DENVER (AP) — The starless Denver Nuggets just lost their biggest name on the bench.
George Karl was ousted Thursday less than a month after winning the NBA’s Coach of the Year award. His tenure with the Nuggets is over after 8½ seasons.
The longtime coach is following general manager Masai Ujiri out the door in Denver after Ujiri, the league’s executive of the year, recently left to become GM of the Toronto Raptors.
“So, we lost a GM now and a coach, what’s next?” tweeted Nuggets big man Kenneth Faried.
Karl had just a year left on his contract, which may have played a role in this decision. Calls and emails to Karl’s representatives were not returned Thursday.
But Karl did take to Twitter, posting on his certified account: “I want to thank Nuggets fans for their support over the past 8 yrs. The karma on the street was incredible. Denver will always be home.”
There are quite a few teams currently on the lookout for a new coach. The Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers also have head coaching vacancies and the Memphis Grizzlies have given coach Lionel Hollins permission to speak with other teams.
“George has been an instrumental part of our success over the past decade, and we appreciate everything he did to keep us among the top teams in the Western Conference,” team President Josh Kroenke said in a statement. “He is a Hall of Fame coach whose legacy in Denver will last for years to come. George is a legend in the game of basketball and I could not have more respect for him as a person and coach.”
His players shared that feeling.
“I had a great relationship with him and I was honored to be coached by him,” forward Danilo Gallinari told The Associated Press in an email. “Hopefully the management now will do smart choices.”
Karl guided the third-youngest team in the NBA to the third-best record in the Western Conference with a franchise-record 57 wins, but the Nuggets were bounced from the first round of the playoffs for the fourth straight season. The news of Karl parting ways was first reported by Yahoo! Sports.
Recently, reports have surfaced that the Clippers might be interested in talking to Karl about their vacancy. All this week, Karl was evasive when he showed up at the team’s facilities to watch potential draft picks work out for the Nuggets. Karl declined interview request after interview request as he made his way from the gym to his car.
Karl is the latest to pack up and leave the team. Last week, the Raptors lured away Ujiri, a rising star among the league’s front office ranks. Ujiri earned respect for his handling of the Carmelo Anthony trade to New York and his ability to assemble a relatively starless roster that still managed to be a formidable foe in the West.
Ujiri helped assemble Karl’s kind of team this season, one featuring a deep roster full of up-tempo and unselfish players. Only, the year ended in an all too familiar fashion for the Nuggets — another early exit.
The only time Denver advanced past the first round under Karl was when the team reached the Western Conference finals in 2009.
Karl did a masterful job this season with a lineup that had nary an All-Star, was riddled by injuries to several starters and wound its way through a grueling early-season schedule in which 22 of the team’s first 32 games were on the road.
His teams simply wore out opponents, especially in the thin air of the Mile High City, where they went an NBA-best 38-3 at home. The Nuggets won their last 23 games at the Pepsi Center in the regular season and went 24-4 overall after the All-Star break.
That’s why the Nuggets were a big favorite heading into the Golden State series to open the playoffs. But Denver sorely missed Gallinari (knee) and fell in six games to a Warriors squad that was led by the sharp-shooting Stephen Curry.
Still, his work in the regular season was recognized by the league as he received 62 first-place votes, followed by Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat with 24 votes, for Coach of the Year. It was the first time Karl had won the award in his career and he joined Doug Moe as the only Denver coaches to earn the honor.
The 62-year-old Karl kidded down the stretch that he’d rather not be Coach of the Year, only because of the track record of those coaches eventually being let go. He led the Nuggets to nine straight playoff appearances and a 423-257 mark in the regular season. Those 423 wins rank second in team history behind Moe (432).
A two-time cancer survivor, Karl changed his coaching style after returning from throat cancer in 2010. He delegated more duties at practice, relying on his assistant coaches to do much of the teaching.
In addition to Denver, he’s also had coaching stops in Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle and Milwaukee during his 25-year career. His 1,131 regular season wins are among the most in NBA history for a coach.