- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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In their own backward way, the Denver Nuggets paid George Karl the ultimate tribute by going to pieces after his debilitating cancer treatments left him unable to coach the team at the end of last season. After assistant coach Adrian Dantley took over they lost half of their final 14 games, then were bounced from the playoffs by an injury-depleted Utah Jazz squad in the first round. Maybe it was a sign that there's more to the NBA than the guys in the jerseys, and that the people planning practices, diagramming plays and determining matchups really do matter.
The intangible connection that elevates good teams to become special teams can be fleeting, Karl said.
"There's no one's fault for that," he explained. "I don't think there's an assistant coach in the world that could have saved the season last year."
So now that Karl is back -- the taxing treatments are over and now his maintenance program includes a diet that limits his protein intake -- you'd think he'd take a tighter grip on the wheel, to govern with such strict authority that players would need his permission to take a drink of water. Except Karl and the Nuggets rarely follow the conventional path. As the team readjusts to Karl and he to them, there is plenty of leeway -- even encouragement -- for them to play to their own rhythm.
There's a near-directive for some players to shoot more shots. There is tolerance for others who shoot with or without instruction. And to date it's brought a .500 record, which isn't bad for a team with injuries across the frontcourt and a franchise player who is the leading generator of trade rumors across the NBA.
The fact that Carmelo Anthony's clear desire to play elsewhere and management's exploratory efforts to accommodate him have not caused this team to fall completely apart is a credit to Karl. He muses that things would be pretty good for Anthony if he stuck around, then leaves it at that.
Karl has no room for bitterness, not when he's been the recipient of so much goodwill around the NBA. Everywhere he goes opposing coaches, players, arena staffers and reporters come up to Karl to welcome him back. Even some of his old nemeses have sent along their best wishes: Don Nelson with flowers, Gregg Popovich in letters, Pat Riley via fax.
"Sometimes we take our job way too seriously; we think there are enemies out there and there aren't," Karl said. "And that's what's happening now. What I like about it is I think I look in their eyes more now. I see sincerity, I see honesty, I see empathy. It's really nice. It's fun to be back."
For a moment, the coach in him comes back. "If I keep beating them, hopefully they won't like me anymore," he says with a grin.
"I feel good so much about the outpouring of caring and kindness. I've thought to myself, well how do I thank all these people, thank all these thoughts, thank all this spirit? I don't know how to do it other than to be gracious."
I think some of that grace extends to his players.
He says the team's second-year backup point guard, Ty Lawson, needs to "to assert himself and not defer."
"When he's on the court I want him to be more dominating and more demanding of having the ball, and he makes the decisions," Karl said.
In a game at Houston, Karl actually gave Lawson a stern look when he drove and passed to Al Harrington instead of taking the ball all the way to the basket himself. Lawson offered an apologetic shrug.
Later, Lawson forced a bad shot and Karl called timeout. When play resumed not only was Lawson still in the game, he took the next shot as well.
All part of the development of a player the Nuggets think can be one of the best bench players in the league.
"Last year, I was stuck in the headlights," Lawson said. "Carmelo's one of my favorite players, J.R. [Smith, too]. It was tough telling them to go here when they ask for the ball. But now it's my second year, I'm used to it.
Denver newcomer Harrington has had stretches when he's launched shots on a per-minute basis -- and yet his playing time has only increased. It's shot selection, not volume, that concerns Karl.
"He's constantly talking to me about wanting me to drive the ball a little bit more," Harrington said.
And apparently it's getting through. After taking eight 3-pointers in the third game against Houston, Harrington's 3 count was down to four in a loss to Dallas on Wednesday night. In the final minute of the close game against Dallas, Harrington got the ball in 3-point territory, considered the jump shot, then drove to the basket. His layup missed, but Anthony got the rebound and scored. A missed 3-pointer could have easily been a fast break the other way.
It's a sign that things go both ways. In Houston, Harrington ran into Yao Ming and came up grabbing his side, wincing in pain. Karl summoned Shelden Williams to replace him, only to be waved off by Harrington. Karl told Williams to sit back down and let Harrington stay in the game.
Perhaps the judicious shot selection the next time out was Karl's reward for listening to his player. All a coach can ask for is response. That and respect. Somewhere down the line comes appreciation.
"I loved playing for George," said Portland coach Nate McMillan, who was on Karl's Seattle SuperSonics teams. "He understands."
Karl understands a variety of things: What it's like to play in the pros, how to relate to people of different races and, now more than ever, how to overcome adversity.
I've come across Karl at biweekly intervals since the start of training camp and he looks better each time. We don't know what a five-game trip or three-game losing streak will extract from him, but at this stage he appears invigorated by his return to his team.
"A big part of my support was them thinking about me," he said of his arduous spring and summer.
Now he's returning the favor, thinking highly enough of his players to allow them freedom to grow.
15hMatt Walks, ESPN.com