Lionel Hollins, the coach who led the Memphis Grizzlies to the team's best season ever, is looking for a new job. George Karl, the coach who led the Denver Nuggets to the team's best season ever and won the 2013 Coach of the Year award, was dismissed on Thursday. The Nuggets had a disappointing finish, being upset by the Warriors in the playoffs. The Grizzlies made it to the conference finals; though they were swept once there, that was a major coup.
Of course, both situations are complicated. For Hollins, he's dealing with brand new ownership and a management team with a distinct philosophy that truly doesn't match up with that of the coach. Hollins groused about the use of advanced metrics (something near and dear to management's heart) and slyly accused the new owner, Robert Pera, of pinching pennies in response to the Rudy Gay trade. After things went south in contract negotiations -- Hollins' contract was up this year -- he went on the radio and lit any national sympathy he had by dissing his top assistant coach, heir apparent Dave Joerger.
Karl's situation is very different. He was under contract for next season. The Kroenke family has owned the Nuggets for 13 years; Stan, the father of current managing partner Josh, hired Karl in 2005. Karl has been the longest-tenured coach in franchise history, and its most successful. The team has made the postseason every year since he's arrived, though Denver has only advanced beyond the first round once. And, let's not forget, he took over after some pretty bad years. Here's that evidence in chart form.
That "spike" to .500 before Karl's arrival was the selection of Carmelo Anthony at No. 3 in the 2003 NBA Draft, which led to a 43-39 team in 2003-04. But Jeff Bzdelik and Michael Cooper couldn't get next year's edition above .500 before being let go; Karl did it repeatedly, and then did it with the post-Melo teams. Frankly, it's similar to Hollins' story in Memphis: a number of awful seasons, a rise, a trade and a rise that kept going. But Hollins had only a few months after his major trade (Gay), and loudly repudiated it. Karl always seemed on board with losing Anthony, and had a couple of years to show why.
That's what makes the Karl dismissal so bizarre: he was totally on board with the current, highly successful direction of the club. When the Nuggets were deciding whether to match the contract offer the Raptors made for Masai Ujiri, I argued that teams are overly sensitive to costs from coaches and general managers. Toronto's massive offer to Ujiri (the 2013 NBA Executive of the Year, as awarded by his peers) was $3 million per year. That's the same annual salary that Timofey Mozgov pulled down this year. And once you consider that the Nuggets may end up paying a new general manager $1 million, the savings are minuscule in the grand scheme.
With Karl, his contract expired at the conclusion of 2013-14. He wanted an extension; Josh Kroenke didn't want to give it. So instead of rolling with a lame duck Karl in 2013-14, they canned him and will try to get someone else. Here's the thing: a Karl extension probably would have gone through 2016 or so. Any coach worth his salt coming in will look for a three-year guaranteed deal, which is basically the league norm right now. So the new coach will be in line to get paid through 2016. With Karl, you knew what you were getting and you knew he could work with this roster. With a new coach, even if it's a guy like Hollins or Brian Shaw, there's some real uncertainty. In either case, you're on the hook for a few years.
Hollins was highly successful in Memphis but vocally disagreed with the team's direction and was due for a new deal. That's bad for team culture and uncomfortable for the new management, sure. But breaking up the relationship shows a real lack in faith by that new management that Hollins knew what the heck he was doing. Given his success, that doubt could, if Memphis isn't raring to go in November, poison the team culture just as much as keeping Hollins would have.
The Nuggets let their award-winning GM walk away over money and dismissed their award-winning coach over money. That's just plain foolish, and could obviously have serious impacts on the team culture. What's more is that assistant GM Pete D'Alessandro, who may be in line to take over for Ujiri, is on the Sacramento Kings' interview list if Denver gives permission. If you're D'Alessandro, do you want to stick with a team that just proved it won't spend Mozgov Money on an Executive of the Year, or head over to a club with new owners looking to spend cash?
The situations in Memphis and Denver are both bad. But the Grizzlies' issue stems primarily from circumstances and, cliché as it may sound, philosophical differences. The Nuggets' issue stems from incredible short-sighted cheapness. It's an unforced turnover, and it could very well come back to haunt Denver.