Thursday, May 21

George Karl: Hall of Famer?

While watching Tuesday’s agonizing Laker win against the Nuggets, I overheard an interesting comment from Jeff Van Gundy. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist of it was:

“A guy like George Karl, you talk about those other guys [the trio was in the midst of discussing coaches], and George Karl is a Hall of Fame coach.”

Quite a bold pronouncement, no? I’m sure Van Gundy was speaking more off the cuff than he was providing a cogent, nuanced argument, but regardless, it’s one I had been thinking about for the past few days.

Specifically, where does George Karl – wearer of funny ties, most intriguing coach in Sonics history, resident grouch – rank among the NBA’s all-time coaching greats?

Karl is a Gene Mauchian character. With no ring on his finger, he lacks the cache of such renowned “winners” as Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, or Chuck Daly. A wonderfully successful regular season coach who revitalized five different franchises (Cleveland, Golden State, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Denver), Karl has, sadly, proven incapable of capturing the brass ring.

And so it is that, rather than lounging on the patio with the Auerbachs and Rileys, Karl is relegated to the kitchen with such lesser-knowns as Cotton Fitzsimmons and Rick Adelman. But is that a just scenario, or is his greatness being overlooked?

To make the case for Karl as a Hall of Famer, one could easily turn to his regular season accomplishments. He’s 10th all-time in victories, and almost everyone ahead of him is in the HOF.

Only ten men have coached as many regular season games as Karl, and take a guess as to how many have a better winning percentage.

Would it surprise you to find out that the answer is two? Or that those two – Jerry Sloan and Pat Riley – are both in the Hall of Fame?

With plenty of years left in his career, Karl now has more wins than Hall of Famers John Kundla and Alex Hannum, combined.

Fine, you say, but Kundla and Hannum are poor comparisons from a different era. What about someone who had a career of a roughly similar length to Karl in the same era, how would your boy match up then?

Well, if he lost every game for the next two and a half seasons, Karl would still have a better career winning percentage than legendary Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay. How’s that for a matchup? Further, even if Karl’s Nuggets flame out against the Lakers this spring, he’ll still have a better playoff winning percentage than the former Blazer coach.

Yes, the critics say, but Karl never won a title, so how can he deserve to go into the Hall?

Well, Jerry Sloan never won a title as a coach, his winning percentage is only marginally better than Karl’s (.602 to .592), he’s got a losing record in the playoffs (94-98), and he only managed one more conference championship than George, despite the fact he’s coached an extra five seasons. And Sloan’s in the Hall, right?

Or Hubie Brown. Sure, he’s great on tv, but he wasn’t all that great as a coach (70 games below .500, no conference titles, .368 playoff winning percentage), and he’s in the Hall, right?

You hear all of that, and you start thinking, hey, maybe Van Gundy’s on to something, maybe George Karl does deserve to get into the Hall. Top 10 in wins, brought five different teams to the playoffs … I know he doesn’t act or look like a Hall of Famer, but, geez, when you look at those numbers, it’s hard to argue, right?

Well, that’s one side. Here’s the other.

Of all the coaches in NBA history who have won 933 games (Karl’s total at the end of this season), the only other two without a title are Don Nelson and Jerry Sloan.

And while his regular season winning percentage ranks 12th all-time, cheek and jowl with Daly, Sloan, Kundla, and Sharman, his playoff winning percentage is a pedestrian 33rd, alongside the likes of McMillan, MacLeod, and Silas.

To get a better picture of Karl’s “greatness,” I crunched the numbers for the 50 coaches with the most regular season games, taking into special consideration four factors: Playoff Winning Percentage, Regular Season Winning Percentage, Conference Titles, and Championships. I further multiplied their career wins times winning percentage to give a truer indication of their accomplishments, divided the results by five to bring the total into a more manageable figure, gave each coach five points for a conference title, and finally 15 points for a championship. Add it all up, and you’ve got a list of the best coaches in history. (See chart accompanying this article for the complete numbers).
50 Greatest Coaches
As expected, Phil Jackson is the top dog, with Riley, Auerbach, Popovich and Wilkens rounding out the top five. (Yes, Auerbach is ill served by his lack of “conference titles,” inasmuch as there were no conferences during his era. However, even if we give him credit for eight “Division” titles, he still falls short of Jackson. Regardless, any chart with Riley, Auerbach and Jackson as the top three can’t be all wrong, can it?).

Not surprisingly, the majority of the top ten are Hall of Famers, with the exceptions of active coaches and KC Jones, making him the only member of the Celtics not to be in the Hall (a little anti-Boston humor there).

In reality, the most comparable coaches to Karl are Don Nelson and Rick Adelman, neither of whom are in the Hall of Fame, although I’d have to imagine that eventually Nelson will be enshrined, considering that next year he’ll pass Lenny Wilkens for the most wins in NBA coaching history (or, at least Golden State fans hope he will; Nellie needs 24 to pass Wilkens).

Adelman, like Karl, has a strong regular season pedigree (even topping George in winning percentage), has taken multiple teams to the post-season, but is 0-for-Career in winning a championship.

For both gentlemen, barring a title run in the future, they will need to rely upon the length of their careers to gain access to the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately for both of them, the NBA landscape is littered with proficient coaches who couldn’t capture that one glorious season which catapulted them into the league’s upper class.

And so, to answer Jeff Van Gundy’s statement from Tuesday: Is George Karl a Hall of Famer?

Maybe someday, but not today.


Hacksaw said...

Great read. Kind of like a Simmons column less the incessant celebrity name-dropping and reality television references. Karl / Adelman seem like the same guy. Neither will be a HOF coach unless they (a) win a title, (b) close in on the all-time wins record, or (c) die tragically.

I think your math works - and this seems entirely appropriate for coaches over the last 25 years.

I'm guessing the guys that coached pre-1984 (when the NBA went to 16-team playoffs) might have a bone to pick, as they are getting a bit hosed. Not sure how to fix it - maybe for that first column factor in playoff appearances, instead of playoff games.

Picking nits, though. Great stuff!

nuss said...

Yep - it only really works for the past 25 years, because before then you had a lot fewer playoff games. Still, I don't think any superstar coaches were slighted in the rankings. Riley/Jackson/Auerbach - it's a toss-up between those 3 no matter how you look at it.

On the other hand, Red only had to beat out 9 other teams to win a title, as opposed to Jackson, who has to beat out 29 other teams.

Carew Suárez said...

Karl also took the BigDog/Jesus/ET-era Milwaukee Bucks to the seventh game of the EC finals in 00-01.

Hacksaw said...

Agreed - I was thinking more along the lines of Karl's place on the list. Seems like the ranking of the four guys right below Adelman/Karl (Holzman, Motta, Fitch, Ramsay) would have benefitted from a few more playoff games.

Incidentally, continuing the Simmons theme, who is the fourth coach on the Mt Rushmore of Coaches? Surely not Popovich or Sloan - is it really Wilkens?

nuss said...

You know, I left off his work with the Bucks because I always had thought Karl inherited a pretty good team, but that was a mistake. Just like everywhere else, George took garbage and made it into something good. Good point, Carew.

ryan said...

According to the NBA in 1997, the 10 greatest coaches are in no particular order

Chuck Daly
Red Auerbach
Bill Fitch
Don Nelson
Phil Jackson
Red Holzman
John Kundla
Jack Ramsay
Pat Riley
Lenny Wilkens

I think Fitch comes off the list (he shouldn't have been there to begin with, but anyways), and Ramsay as well. Popovich definitely makes it now, and Jerry Sloan too. My list of 10 would be (in order)

Larry Brown

Kinda funny that the NBA thought Don Nelson was one of the 10 greatest coaches of all time more than a decade ago, and yet they still haven't put him in the Hall. Are they just waiting for him to retire or what?

Bill Fitch said...

If George gets in, I'm gonna throw a whiskey bottle at the inductees that year.