be especially relevant to the Kings’ situation for two reasons:  one, both teams enjoyed immediate improvement.  Secondly, in each case, there was a “buffer” coach between the coach who was fired and Karl’s first game.  With the Sonics in ’92, Bob Kloppenburg coached four games after K.C. Jones was fired. Then, Karl took over.  In 2005 with the Nuggets, Karl succeeded Michael Cooper, who held the seat for 14 games after Jeff Bzdelik’s dismissal.

Earlier this week, Karl spoke openly of his interest in the Kings job, while also stressing how important he felt it was to be patient and respectful of the coach who’d been fired.   Could Coach Karl simply be observing a grace period before readdressing the Kings’ situation publicly, or are the Kings simply more interested in other candidates?

Certainly George Karl is not the only NBA coach who’s turned teams around.  Pat Riley took the Lakers to a title in his first year, though one must consider that they’d also won it all two seasons prior.  Riley also coached the Knicks to a 12-game improvement in 1991-92, his first season there.  And the Heat were 10 games better under Riley in ’95-96, his first year after taking his talents (and hair products) to South Beach.

Lenny Wilkens oversaw one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in league history when he took over the 5-17 Sonics in 1977.  Under Wilkens, Seattle finished 42-18 and made it all the way to the NBA Finals.  Wilkens also coached the ’93-94 Hawks to 57 wins, 14 games better than they’d been under Bob Weiss the year before.

Riley and Wilkens are both Hall of Famers, as Karl himself certainly will be, as well, someday.   In fact, with 1,131 career wins, Karl has an outside shot at Don Nelson’s record 1,335 NBA regular season victories.   True, he’s yet to win an NBA title, and he’s overseen an infamous postseason collapse or two.  But his teams have been tough, entertaining (he used to play in the ABA!) and very competitive.

If the Kings really want to change the tide, they need to consider that no coach in league history has turned teams around like George Karl has.  And he’s ready to, in his words, “get back in the gym.”

Whitey Gleason has spent the last 20 years as a member of the Rise Guys, a Northern California sports radio team that currently resides on ESPN 1320 AM and airs weekdays from 2-6 p.m.

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