By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; D01
Adrian Dantley has the single most difficult job in this NBA postseason and he knows it. His players know it, as does everybody who plays against his Denver Nuggets. All Dantley is being asked to do is lead a team of headstrong characters with championship aspirations deep into the playoffs while the man best suited to coach them, his boss George Karl, battles throat and neck cancer.
"Thrown into the deep end," is how Dantley described his predicament in a recent conversation. "More than anything, it's about managing personalities, keeping the guys together in a really difficult time."
It got even more difficult late Monday night when the heavily favored Nuggets, playing at home, lost Game 2 of their best-of-seven playoff series with Utah, even though the Jazz played without two injured starters who are out for the series. It's quite a predicament for anybody to be in, much less a bench neophyte, a man whose reputation was forged as a prolific scorer, first at DeMatha High, then at Notre Dame where he was collegiate player of the year nearly 35 years ago, then in the NBA for 15 seasons where he twice led the league in scoring. His became, officially, a Hall of Fame career two years ago.
Even so, it was star-crossed. Dantley is the only rookie-of-the-year to be traded, and was dealt in a swirl of controversy by the Detroit Pistons weeks before they began their back-to-back championship run. And now there's this, trying to coach a group suited to Karl and perhaps only Karl. Nothing about being the substitute teacher is favorable.
Even Coby Karl, George's son who is a reserve guard on the team, said the other night, "If you were going to give an interim coach a team, this one wouldn't be his first choice."Being his own man
Dantley is quick to say he won't try to take on Karl's personality because the players would see right through that. The Nuggets are 11-8 with Dantley as the interim coach. The team was constructed realizing that Karl has a unique ability to reach players like Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Chris "Birdman" Anderson, all of whom could easily be described as individualists, men who like to color outside the lines. Even the team's superstar, Carmelo Anthony, has his explosive moments with Karl. But it all seems to evaporate.
Dantley says this team reminds him a little of the Bad Boy Pistons with Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer and Isiah Thomas.
Noted individualist Charles Barkley, speaking on TNT, described the Nuggets in more basic terms. "There are two kinds of players," he said, "those you pat on the back and those you kick in the [butt]. And Denver has a lot of guys you have to kick in the [butt] . . . Adrian Dantley is too passive for that team. He's not a yeller and screamer, and George Karl is, when he needs to be."
Karl, by any definition, is an extrovert. Dantley isn't what you'd call shy but he certainly is what most would call low-key. Asked about the one thing he has to do to keep the Nuggets ship on course, Dantley said, "I've got to be more positive than I probably expected. Players now like to be made to feel good. We lost four of five during one stretch and still, it seems like you have to be positive with today's athlete, so that's what I'll try to do."From a different era
Dantley says this situation should make for a convincing line on his coaching r?sum?, something he wasn't planning to have until relatively recently. The man who played his high school basketball for probably the most famous high school coach ever, DeMatha's Morgan Wootten, fell into coaching almost as a fluke. "I wasn't thinking about it. I was working with guys individually, tutoring guys who were about go into the NBA. . . . Brendan Haywood was one of them," Dantley said. "Word got out to agents, so I worked with quite a few guys. Kiki Vandeweghe [then running the Nuggets] called me and asked me if I'd like to come and be an assistant. And I said, 'Are you sure about this?' I used to 'bow Kiki, forearm him, and here he was calling me about coaching. And I really liked it."
But Dantley played during an era (1976-1991) in which coaches were much more confrontational, at least by NBA standards, than now, even when the player averaged 25 points a game or more eight times, 30 or more four times, as Dantley did as a 6-foot-5 power forward. "I've had to change," he said.
"I've had to pull it back a little . . . be a politician some days, a psychologist some days. I called my wife one night and told her, 'You'd be proud of me; I've had to change.' You know me; I'm not a politician. Having to do that makes me crazy some nights, but . . . "
Criticism drives most any coach crazy. It's been pointed out that one of the things that hurts Dantley is that his staff doesn't have a grizzled veteran who has been a head coach in the NBA. And there's the matter of having to run a system exactly the way Karl would have.Sticking to a style
TNT's Kenny Smith pointed out during a recent postgame show, "If George had just left the team, A.D. would be able to go to some stuff he's comfortable with, but not now." Smith pointed out that players take on a coach's style and mannerisms, that the Lakers would be lost without Phil Jackson, the Spurs would be lost without Gregg Popovich, and that the Nuggets respond similarly to Karl, but only Karl.
However, Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets veteran point guard, said recently, "As hard as this situation is, I think A.D.'s kept us afloat while George has been out."
So has Billups. The club executives went to Billups a couple of weeks ago and enlisted his help. Billups is one of those players who is always described as a coach on the floor. Now, he has additional responsibility, helping Dantley and the staff manage the team. One Nuggets executive said, "We overloaded Chauncey at one point." And Billups admitted he initially went home after games and practices drained physically and mentally from the extra preparation and the stress of new responsibilities.
That arrangement probably won't change during the playoffs. Karl has lost, by some accounts, 30 pounds or so. There are times his voice isn't strong enough to talk to Coby over the phone, much less scream at practices and during games.
Karl coming back to work these playoffs is unlikely, at best. Dantley's the coach now, the man with the least amount of experience going up against Jerry Sloan, the coach of longest tenure in the league.
One of Dantley's former coaches, Chuck Daly, was fond of saying that players want to be helped during the playoffs, that even the difficult ones know now is when they need their coach. That means now is the time when a team can least afford upheaval. Just winning one series with Utah, which resumes Friday night in Salt Lake City where Dantley's jersey hangs in the rafters, would be quite a triumph under the circumstances.