The Sacramento Kings have hired a coach with the sixth most wins (1,131) in NBA history. So what will this new era look like when George Karl shows up at Sleep Train Arena this week?
We caught up with Chris Dempsey, who has been with The Denver Post since 2003, to discuss what Kings fans can expect out of their new coach.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
You covered George Karl over his entire career as the Nuggets head coach. You must know him quite well. When was the last time you spoke to him and where was his state of mind?
It was December and I was asking him about the current state of the Nuggets and what he thought about all of that. Every time I've talked to him after he was fired he has always expressed interest in coming back and he always said he missed the game, that he missed being in the gym, misses the rhythm of the gym and all of this. He's a very philosophical guy. That is an environment that he loves pretty much more than anything else in his life that's not his family. So that was always present in every conversation with him. He wanted to get back into coaching, I don't think he was ever really satisfied doing the analyst thing, though it was fine for him. But what he really wanted to do was be back on that sideline.
Can you give us some insight into how Karl deals with the media and did you enjoy engaging with him on a regular basis? What can Sacramento expect from him as far as his personality goes?
I enjoyed it a lot because to be honest with you, if you just sit and listen to him, you learn a lot about the game. He speaks in a way that is a lot of times very detailed, a lot of times he's philosophical about the game of basketball, how it should be played, how players should operate, how teams should operate offensively and defensively. He's very descriptive in those kinds of things. I've covered a lot of coaches in my life and I always thought he was one of the better coaches that I covered just in terms of his personality. He's not going to like every single question that he hears and one of the things he really hated so much to be asked was who the starters were on a nightly basis. He bristled at that all the time. So he was actually, I'm teasing, but kind of abusing to a couple of us, but generally he is going to be personable with the media, he didn't always like talking to us, but he was not in a perpetual bad mood all the time.
You mentioned the lineup questions with him, I know that was a sensitive subject there toward the end of his tenure with the Nuggets. Was that always an issue or does he over-analyze his lineups too much you think? Talk about his philosophy with rotations.
It got to be kind of a sore subject with him once that whole Melo period was over. Because once that was over, then there started to be a lot of attention on who is starting, how were things getting rotated and why? If this player had a bad week should he be out of the starting lineup? It was just in a way that he hadn't had to answer before because you sort of knew Melo, Chauncey [Billups], Kenyon Martin, Nene [Hilario], these guys were always in the starting lineup. It was just never a question. When it became a team full of just kind of good players to where the lay fan or the media guys would start to pick apart the lineups and really start to get detailed on what guys are doing and should they be in, then it kind of started to become a sore subject because he was answering those questions all the time and he hated those ... he wasn't necessarily going to play 11 guys, not until he had a team at which that was kind of warranted. Especially in playoff time, he wanted to shorten that bench down to eight guys who he knew were going to play and were going to be the core of what the Nuggets were going to do.
Taking all of that into account, the Kings have a core of DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Darren Collison. What do you see him pulling out of that roster?
What I am most interested in seeing is George Karl coaching with a big-time center. He's really never had that, the center as the focal point. You go to back to his years of Seattle and Milwaukee, you are talking [Sam] Perkins in Seattle and he's kind of a stretch 5. And then in Milwaukee, just nobody; that was kind of the three-guard lineup, that perimeter lineup that he had there. And then in Denver, he had some capable guys, but none that the team was ever built around. So I am very fascinated and I'll be interested to see how he coaches this team because he's always been kind of a more perimeter coach, outside-in, and now he's going to have to coach it a little bit inside-out.
I think the first thing Sacramento fans will find is that nothing is going to change in terms of their standing of the free throws attempted per game. They lead the league in that, about 29 a game. I would expect that to, if we're not too many games into the season for an average to get affected significantly, for that to get to 30 or 31 by the time the season is over. He is big on attacking the rim, he's big on getting fouled and shooting free throws. He's big on layups, free throws and three-pointers, and somehow he is going to get Sacramento into that stage. I would expect to see more attacking out of Rudy Gay, more attaching out of Darren Collison. McLemore is a guy who can get to the rim and George Karl will want him to do that. He's not going to want them settling for any jump shot that isn't three-pointers in the corner or somewhere that's pretty wide open as a result of the decision of the offense that's being run.
Ben McLemore is a guy who made huge strides from season 1 to season 2 and has a pretty high ceiling. What do you think Karl can get out of a guy like him? Talk about his mentoring of young guys.
First of all, I think he's going to want Ben McLemore to use the athletic gifts that he has first and not worry about being a jump-shooting, three-point shooting guy. He's going to want Ben McLemore to put the ball on the ground, get himself to the rim and then work his game inside-out. George has the reputation of not playing young players and not being very receptive in that way, but I don't think he's going to have a choice here because McLemore is already a big part of the enterprise … I think Ben Mclemore, if he just listens and does what George Karl says, I think he's going to completely realize every piece of potential that he has in him. He's going to be a more efficient player, I think George is going to seek to remove the bad shot decisions from his game ... and just say, ‘hey, look dude, run the court, get to the rim, dunk that ball, shoot the free throws well and then build your game out.' George is going to build McLemore's game out and some of the other guys that you probably didn't think were three-point shooters or jump-shot shooters. One thing he always did in Denver was kind of develop guys and their shooting over time.
DeMarcus Cousins is an All-Star now and he is getting to that star level that Carmelo is at. Talk about Karl's relationship with Melo and how he managed him.
That was a roller coaster ride. That was definitely up and down. I remember when he wanted Carmelo to get into shape and he was kind of riding him about that and Carmelo was kind of resistant to that. Listen, we're all fooling ourselves if we think there is not going to be bumps between him and DeMarcus Cousins. There's going to be because George Karl is going to inevitably ask DeMarcus Cousins to do something that probably DeMarcus hasn't done. If DeMarcus doesn't want to do it he's going to push back and then George is going to push back. So he's always had a rocky relationship with a star on the team. Especially those stars that were very outspoken and kind of fiery in their own right, you know, Gary Payton they went at it. Carmelo wasn't going to take anything from him until they came to a meeting of the minds and came to a common ground ... DeMarcus is going to have to understand that ultimately George Karl is going to get him and everything that that team is doing, including the things that DeMarcus is doing already well, and if he can kind of come to grips with that and separate the message from the tone, I think those two will be just fine.
Karl has said he wants to get Cousins to be an energizer rather than a player who wears his emotions on his sleeve. Do you think as a coach he is capable of doing that?
I do, and I think what he'll do behind closed doors is probably use himself as the example. Because the George Karl that we see today and the one that say was in Seattle and then Milwaukee, he wore his emotions on his sleeve and his ego and everything else. What he figured out over time was to just chill. You can be an energizer in a positive way, you don't necessarily have to be yelling and degrading and an egomaniac and all these things that were kind of negative and toxic. But you can have a great effect on people by being uplifting and all of these other things. And I think this is the state that George Karl lives in now. I think his best example to DeMarcus Cousins is going to be himself and say, ‘hey, look, I was you. I was you when I was a young man.' You couldn't tell George anything, but over the years he came to find out through trial and error, and through good relationships and bad, and successes and failures that keeping your emotions in check and evening that portion out has been the best part and it has worked the best for him, and he has been able to be super successful as a result.
There was a lot made of whether or not Michael Malone was clashing with the Kings front office. I know that was an issue between George Karl and the Nuggets front office before he was fired. How legitimate of an issue was all of that and can you give us some insight into what actually happened there?
That was part of it. There was a contract situation there as well and I don't know the owner, well Josh Kroenke, the president of the team, wanted to continue to go forward. He didn't walk down the same road. And George was kind of pushing for a contract extension and when you have a guy that is a little hesitant in the president to keep going in the same direction at the same time as the coach needs a new contract and is pushing for one, then you kind of have that perfect storm of a situation where you let go of guy who just won you 57 games. George, as we were discussing earlier, is a very strong willed guy and he grates on people behind the scenes, I don't know that is the overarching reason why he was let go from Denver though. Everybody can work with him, he's proven over the years that even in his worst most 'Furious George' days he was able to, if he was successful on the court, the teams kept him on.
And he's got the relationship with Pete D'Alessandro already. And I think that is going to be huge in that situation. Right away, they already understand each other. Pete is very familiar with how George works, with his personality quirks and those kinds of things. If it ever got to a point where say ownership and George were getting caught crossways, Pete can definitely be the buffer between that. So I just think that is a big time thing that they already have that relationship established.
The All-Star break came at a time when the fans and players needed a break. Everything that has gone on this season has resulted in the hiring of George Karl, but fans are still a little uneasy about what happened with Michael Malone. What would you say to Kings fans about what to expect when Karl shows up here?
I think the fans are still going to have to be patient … he's still got to learn the team, they have to learn him. But I think what you will see immediately is just a raise in the overall basketball IQ of the team. You will be able to see that within the first three weeks. They'll just look like a lot more competent basketball team on the court. Then from there, listen, the team is 18 and 34, so it's not like there is going to be a playoff run coming or anything like that, but I think from a fan's standpoint I would just expect to see a better looking, higher IQ, probably a faster pace basketball team … I can't fault any fan there that is looking at management and shaking their head. I mean, how can you fault the fans for that? You can't. The decision-making has been head shaking. So the skepticism should be expected and quite frankly, Sacramento's management ought to understand why their fans are frustrated and not bristle at that. Just say, ‘we're going to get our stuff tightened up, fans just be patient.'
I think the fans are going to have a lot of fun watching this basketball team for the rest of the season.