By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS — Thirteen first-time NBA coaches will head into summer with experiences each will never forget, from Brett Brown coping with a bare-bones 76ers squad to Jason Kidd unlocking a star-laden Nets team whose luxury tax payment alone will nearly double the Sixers’ payroll.
Then there’s Brian Shaw. The Denver Nuggets coach, a disciple of Phil Jackson, took over a 57-win team coached by a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer, an 1,100-game-winner and one of the league’s all-time great innovators. George Karl might have led the Nuggets out of the first round just once in nine seasons, but he won a lot with a fun, energetic style.
Shaw inherited a team that lost its two premiere wing runners, Andre Iguodala, also a defensive stopper, and Corey Brewer. It wasn’t long into the season before Shaw lost veteran backup point guard Andre Miller to a power struggle and banished him from the team.
Then there were the injuries: Dino Gallinari never returned from last season’s ACL tear, JaVale McGee lasted five games, then Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson and trade newcomer Jan Vesely. Point guard, leading scorer and top assist man Ty Lawson has missed 14 games; 12 each for second-leading scorer Wilson Chandler and reserve forward Darrell Arthur.
“A lot of people talk about the first-year head coach stuff and he [Shaw] hasn’t shown any of that at all,” Nuggets top assistant Lester Conner said. “He’s set the foundation. It’s been an injury-riddled season for us and the way he’s handled it, it’s like one of the best coaches in the league, and he is. He doesn’t have the tenure like some of them have, but if you look at our game and how we play and look at how we compete, if you were blindfolded, you wouldn’t think that there was a fisrt-year head coach. He’s been in a lot of wars as far as championships with Phil, so he knows what it’s like. He’s handled the media well, he’s handled the Andre Miller situation well. He’s done a great job.”
However so, the Nuggets are on pace to not make the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Yet it seems things could be a whole lot worse than Denver’s 32-39 record attained through stretches of feast or famine and seemingly always banged-up bodies.
“One of the things one of my mentor’s, Phil Jackson, always preached to me was believing in your system and what you’re doing out there,” said Shaw, who communicates with Jackson once every week or two throughout the season. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in great situations with great teams that have had the ultimate success at the end of the season, and so I believe that I know what it looks like, I know what it takes, what kind of work ethic goes into it and what kind of habits need to be developed by our players.”
Lawson, the fifth-year point guard seemingly on the precipice of making an All-Star team, and under contract through 2017, said he stands behind Shaw “100 percent,” and went so far as to make a bold prediction for a healthy — knock-on-wood — 2014-15 campaign: “I think we will definitely be good, maybe top four in the West next year.
“I look at [our] record and think about all the injuries we went through, especially [Chandler], me, Nate, everybody went down,” Lawson continued. “We had a lot of different parts.”
Shaw, 48, spent 10 years with the Lakers and then Pacers working toward this opportunity. He came in with no misgivings of the challenge and made no promises. He did have a vision, and a plan to transform Karl’s freewheeling Nuggets into a team that could execute in the halfcourt through inside play without fully stifling the run-and-gun style.
But Shaw his concept initially led to confusion. Frontcourt players interpreted it to mean they’d receive an entry pass every time down the floor and would be allowed to go to work. That frustrated Lawson, whose game is predicated on his speed and ability to drive to the rim.
“Ty was frustrated early on until we really were able to clarify what that meant, that inside play could be a small guy posting up, or if it was just penetration and getting into the paint,” Shaw said. “So now I think what you see is Ty flourishing (18.1 ppg, 8.9 apg), Kenneth [Faried] (12.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg) is really starting to come into his own; they’ve had their best numbers since they’ve been in the league. [Timofey] Mozgoz has had a chance to play and is developing, so I think they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ten players are under contract for next season. Gallinari is expected to return and McGee will make another run at ditching his “Shaqtin’ A Fool” persona and becoming a legitimate NBA starting center.
As his first campaign draws to a close, Shaw is coaching the players still standing with an eye toward next season.
“Everybody now has an understanding of exactly what I expect of them, how we want to play and what we want to do going forward,” Shaw said. “Obviously there are some guys that are on the roster right now that are going to be here next year and some that aren’t, but for me, I’ve said that this is going to be a year of discovery to really understand what it is that we have to work with.”