Brian Shaw is the definition of old school. The Nuggets’ now former head coach was a gritty role player on three NBA champions and another Finalist. He moved to the bench after he retired and became a top assistant on some great teams in Los Angeles and Indiana.
He finally landed the Nuggets job in 2013 after being on seemingly everyone’s short list for several years. Despite his airtight qualifications and championship background, his tenure in Denver was a disaster. On Monday, the Nuggets dropped their sixth straight game and the 19th of their past 21, falling to 20-39 on the season. On Tuesday, they showed Shaw the door.
The catalyst for the move, apart from all the losing, may have come after the team finally broke into the national hoops conversation for all the wrong reasons. Last week it was reported that the players had begun breaking huddles by chanting, “One, two, three…six weeks!”—as in the amount of time left in the season before they could start their summer vacation. This was viewed by the sports press and Twitterati as a sign that Shaw had “lost the locker room,” a cardinal sin for any coach.
Shaw refuted the report, explaining that the six weeks chant was, in fact, the players motivating themselves with the reminder that it’s been that long since they won a home game. (As of today, alas, it’s closer to seven.) But the damage was done; Shaw admitted as much during said explanation when he acknowledged that his team is a league-wide laughingstock right now. And right now, he’s the one taking the fall for it.
As I’ve argued before, all this losing could actually be a good thing if the franchise plays it right. As the NBA trade deadline approached last month, the Nuggets were in the middle of numerous rumors, as just about every player on its roster was officially or unofficially available. The Nuggets ended up shipping out Aaron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee to Portland, and they immediately waived two of the three players they received in return. They also gave the Sixers a first round draft pick—which have never been more valuable strategically and financially—to entice the Sixers to take JaVale McGee(‘s ridiculous contract) off their hands, a tacit admission of the massive screwup it was to sign him to a long-term deal in the first place.
Shaw’s firing is another such admission. Unfortunately, canning Shaw might not actually change anything. That’s because the team’s front office will still be there. (Sound familiar, Rockies fans?) Between president Josh Kroenke and GM Tim Connelly, it’s not clear that the Nuggets’ brass has any idea what it wants to be. Under George Karl the team ran nonstop, but Shaw was schooled in a slower, more halfcourt game and wanted to play that way here—altitude advantage be damned.
Yet, rather than get him the type of players this requires, the front office kept making head-scratching deals hoping the pieces would somehow fit. (It’s no coincidence that Karl, who just took the reins in Sacramento, has already made some noise about acquiring a few of his former Denver thoroughbreds to run his system out West.)
The tiniest sliver of silver lining is that the Nuggets have played so poorly the past few months that they’ll likely end up with a high lottery pick in this summer’s draft without having had to gut the roster, and they’ll have several other first round picks over the next few years. But what they need as much as players is a far more coherent plan for how to use them. Hopefully Shaw’s successor as coach will be someone who demonstrates that the team’s exceedingly green front office is beginning to learn some lessons.
Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.