With rocky Denver debut behind him, Shaw has reason for optimism
DENVER -- On Saturday night, when Atlanta defeated Miami, 98-85, the cheers were perhaps loudest in Denver, the crying hardest in New York.
With the Hawks' win, the Knicks were officially eliminated from the playoffs, and Nuggets fans weren't just rejoicing in Carmelo Anthony's misfortune. After a disappointing season, which will snap Denver's 10-year streak of making the playoffs, all eyes are on the draft, and the worse the Knicks do, the better.
Three years ago, when Denver dealt Anthony to New York, it acquired the Knicks' first-round pick in 2014. Denver must deal one of its two first-round picks come June to Orlando, but it gets to keep the better of the two. So, with its own lottery pick and New York's, the Nuggets now have the best possible odds of adding a franchise-changing player, which is the best kind of distraction after what's gone on in the Mile High City since November -- or even since last May.
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What's gone on is upheaval, plain and simple. The 2013 Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, bolted for Toronto. The 2013 Coach of the Year, George Karl, was booted from the bench. A young president and governor, Josh Kroenke, brought in a first-time general manager in Tim Connelly and a first-time coach in Brian Shaw, and since then, much of what Karl and Ujiri built has crumbled.
At the center of it all is Shaw, who's become the public face of the Nuggets' season, the biggest change that fans who pine for last year's team can see every game, patrolling the sidelines. When Shaw was hired, it was to decent fanfare; he was, after all, the Pacers' hot-shot assistant coach and a Phil Jackson protégé. He was young, he'd been successful -- and many a confidant told him not to take the Nuggets job.
"There's no way that it can be a positive situation," Shaw recalled being told. "You're coming into a situation where the team has made the playoffs for 10 years. They're coming off the most wins in team history. It was an iconic coach who has over 1,000 wins.
"That was a lot to live up to," he added. "I've never run away from pressure or expectations."
On a Sunday afternoon just two weeks before the Nuggets' final game, Shaw seemed tired. It's not that he regrets accepting the Denver job, but rather that now, after five and a half months wading through the drudgery of losing, he has a better idea of what he's taken on and what lies ahead. For someone who saw just three losing seasons in 22 years as a player and coach before coming to Denver, losing has been something unfamiliar, and being one symbol of that losing -- well, that's even more foreign.
Some critiques are fair. To come in and within months rustle up a discord so huge it left the team's only real veteran, Andre Miller, banished and then traded -- well, that's not the best way to start a tenure, at least from a PR standpoint. From all indications, Shaw was justified in his complaints, but the weeks-long saga with a guy who had been a model teammate on Karl's squads left a clear reminder that going forward in Denver, things will be very, very different.
The Nuggets' situation is one other NBA franchises should watch closely. One veteran coach told me last week that the younger the league's ownership and front offices get, the more the league is changing, sometimes for the worse. Experience is retiring or being forced out, and free agency allows players to chase big bucks and bright lights more so than it did 20 years ago. Keeping something continuous, something solid, is more and more of a challenge, and Shaw seems to realize that.
As the season creeps to a close, though, there's no sense in mooning over the first-year coach's perceived failings. It's a rare person who can take over such an idiosyncratic team as Karl led last year without missing a beat. What's more instructive is to examine what Shaw has learned, what he can carry forward and where he thinks his team can be a year from now.
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That's why the lottery pick looms so large. That's why every word Shaw utters about Timofey Mozgov's ability to start or JaVale McGee's potential to be a game-changer is picked apart and parsed obsessively. Who are these Nuggets? Even their coach isn't quite sure, but he's figuring it out.
"I don't know if I've ever been involved with a team that's so young, and there's no clear-cut alpha," Shaw said. "So when a guy comes late or you can tell a guy has kind of drifted off the path, there's no clear veteran to grab him by the shirt and say 'you've got to do this' or 'you've got to do that.' We're having to take on that role as coaches. That's one thing that's missing that, to be honest, I think has hurt our team."
There are also the injuries. Danilo Gallinari never returned from his torn ACL, and McGee was on the court for a whopping five games. Those are two of Denver's biggest stars and best players, and they were two whom Shaw was counting on last summer when he took the job. Admittedly unfamiliar with the team's roster after playing Denver just four times over the past two seasons while in Indianapolis, Shaw was clinging to what he did know, and Gallinari and McGee loomed large. With no Andre Iguodala, no Kosta Koufos and no Corey Brewer, Shaw knew the roster would be different, but he didn't realize he'd often be playing a lineup dotted with players who didn't even get minutes under Karl.
"With all that, I had to find out on the fly," Shaw said. "It took the season to see, oh, this guy's capable of doing this, but not that. Maybe we're forced to play this guy, but he's not ready. ... It was the year of discovery."
Discovery -- that's just a nice way of saying "trial and error," and from that, the lessons have abounded. Shaw has learned that veterans are to be prized, that every team needs a star, or at least a rock. He's learned that injuries are out of his control, and finding a rotation of players who can prop up an aching team is key. He's learned that he can be the disciplinarian, but that he doesn't want to be.
He's learned that getting his point across isn't quite as easy as he thought it would be, but he's determined to keep on trying.
That's why the Knicks' elimination matters, why Shaw looking to the future with a handful of games remaining should be seen as a good thing. This season is toast -- charred, gritty toast. It's next year that matters, and for Shaw to chalk up the past few months as a learning experience is just fine -- as long as he puts what he learned into practice when next fall rolls around.