George Karl is one of the greatest coaches in league history. Did you know that the last time George Karl had a losing record, Byron Scott was the Lakers' leading scorer (1987-88)? The man is well-liked, knowledgeable, and most importantly helps his team over-achieve, at least in the regular season. Unfortunately the playoffs have been another story.
In the post-season his results have been disappointing to say the least. Barring an historic comeback from their current 3-1 deficit in the series, his teams will have been eliminated in the first round in eight of the last nine seasons. Other than the impressive run to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, where the Nuggets were knocked out by our beloved title-winning Lakers, his teams have a record of 9-31 in post-season play.
Most of the playoff disappointments can be easily explained away as the Nuggets have generally been the underdog. However, this year was somewhat different. Sure the Lakers are a three-seed compared to the Nuggets being seeded sixth. Sure the Lakers beat them 3-1 in the regular season and have home court advantage. But as I outlined in my earlier post this week on the keys to series, the Nuggets are more evenly matched with the Lakers than most people realize. They finished only three games behind LA and had a better scoring margin. The 3-1 head-to-head record against the Lakers included three games decided by two possessions or less and all three were Lakers wins. Accuscore, a company that simulates games to assist with sports betting, had the Lakers' odds of winning at home against the Nuggets at 66% and the Nuggets' odds of winning at home against the Lakers at 66%. In other words, these two teams are essentially of equal quality and the Lakers' sole reason for being a favorite in the series is because four of the games will be played in LA.
That is why it is such a disappointment that the Nuggets season is expected to end tonight in a series that goes only five games. If it does, with all due respect to George Karl, this one is on the coach.
It is rare that I assign blame for a series on a coach. After all, this is a players league. But looking over some of the statistics for the line-ups that have been effective or disastrous and it quickly becomes evident that George Karl has mishandled rotations.
Here are a few of the more striking results that I found:
Game 1 & 2 Starters
In games 1 and 2, the Nuggets started Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and Kosta Koufos. This line-up has been a disaster for Karl. They have played 22 minutes and been outscored by 17 points (the equivalent of a 37-point loss in a 48 minute game). The main problem has been the offense which had an offensive rating of 77 points per 100 possessions. This probably isn't a big surprise since Koufos had the lowest offensive rating of any of their three centers this season and he doesn't possess the skills or athletic ability to score on Andrew Bynum.
Game 3 & 4 Starters
I have to give Karl some credit for waking up and realizing that playing Koufos was killing the Nuggets. He made the switch in games 3 and 4 to start Timofey Mozgov instead of Koufos. Unfortunately for Karl, there isn't much of a difference between Mozgov and Koufos. The Nuggets' starting unit with Mozgov has played 25 minutes together this series and has been outscored by 16 points (the 48 minute equivalent of a 31-point loss). Again the offense has been the primary issue as the Nuggets have had an offensive rating of only 85 with this line-up and similarly, Mozgov doesn't not possess the ability or athleticism to score on Bynum.
The Line-up Denver should start
The line-up that Karl, for reasons unknown, has avoided starting features JaVale McGee at the center spot. The line-up featuring McGee with the other four starters has played only 13 minutes but the statistics verify what my eyes have seen and that is the problems that JaVale McGee has caused the Lakers. He is long and athletic. He covers ground quickly, out-jumps any other player on the floor, and his enormous wing-span allows him to block and contest shots in a manner that Koufos and Mozgov can't even dream of. He hits the offensive glass hard and usually jumps high enough to finish over Bynum. The results: the Nuggets have an offensive rating of 118 and a defensive rating of 100 (over 10 points better than Mozgov and Koufos). With this line-up the Nuggets have beat the Lakers by the equivalent of 17 points per 48 minutes.
The Nuggets two-point guard line-up
The previous three line-ups all revolved around the starters with a different center. The other line-up that has been hugely successful for the Nuggets is when they go with a "two point guard back-court", playing Lawson and Andre Miller together. The Nuggets have used the two point guard line-up for nearly 67 minutes and have outscored the Lakers by 35 points. Perhaps even more interesting is that it didn't necessarily matter which center was on the floor like it did with the starters. The Nuggets outscored the Lakers with McGee, Mozgov, and even in the few minutes they went small with Faried in the middle. The Lakers seemingly have no answers for the Lawson-Miller combination.
Given the aforementioned observations, it is evident that the Nuggets have two things that work well for them, two point guard line-ups and JaVale McGee. The Nuggets have played 115 minutes with line-ups featuring one of those options and have outscored the Lakers by 31 points. The rest of the line-ups, which did not have two point guards or McGee, played 77 minutes and were outscored by 39 points.
It is pretty clear what has worked and what hasn't for the Nuggets. It must be even more frustrating for Nuggets fans then that the two worst options have been the units that Karl has started in each of the first four games. As a Lakers fan, I can only hope that George Karl doesn't figure it out (or read this post). With five of the six wins this season against the Nuggets being by two possessions or less, it wouldn't take much to swing a game in Denver's favor. If Karl makes the right adjustments, there is a good chance this series will still end in Los Angeles, but it won't be tonight.