There are many things I love about the NBA Playoffs, but few are more satisfying than the annual George Karl First Round Playoff Exit, and for two reasons: 1) watching NBA media members talk themselves into another Karl-coached team never stops being funny, and 2) I love tradition (think The Masters). Counting this season, Karl has coached his teams into the playoffs 22 times. Of those 22 trips, 14 ended in the first round.
Before the Karl apologists get their panties in a bunch, yes, I am well aware of the fact he’s made the conference finals four times (with three different franchises, no less), but those are anomalies, as you’ll soon find out. But, before we hop in the Way-Way Back Machine, let’s review his current tenure in Denver. Here are his first round performances, ranked from “totally excusable” to “oh great, here we go again”:
2005 (49-33), 2007 (45-37), 2008 (50-32): Either lost to an eventual champion (San Antonio Spurs: ’05, ’07) or a team that made the Finals (Los Angeles Lakers: ’08). Nothing wrong with that.
2011 (50-32): A 4-5 matchup with a surprising 55-27 Oklahoma City Thunder that was just younger and hungrier. Also, Denver was recalibrating after the mid-season Carmelo trade. OKC also made the conference finals. Karl gets a pass here.
2012 (38-28): Managed to push the Lakers to the brink as a 6-seed in a lockout-shortened season, but the next round opponent was Oklahoma City. No winners here.
2006 (44-38): As a three-seed (by virtue of winning the Northwest Division), they at least had home court advantage over the “finally happy to be in the playoffs again” Los Angeles Clippers. On paper, the Clippers (47-35) were three games better than the Nuggets in the regular season. In the playoffs, they were also three games better (4-1). Funny how that works.
2010 (53-29): Even record with the Utah Jazz (53-29), but still had home court advantage. You already know where this is headed: they promptly went down 3-1, and eventually bowed out in six games.
Obviously, I’ve omitted two seasons. The first is 2008-09, when Karl actually pulled it together and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. But, it should be noted, it’s the only time he’s made it past the first round as a coach in the Mile High City. The second omission is this current season, which immediately grabbed a spot in the pantheon of George Karl First Round Coaching Failures:
Honorable Mention — 1997-98 Seattle SuperSonics (61-21, #2 seed):
Oh look, I’m already breaking my own rules (sue me), as the Sonics actually did make it out of the first round…barely. The Sonics were one of a handful of teams hovering around 60 wins from 1996-1998 (thanks, expansion!), yet still struggled to beat Minnesota in the first round.
How much of a struggle? The 7-seed Timberwolves were 45-37 and went up 2-1 out of the gate. The Sonics barely won Game 4, then managed to close out in Game 5. Why is this important? It was the second year in a row they’d gone the full five games as a 2-seed. I hope you’re sitting down: they went on to lose in the second round both years.
Speaking of which, the 61-21 Lakers, who featured Shaquille O’Neal and a young Kobe Bryant, were up next. The Sonics still had home court by virtue of a tiebreaker. It didn’t matter. They went out with a whimper (4-1), and the post-Kemp, pre-Fat Vin Baker Era was practically over before it began. It was also the death knell for Karl’s time in Seattle.
And I still blame Jim McIlvaine for 98.7% of this.
5. 2001-02 Milwaukee Bucks (41-41, missed playoffs):
*You’re not going to believe this, but there are no highlights on YouTube of this team*
Breaking the rules again, but only because a choke job of such epic proportions must be recognized. The Bucks were one game away from the 2001 NBA Finals, and returned every key player the following season (in a weak Eastern Conference, no less). So much for that. Milwaukee dropped to .500 and missed the playoffs entirely. 35-year-old Anthony Mason being the big off-season acquisition (literally and metaphorically) probably didn’t help.
4. 1996 NBA Finals (64-18, #1 seed):
(I promise this is the last time I mention a non-first round series.) You’re probably wondering “What??? The Sonics made the Finals!” Yes, they ran through two-time defending champion Houston like a buzz saw (4-0), and staved off Utah after Karl Malone choked away the Western Conference Finals on a few crunch time free throw misses. Alas, Nate McMillan, who would have challenged for All NBA Defensive First Teams throughout the ’90s if it wasn’t for Michael Jordan, was injured heading into the Finals. That put a crimp in Karl’s defensive game plan.
Also putting a crimp in the game plan: not putting Gary Payton (you know, the Defensive Player of the Year) on Jordan. The Bulls shot out to a 3-0 series lead, which led a pissed-off Payton to personally check Jordan for the remaining three games. Jordan was already mired in the worst Finals performance of his career, and things only got worse when Payton checked him.
I’m not saying the Sonics would have won that series, but with a healthy McMillan, or Payton at least checking Jordan from the opening tip, let’s just say things could have been a bit more interesting.
Okay, enough of the non-first round nonsense:
3. 2012-13 Denver Nuggets (57-25, #3 seed):
I’m not a fan of instant history and immediately declaring things as all-timers, but Thursday night can’t be ignored — especially considering this series very easily could have been a sweep. Whatever sympathy Denver had heading into the playoffs (thanks to Danilo Gallinari’s ACL injury) was quickly negated by David Lee going down early on. Denver barely won Game 1 at home (Old Man Miller!), then proceeded to drop the next three games (classic George Karl!).
Yes, Game 6 devolved into a a battle of ineptness, with both teams trying to give it away — but it marks the third time in four series’ (in Denver) that Karl has squandered home court advantage. Still, nothing comes close to the back-to-back turd burger Karl dropped in the 1994 and 1995 playoffs:
2. 1994-95 Seattle SuperSonics (57-25, #4 seed):
This marks the first (and only) time, as a sports fan, that I threw something at a wall out of frustration. I was eleven years old, and one year removed from the (obvious) #1 on this list. This was a 4-5 matchup, but the Sonics were nine games better than the Lakers (48-34). Shawn Kemp finally showed what he was capable of, averaging 25 and 12, but it was the Nick Van Exel Show. Over and over again.
Karl had no answer for a hot Van Exel (34 points in the final game), and a resounding 96-71 Game 1 win turned into a 3-1 series loss. Seriously. Nick Van fucking Exel.
1. 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics (63-19, #1 seed):
Oh boy, where to begin! Well, things started off nicely for the overall #1 seed. The Sonics went up 2-0 at home…and then fzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzttttttttttttt…sorry, just had a seizure…okay, I’m back. Now, where was I? Oh, there was the time Ricky Pierce and Gary Payton drew guns on each other (or, at least threatened to). There was also the time Shawn Kemp could have hit a couple of free throws to ice the series before going to overtime in Game 4.
Also, this was a better team than the one that had pushed the Phoenix Suns to Game 7 in the 1993 Western Conference Finals (before David Stern said “okay, we can’t actually have the Sonics make the Finals”, followed by Dick Bavetta, Ed Rush and Mike Mathis awarding the Suns 64 free throw attempts). Yes, you read that correctly: 64 free throws. (They made 57 of them, if you must know.)
Including the 1994 Sonics, there are four legitimate examples of an eighth seed beating a top seed (I’m not counting Philadelphia beating Chicago in 2012) — 1999 Knicks, 2007 Warriors, 2011 Grizzlies — but at least the other three involved either an all-bets-are-off lockout season, or matchup nightmares. 1994 was neither. It was an embarrassing implosion by an immature team, and a coach who couldn’t control the locker room.
Now, with a quarter century sample size of coaching ineptitude, is anyone surprised George Karl was in charge the first time an eighth seed beat a number one?