BOSTON — When the Boston Celtics hired Brad Stevens to be their coach last summer, a number of observers wondered aloud whether a college coach could succeed in the NBA. Accepted logic holds that most college concepts do not apply at the professional level.
George Karl’s response to that would be an adamant, why not?
Even among some of the most forward-thinking minds in sports on Friday, Karl was clearly a step ahead. Appearing on a panel at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the longtime coach brought up some ideas that were a bit out there by even his innovative standards. Only Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who was part of the same panel, seemed to share Karl’s frame of mind.
“I think there’s some things that work in college that can work in pro ball, but it takes guts to make it work,” Karl said. “There’s always the scrutiny and criticism if it’s not successful.”
And sometimes even when it is. Karl won the NBA Coach of the Year award last season after leading the Denver Nuggets to 57 wins. He was fired at the end of the season.
Yet regardless of Karl’s credentials — 1,131 career wins, 22 playoff appearances, one trip to the NBA Finals — it’s easy to see why teams might be scared away by him. His ideas for the game extend beyond upping the pace or employing gimmick defenses. At least he had a kindred spirit in Morey on stage with him Friday.
Some of the wilder proposals put forth by Karl and Morey:
Cutting two minutes from each quarter to make the game 40 minutes. “In the NBA, that eight minutes makes it so hard for a weaker team to sustain (what some people consider) gimmicks and tricks,” Karl said. “It’s powerful, I’ll tell you.”
Instituting a 4-point line. “You’ve got to get to the owners,” Morey said of rules changes generally. “There are a lot of committees that basketball folks are on, but they tend not to listen.”
Establishing an in-season, single-elimination tournament after the All-Star break and before the playoffs, including every team. The last team standing would get a title of some sort; then the traditional playoffs would begin with their regular format. (It should be noted that this idea came from Karl, who talked about it excitedly.) “A single-game elimination coaching philosophy is totally different from a seven-game series,” Karl said. “Seven-game series is a lot of a counteractive attitude, whereas in single elimination, if I’m playing a team I’m not supposed to beat, I could play a box-and-one or a triangle-and-two to generate more excitement.”
Just raising some thoughts does not equal endorsement, however. Morey didn’t endorse Karl’s tournament scheme and there is zero chance the NBA would, either. Still, they are thinking. Noted baseball statistician Bill James, who also sat on the panel, bemoaned the loss of such brainstorming in baseball.
If Karl and Morey sound a little out of their minds, consider how the Nuggets have done in Karl’s absence. One year after earning the third seed in the brutal Western Conference, the Nuggets are now 25-32, eight games out of the playoffs. Two of their better players are gone, with Andre Iguodala having left last offseason in free agency and Andre Miller being banished from the team after a run-in with new coach Brian Shaw.
In the blink of an eye, the Nuggets have gone from a fringe contender to a lottery team. Maybe Karl is crazy, but maybe more teams need a little bit of crazy. For the Nuggets, crazy clearly worked a lot better than the alternative.