Two years ago, the Denver Nuggets were on the rise. Now, no one can seem to stop the free fall.
BOSTON – In a narrow hallway in the bowels of the TD Garden, Brian Shaw slipped into a phalanx of reporters, prepared for the questions but frustratingly unable to give any clear answers. The Nuggets, two years removed from a 57-win season, are a mess, losers of four straight, 11 of their last 12 and rapidly spiraling towards the bottom of the Western Conference. And Shaw, once the most attractive head coaching prospect on the market, is absorbing the brunt of the blame.
“We’re not in a good place right now,” Shaw said. “We have to try to find whatever it is going to take to get out of this rut that we’re in.”
Denver’s issues are not hard to identify. The Nuggets don’t defend (No. 23 in defensive efficiency), a problem players have attributed to poor communication on the floor. They don’t force many turnovers and struggle to defend the three-point line. Offensively, Denver plays a fast pace but that has not translated to an efficient one: The Nuggets are just No. 20 in the NBA in offensive efficiency. There is a prevailing sense among scouts that this roster -- one still stocked with many of the players from George Karl’s run-and-gun regime -- is built to play one way while Shaw, who was groomed in more deliberate systems in Los Angeles and Indiana, prefers to play another. It's also a theory Shaw vehemently denies.
“This team that I have is completely different than the teams that were there before,” Shaw said. “Andre Iguodala is not here anymore; Corey Brewer is not here anymore; [Danillo] Gallinari was healthy. The guys we have on this team are not the same. I don’t think it’s fair for us to play the same way that they played. We’re still trying to figure out what our identity is and how we can play that is best suited to the personnel that we have.
“I don’t want to make any excuses, but we’re dealing with injuries. We’re playing 3 ½ quarters pretty well, but the half a quarter we don’t play well really does us in. That’s not to point fingers at anybody; I have to do better, we have to play better as a group. We have to play hard. It hasn’t always been the case, having a consistent level of effort. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Shaw will have time, because the Nuggets have no intention of firing him. General Manager Tim Connolly has stood staunchly behind Shaw -- a position he has privately long held and publicly reinforced to the Denver Post last week -- and there is still a strong belief within the organization that Shaw can become an elite head coach. But this is a team in transition. The Nuggets have already made one move, shipping center Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland for a pair of first-round picks, and Connolly has made it clear that the team will pursue even more before this month’s trade deadline. The active pursuit of Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez -- who is about as effective in transition as a Clydesdale -- is further evidence that this team is seeking to evolve into a more halfcourt oriented bunch.
The constant trade chatter, Shaw admits, has been a distraction.
“When you hear your name swirling around in trade rumors, it can’t help but have an effect on most people,” Shaw said. “But I say now and I say to them, it’s something we can’t control. As a player I was traded a few times. I can say to them until I’m blue in the face that they should continue to play and control what you can on the floor, but you are still going to think about it. It’s still going to have an effect on you. But whatever happens is going to happen. It’s part of the business and we have to deal with it.”
In the meantime, Shaw will continue to look for answers. He has tried everything to push his players, from blasting them in public to cajoling them in private, from threatening major changes to suggesting, perhaps kiddingly, that the team was trying to lose. His motivation tactics have swung from the conventional (see above) to the unconventional; recently, Shaw admitted to rapping a pre-game scouting report. The results have not been encouraging. A day after losing to Philadelphia -- Philadelphia! -- the Nuggets fell to Boston in a game where the team imploded due to poor execution in the final few minutes.
Two years ago, Denver was on the rise; now no one can seem to stop the free fall.
Five Questions: Langston Galloway
The Knicks guard, and former D-League call-up, is averaging 11.3 points per game this season.
SI.com: You went undrafted out of St. Joseph’s. Were you surprised?
LG: Not really. I heard stuff about not being the biggest two-guard, not being the quickest one. Then not being able to handle being a point guard. It was fuel for me. I went to Portsmouth, I had a chance to show a little bit of what I can do, and that’s what got the Knicks interested in me.
SI.com: Did you think about playing overseas?
LG: I did. I thought about trying to get the money first. I had a few offers in Italy, one in Germany, one in Spain. They were pretty significant. But I talked to my agent and my parents and I thought the best decision was to stay and try and develop in the D-League. Even though it’s not a prestigious league, I knew I could build on my game every day. Westchester gave me the opportunity.
SI.com: What position do you consider yourself?
LG: I think I can play the one. I think I can be a scoring one. A lot of guards nowadays are ones that score. I try to watch guys like that. And I want to be able to distribute the ball as well. But I can do it.
SI.com: What’s been your biggest adjustment?
LG: Probably the tempo. The NBA game is so much faster. At first, the [longer] three-point shot was tough. It was a struggle. You are shooting with a different ball and you have to get used to that range. Getting used to the ball is a difference too. It’s a little bigger, it’s leather, it has a different feel to it. But you adjust.
SI.com: Carmelo Anthony has compared your impact on this team to Jeremy Lin’s…
LG: I don’t look at it as me being compared to Linsanity; it’s just me being compared to another NBA player, which is great. He’s in the league for a reason and I’m just trying to stick in the league. I want to build and grow as a player and continue to stay confident.
Jacque Vaughn takes fall in Orlando
Before we address why the Magic fired Jacque Vaughn, a word about how they did it: Horribly.
In the last week there has been a slow drip of indications coming from the Magic organization that Vaughn was on thin ice. With the losses piling up, the front office declined to say if Vaughn would finish the season -- which was fine, if they didn’t believe it -- but what followed was a water torture like death for Vaughn, a standup guy who constantly had to answer questions about national reports that his firing was imminent. It was a shady move, one that didn’t go unnoticed by other coaches around the league. Said one coach, “We get hired to eventually get fired. But what they did to Jacque was disrespectful.”
Did Vaughn deserve to get fired? It’s a results oriented business, and Vaughn -- in year three with the Magic -- failed to win 30 percent of his games in his first two seasons and was on a similar pace in this one. In the aftermath of Dwight Howard’s departure, the front office has slowly replenished the roster with promising young talent (Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton) and clearly had higher expectations than what Vaughn was able to produce. More troubling than the record -- 2-16 since Dec. 30 -- was how they were losing. The team, as GM Rob Hennigan told the Orlando Sentinal recently, looked like it had lost its competitive spirit.
"We went into the season wanting to see some progress," Hennigan said. "We wanted to see growth, and we just didn't feel like we were seeing the type of growth that we wanted to see. So that led us to this point. I would say that we find ourselves in a little bit of a rut right now. We'll call it what it is. But I would also say that it's a road bump, not a road block."
Orlando will begin a national coaching search and, according to sources, plans to cast a wide net. Scott Skiles, the former Magic guard, is a leading candidate. Mark Jackson, Mike Malone and Vinny Del Negro figure to eventually be on the interview list. If the Magic go with a stop-gap the rest of the season -- assistant coach James Borrego is the interim coach -- several league sources believe Orlando could make a run at Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, should the relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls become too toxic to continue.
Whoever is hired will face challenges. Orlando does have some nice pieces, but there isn’t a franchise player among them. Vucevic is steady at center and the closest thing the team has to an All-Star, but he is best suited for a supporting role. So too is Oladipo, an improving three-point shooter who still doesn’t strike fear in defenses, and Payton, a dynamic playmaker and, to this point, an incredibly bad shooter. The jury is still out on Aaron Gordon; there is kind of a Blake Griffin-like athleticism there that could make Gordon special if he develops a perimeter shot. But the Magic are years away from figuring that out. With Vaughn gone the pressure shifts to Hennigan, who must find a centerpiece to blend in with a team full of prospects.
Quote of the Week I
“He was kind of known as an a--hole.” -- Lakers coach Byron Scott on Jason Kidd, who Scott coached in New Jersey.
The Nets fired Scott in 2004, a decision Kidd reportedly strongly supported. There is clearly still no love lost between Scott and Kidd; when asked to describe his relationship with Kidd now, Scott said, “Cordial -- and that’s about as good as it’s going to get.”
Quote of the Week II
“If it was a Tour de France, the bike would be a really fantastic thing. I don’t know how much that helps with basketball.” -- Rockets coach Kevin McHale on Dwight Howard.
Howard's recurring knee problems limited him to stationary bike work this week. The Rockets center will miss at least four weeks after having a bone marrow aspirate injection in his right knee.
Tweet of the Week
March?!— Paul George (@Yg_Trece) February 3, 2015
Pacers forward Paul George not so subtly suggesting he could return to the Indiana Pacers last month. Speaking to local reporters, team president Larry Bird confirmed that George’s return this season was a possibility. It would be a startlingly quick recovery for George, who suffered a grotesque right leg injury last August.
Look out: Here comes Cleveland. The Cavaliers destroyed the Clippers at home on Thursday, the team’s 12th straight win. Cleveland is outscoring opponents by an average of 12.8 points during its current run, while also holding them to just 41.8 shooting from the field … Player to keep an eye on before the trade deadline: Minnesota’s Kevin Martin. He is owed $14 million over the next two seasons but could be a valuable asset to a team looking for scoring punch off the bench. Dallas and Washington are among the possibilities … While Marcus Smart has been a staple in Boston’s rotation this season, the Celtics other first round pick, James Young, is starting to get extended minutes. Young, 19, is raw and needs work defensively. But he has a picture-perfect jump shot and NBA range. One comparison: Michael Redd, another southpaw who developed into one of the league’s best shooters in his day … The NBA blew it by not choosing Damian Lillard to replace Kobe Bryant on the All-Star team. DeMarcus Cousins is having a fine season, but Lillard is the second-best player on a top-four team having arguably his best season. In situations like this, team success should be rewarded … Anyone else dying to see what Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to do in the dunk contest? A prediction: The Greek Freak dunks from well in front of the free-throw line.