Sonic president Wally Walker often flaunted the fact that he never meddled with George Karl's coaching.
However, as the Sonics were making it clear Tuesday that Karl no longer fit the franchise, Walker intimated that the team's style of play might have run its course. For as much as Karl and Walker did not trust each other, there was a growing disenchantment with the current system.A number of irreconcilable differences led to Walker's decision Tuesday not to offer Karl a new contract. But Karl's coaching philosophy, which often excluded using younger players, contributed to his downfall.
Walker left little doubt that the time has come for the Sonics to try something different. "We had to look at whether our style could be effective in the postseason," Walker said. "We came to the conclusion that this current system and style will not get it done."
While no one in the Sonics organization ever questioned Karl's X's and O's, his game plan became questionable toward the end of the season. The Los Angeles Lakers bounced Seattle from the playoffs by punishing Seattle's double-teaming tactics. Several times throughout that series, Sonic assistant coaches and some players asked Karl to make changes. They petitioned Karl to at least try defending the Lakers straight up.
Karl refused - again and again. He elected to live or die with his trapping defense. Ironically, it took him down again Tuesday.
"You don't win 70-percent of your games here in six-plus years without being a very good coach or doing a lot of good things," Walker said. "The style question did keep coming up with the other players. Is the style with this group (one) that we can win a title with?"
In fairness, Karl stayed with what earned him a 72-percent regular-season winning percentage as Sonic coach. Perhaps his tactics would not have been questioned if the Laker team that undressed the Sonics had not been swept by Utah in the conference finals.
The Jazz defended the Lakers straight up (no double-teams) and imposed their half-court style of play. Utah had one more big body than the Sonics in order to guard O'Neal one-on-one. But the Jazz in many ways mirror the Sonics. Both teams are older and do not have a dominating center.
"You've got to have great talent. But you have to have the right players in the right system and all playing with confidence to win it," Walker said. "Utah in the (Western Conference Finals) demonstrated that, and the Lakers did it to us."
One player Walker thought should have received more playing time was Aaron Williams. The free agent forward's athleticism was undeniable, and he displayed adequate scoring ability. But Karl was not impressed by Williams' youth, lack of defensive knowledge and zero experience in the playoffs.
Walker did not identify the experienced players who grew tired of Karl's strategy. It probably would be safe to assume that Gary Payton and Vin Baker were not on the list. Both All-Stars totally embraced Karl.
But Karl's game plans did not cater to the veterans he has such an affinity for. With several players in their mid-30s, the Sonics did not have the quickness or footspeed required to make the rotating traps effective.
After 61/2 seasons, this was clear about Karl's program: It was successful in the regular season because opposing teams struggled under the defensive pressure the Sonics created. In the playoffs, though, teams prepared for the Sonics and adjusted well.
"You have to make minor adjustments in the playoffs to whatever schemes you have. Sometimes it makes the bigger difference," Sonic vice president Bill McKinney said.