No team in the NBA this season has been as cringe-worthy as the Denver Nuggets. On the floor, Denver managed to self-sabotage its way to the sixth-worst record (20-39) and net rating (-5.1 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA. Off of it came the awkward mess of a team and its coach voicing pointed frustrations to anyone who would listen. Several members of the initial roster (Timofey Mozgov, Arron Afflalo, JaVale McGee) have already been shipped elsewhere, and on Tuesday came another departure: Denver fired head coach Brian Shaw.
Shaw's dismissal was all but inevitable. Denver had won just two of 21 games since mid-January, reeling through distinct six- and seven-game losing streaks—not including their current six-game skid. But if a rash of losing was the Nuggets' only problem, Shaw might have survived the season. But at no point did Denver’s now-former coach appear to have a handle on his team in regard to either strategy or communication.
Shaw ran odd schemes given his personnel, in which no player fared all that well in. He had curious favorites in his playing rotation and leaned on implosive lineups. There are certainly other culpable parties involved, but in terms of what translated to the floor, Shaw didn’t have much of a tactical leg to stand on. The basketball product didn’t reflect that of a coach in control bringing out the best in his players. For whatever reason, Shaw could never seem to coax consistent effort from even his team’s best players.
"At the end of the day, business is gonna go on, whether I'm the coach here or somebody else is coaching here," Shaw said (via The Denver Post) in February. "Whoever it is, (the players) are going to still have a level of expectation in terms of giving an effort. Whether it's me or somebody else, or if it's the players we have or other players, there's that expectation level.
"And all I can do is try to do my best, do my job to the best of my ability every single day. And I hope I get that back in turn. And it hasn't seemed to happen that way. But I'm not hiding. Everything that I say to them, I say to you. And I get advised sometimes not to be so honest with you guys. But I don't have anything to hide. I'm not running from anything."
In his floundering, Shaw read up on connecting with millenials. Horrifyingly, he rapped his team their pregame scouting report in an effort to reach them. He wondered aloud if his players were losing on purpose and threw them under the bus in response to him being thrown under the bus.
This is not the messaging of a particularly functional basketball team. The Nuggets players, naturally, didn’t seem to take too kindly to Shaw’s tact.
Comb virtually any game story since the turn of the calendar year and you’ll find a similar quote from Shaw or some Nuggets player not-so-subtly pointing a finger elsewhere. That blame and disconnect represents why Shaw no longer has a job. He is not solely responsible for the Nuggets’ downfall; Pacers forward David West, speaking in Shaw's defense, has a colorful point regarding the players' role in all this. But Shaw, picked to succeed George Karl after a 57-win season, had a chance to rein in a decently talented team over a two-season term and failed about as spectacularly as a coach can.
It’s hard to discern from Denver’s smoldering season exactly what happens next. The moves made throughout the year (all forward-looking, whether to draft picks or cap flexibility) would seem to indicate that the Nuggets front office might be open to the full teardown that’s likely needed. Then again, that Shaw is now gone might give Denver room to continue apace in building around Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, neither of whom was much a favorite of their recently fired coach. What remains are pieces without cohesion: some nice supporting players and a few young prospects with no stylistic umbrella to unite them.
Most would call this a mess. The Nuggets, even with Shaw now gone, call it their present and future.