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And he'd like to coach one more time

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CGRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - George Karl orchestrated a 57-win season in 2012-13 and was NBA coach of the year with the Denver Nuggets, but the club let him go. Now he's an analyst who will work Friday's Portland-Indiana game.George Karl is many things, including smart, funny, glib and engaging. Those are traits that serve him well as a broadcaster, a role he is filling these days in his first year as an NBA studio analyst for ESPN.

Karl has been some kind of coach, too, over the past quarter-century. The Denver resident, who turns 63 in May, compiled a record of 1,131-756 (.599) in 25 seasons, the last 8 1/2 in Denver. That places him sixth on the NBA's career wins list behind Don Nelson (1,335), Lenny Wilkens (1,332), Jerry Sloan (1,221), Pat Riley (1,210) and Phil Jackson (1,155).

Of 23 teams with which Karl has finished a season, 22 have made the playoffs. Only one of his teams has gone as far as the NBA finals, however -- the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics, led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, who lost to Chicago in six games for the title.

Last year, the Nuggets finished 57-25 in the regular season, earning Karl NBA coach of the year honors for the first time. But the Nuggets were eliminated by Golden State in the first round of the playoffs. And when Karl, entering the final year of his contract, pressed for an extension after the season, he was fired.

Karl, a two-time cancer survivor (including throat cancer, which idled him for part of the 2009-10 season), will be in the ESPN studio Friday as Portland visits Indiana for a 4 p.m. showdown between two of the league's top teams. On Thursday, Karl provided answers to any and all questions proffered by the Portland Tribune.

Tribune: What has been your role with ESPN?

Karl: Almost entirely studio work. I worked a game (as an analyst) on Christmas Day but have not since then. I'm in the studio seven to eight days a month, 90 percent of the time in Bristol (Conn.). Just talking about the NBA.

Tribune: And you're still living in Denver with your significant other, Kim Van Deraa, and your 9-year-old daughter Kaci.

Karl: That's right. I'm going to live in Denver the rest of my life. I've found a home.

Tribune: How is your health?

Karl: Great. Life is much more stress-free. It's a little easier to stay healthy when you're not trying to win 50 games a year.

Tribune: Let's talk basketball. How do you feel about the Trail Blazers right now?

Karl: It's been a great year for them. They've added some pieces they didn't have last season. Their bench got better. Robin Lopez has given them a toughness, a fundamental presence in the paint. And I like how they play with responsibility in the fourth quarter. Very seldom do they lose a game late because of looseness.

Tribune: They are 4-5 in their last nine games. Is that cause for concern?

Karl: You have to look at the big picture. They're a team that has surprised everybody with their efficiency and success. An 82-game schedule is a test you have to pass. There are going to be stretches where 5-5 is a good record because of the (strength of opponent). It just doesn't look good when you're 8-2 in most other 10-game periods. You have to have a degree of concern, but in the same sense, no one expected them to be in the top five of the league right now.

Tribune: What do they need to improve upon?

Karl: I'd like to see them develop their bench a little more. Coach (Terry) Stotts is comfortable with the starters getting a lot of minutes, but you'd love to be able to give them more rest.

Tribune: Terry played and coached for you in the CBA and then again with Seattle and Milwaukee in the NBA. What kind of a job has he done coaching the Blazers this season?

Karl: I thought Terry did a great job coaching last year under difficult circumstances. He was continually looking and searching for leadership and foundation, and he walked into a situation where it looked like LaMarcus Aldridge might want to get out of there. Terry has done a beautiful job of taking Wesley Matthews and a young point guard in (Damian) Lillard and turning them into strong starters in this league in a quick period of time. Adding Lopez and (Mo) Williams this year, it's been kind of a perfect storm going on. Since Terry has been there, (the Blazers) have pushed the right buttons and turned things around. It'll be interesting to see how far they go in the playoffs.

Tribune: How far do you see them going?

Karl: I have them as one of five (championship) contenders. I have them ahead of teams like Houston, Golden State and the Clippers in the West.

Tribune: Do you see general manager Neil Olshey making a move before the trade deadline? They have no draft picks available this year, and there aren't a lot of commodities to deal off their current bench.

Karl: It still might be possible. There are going to be a lot of players available. What is a great year for the Portland Trail Blazers? Do they want to get to the conference finals? Do they want to win the first round of the playoffs? That would come by adding a veteran player or a talent that they don't have on their roster right now. It might be one of those years where everybody wants to sell.

Tribune: Who are your other four championship contenders?

Karl: Indiana, Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio.

Tribune: Who is your early pick to win it all?

KARL: I've always kind of been on the Oklahoma City bandwagon. Mentally, they have an edge. Kevin Durant has to win this year. The Russell Westbrook injury has put them in a bad place, but he'll be back. (Durant) had the best team the last two years and hasn't won a championship yet. It's a very important year for his brand. He's the second-best player in the game (behind LeBron James).

Tribune: Where do Aldridge and Lillard fit in terms of the best in the game at their position?

Karl: Aldridge is a top-five big man. Everybody says he's a power forward. He's a big man who can play center to me. He has developed more of a back-to-the basket game, and he's turned into a go-to player in the last five minutes of a game, which he hadn't had until this season. We're living in the year of point guards. There are so many good ones. It's a matter of (personal) preference. But I have no problem putting Lillard in the top seven, and he's moving up. His arrow is going in the right way.

Tribune: Lillard is going to have probably the busiest All-Star Weekend in history, participating in both the Rising Stars Challenge and All-Star Game as well as the dunk contest, skills challenge and 3-point contest. As his coach, would you worry about expending too much energy during a time when most players are gaining a second wind for the season's stretch run?

Karl: He has earned the right to do what he wants to do. I would talk to him about not getting burned out, but you can re-energize your body if you can get three or four days in a row off down the line. There might be a stretch where Terry can give him a game off. Gregg Popovich has shown how to rest guys, to keep them energized for when it really counts, which is the second season.

Tribune: Portland visits Indiana Friday night. What do you make of the Pacers right now?

Karl: I think Indiana will beat Miami for the East title. Miami doesn't win with defense. Just like Oklahoma City, Indiana has a mental edge this season. (The Pacers) are playing at a higher intensity level and focus than any team in the league. They're possessed with winning 60 games and gaining homecourt advantage (through the playoffs). They're an old-school, slow-down, beat-you-up, throw-it-into-the-paint team blessed with long and good athletes who like to play defense.

Tribune: Do you like their addition of Andrew Bynum?

Karl: With or without him, they're going to play big and pound you and beat you by scoring around the basket. I worry about chemistry somewhat, but with the maturity of their locker room, they should be able to figure that out. And if push comes to shove and it doesn't work, you let him go.

Tribune: Do you think Roy Hibbert should take on "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in a 10-man battle royal, as each has agreed to do?

Karl: I don't know about that one. You have to ask another expert. I can't deny I have pro wrestling fans in my family, though.

Tribune: Are you bitter about what happened in Denver?

Karl: There's a part of me that is bitter, but a part of me quickly realized I had 8 1/2 years of winning basketball there. Last year was one of the favorite teams I've ever coached. I went through cancer twice during my time in Denver, and they supported me and stuck with me. They could have bailed on me at times. To change directions (with a new coach) makes no sense to anybody in basketball, but there are a lot of things that don't make sense in our game.

Tribune: Do you see yourself coaching again?

Karl: Yes. There's no doubt, I would like to do it one more time. The success we had last year, especially with offensive schemes ... we felt we were betting better and had room to tinker and improve. I hope to get another three- to-five-year deal and see what happens.

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