When the 2012–13 Nuggets followed their NBA franchise-record 57-win season with a long playoff run, fans couldn’t wait to see what coach George Karl and general manager Masai Ujiri would cook up next for the budding Western Conference powerhouse.
That’s how a 2013–14 Nuggets preview might have started if not for the series of unanticipated changes, setbacks, and regrettable behavior that defined our team’s spring and summer. First, the white-hot Warriors ran the Nuggets out of the proverbial gym in April. The upset, in part, cost Karl his job, and Ujiri soon followed him out the door. When the team’s top free agent, Andre Iguodala, defected to Golden State, sports outlets far and wide dubbed Denver one of the offseason’s unqualified “losers.”
Are the naysayers right? True, Karl was last year’s NBA Coach of the Year and is a likely hall-of-famer. Yes, Ujiri was the 2012 Executive of the Year and is a rising front-office star. Yes, replacing AI’s defense and all-around play will be difficult. And yes, the tough Western Conference—especially the Clippers, Rockets, Wolves, and Blazers—has become considerably tougher.
But before we spiral into freak-out mode, let’s take a closer look at the Nuggets’ new roster. No one they have now can defend like Iguodala; the holdovers might not even be as good on D as the also-gone Corey Brewer. However, neither Iguodala nor Brewer could shoot. At all. (The pair barely hit 30 percent of their almost 600 attempted three-pointers, an unconscionable display of bricklaying.) In new guards Randy Foye and Nate Robinson, the Nuggets have far superior gunners from both three-point land and the free-throw line. In tandem with Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, the developing Evan Fournier, and (eventually, when he recovers from his knee injury) Danilo Gallinari—accomplished shooters all—the Nuggets’ wingmen should be far more efficient than last year’s group.
Down low, the team will be even more gritty and athletic: Scrappy newcomer J.J. Hickson will back up Kenneth Faried, and the electric JaVale McGee finally gets his long-clamored-for chance to take starter minutes from the departed (and leaden) Kosta Koufos. McGee will be a wild card until we figure out whether his—let’s say, offbeat—noodle can catch up to his incredible physical gifts. (In 2012, buzzfeed.com affectionately named him the NBA’s weirdest player.) Overseeing this revamped unit will be first-time head coach Brian Shaw, who’s long been considered one of the brightest young minds in basketball. That the Nuggets were the team to finally give him his chance isn’t just an overdue move—it should be considered a coup.
We’re not suggesting the Nuggets will match last year’s 57 wins. But with its core intact (and the anticipation of Gallinari’s return, rumored to be around the end of December), something in the range of 42 to 48 wins and a playoff berth seem possible. And if Shaw can coax mental and physical excellence from this youthful squad of explosive athletes, the Nuggets’ next era could be pure gold.
Highlights from the Nuggets’ 2013–14 home schedule.
The defending Western Conference champs make their first of two Pepsi Center visits.
Will Kobe be back from his torn Achilles tendon?
Melo returns for the Nuggets’ only home game in a three-week stretch.
Still one of the teams to beat in the West.
First chance to avenge last year’s playoff upset, and now the W’s will have Iguodala in tow.
LeBron and the champs make their only Denver appearance—until the NBA Finals.
Coach Shaw faces his old team, an Eastern Conference favorite.
CP3 and the best five in L.A. finally land in Denver.
Celtics fans, this is where most of your favorites play now.
Another Western powerhouse arrives at the end of a tough four-game stretch, including one game against Oklahoma City and two versus San Antonio.
Dwight Howard makes his only visit to the Pepsi Center.
One last tune-up before the playoffs.
Time to Shine
With nearly a decade of experience as an NBA assistant coach, new Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw has more than paid his dues; now he plans to instill the confidence his team needs to win the championship he’s enjoyed five different times. Here’s how.
Born: March 22, 1966, Oakland, California
College: University of California at Santa Barbara
Playing career: 1988–2003 (seven NBA teams)
Coaching career: 2005–11 (Lakers); 2011–13 (Pacers)
Family: Wife Nikki Shaw, three kids
For the past five years or so, Brian Shaw’s name seems to have been connected to virtually every head coaching vacancy in the NBA. The reason? The guy is simply a winner. The owner of five championship rings—three as a player, two as an assistant coach (all with the Lakers)—Shaw has played or coached alongside some of the biggest names in NBA history: Kobe, Shaq, Larry Bird, and Phil Jackson, among many others. This past summer, he sat down with 5280 (before he’d even had the chance to unpack his office) to discuss roster tweaks, his expectations for the coming season, and what he learned from all those legends.
5280: How many head coaching jobs have you interviewed for?
Brian Shaw: This was my 12th.
5280: How did you start to feel after the sixth or seventh?
BS: I’ve been a finalist in a few different situations, but I never really got discouraged. It gave me an opportunity to continue to learn. I left Los Angeles for Indiana [in 2010] to be in a different system. I’d been typecast as just a “triangle” guy [the complex system coach Phil Jackson rode to 11 championships]. But I played for seven different teams with multiple coaches and systems, and most of them ran more common sets. But honestly, I think my association with the triangle might have scared some people, even though about 70 percent of the league runs it in some form.
5280: Do you know what system you’ll run?
BS: I’ll tailor it to the guys. I have an idea of what I want to do, but Denver teams have a history of taking advantage of the altitude, getting up and down the floor. Obviously, we want to keep some of that, but the teams I’ve been around have had success playing a more traditional style with an inside presence. We have to develop JaVale McGee and [Timofey] Mozgov. The team last year didn’t really utilize some of the things I feel those two can do, so putting them in a position to succeed and building their confidence will be a big part of it. We’re very solid at the guard positions with Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson, Randy Foye, and Andre Miller. The one concern I have is they’re all pretty small. Guys like Evan Fournier, who has a more prototypical size for a guard, will have to develop. And we still have to see what Jordan Hamilton and Quincy Miller can do. And our free-throw shooting has to greatly improve, especially if we’re going inside more. It doesn’t do any good to pound the ball inside if you can’t make them pay from the line.
5280: What differences have you noticed so far about being the head coach instead of
BS: You never know all the administrative things that go on until you’re here. That and talking to the media almost every day. As assistants we didn’t have to do that. Now it all comes through you, so I’ve been learning to balance it. The first couple days I was doing so much I wasn’t eating. I’d look up and it was 5 p.m., and I’d wonder why I had a headache.
5280: How does this position feel different from other jobs you’ve interviewed for?
BS: I’m taking over a playoff team, although it will be a different team than last year’s. For me, it’s a great situation. Usually a first-time coach comes in to a rebuild or a teardown, and you have to take your lumps. So I feel fortunate.
5280: How do you plan to talk about your five championship rings to this group?
BS: I’ll talk a lot about what it takes to go deep into June and how you have to be committed together from the jump. At some point I’ll probably bring the rings in and let the guys see them. I’ve done it in the past, usually right before the playoffs start, to hit home that “this is what you play for.” Obviously, the money and notoriety are great [ED: The role-playing Shaw banked more than $28 million in salary during his 14-year NBA career], but when you get these rings, you become part of an elite club. When you put on weight and lose all your hair, the guys make fun of you. They can say whatever they want, but they still have to call me a champion.
5280: What have you learned from all the legends you’ve been around?
BS: For the guys who were truly great—not just players, but GMs like Red Auerbach and Jerry West—it starts with work ethic, as well as knowledge of and respect for the game. I was fortunate to come onto a veteran team [as a rookie] with the Celtics. They taught me how to be a pro, how to take care of your body if you want to have longevity. And I saw the same thing at the end of my career with the Lakers. Being around great players and executives and seeing their expectation level means I’ve always expected to play deep into the playoffs, and I feel like I know what it takes. It can happen with this team as long as everything falls into place.
The Show Must Go On
The Nuggets’ director of game presentation takes us inside game night at the Pepsi Center.
Anyone who’s ever attended a Nuggets game is familiar with its frenetic and fun off-court entertainment: The dance team’s funky routines. The “Super Squad” firing T-shirts from cannons into the crowd. Rocky dropping from the ceiling or hitting no-look half-court shots. Halftime performances ranging from acrobats to rappers. And behind it all, one man: Shawn Martinez. Since 2002, the Nuggets’ director of game presentation has overseen the seemingly seamless package that unfolds every game night at the Pepsi Center. “I’m in control of just about everything the players don’t do,” the 45-year-old says. Here, he walks us through his typical game day for an inside perspective on what it takes to produce one of Denver’s most enjoyable nights on the town.
• 9 a.m. A 2.5-hour game usually means a 13-hour day for Shawn Martinez, who hones his production skills by spinning DJ gigs around town under the name Tribal Touch. So the Fort Lewis College alum arrives at the Pepsi Center early to make sure he’s prepared.
• 10 a.m. Martinez starts his workday by updating the game script, including which videos and ads will appear on the scoreboard (and when) and what the timeout plans are for the dancers, Rocky, and the Super Squad.
• Two hours before tipoff It’s time for the sound check with whoever is performing the national anthem. The singers are selected at auditions in September and slated throughout the season.
• One hour before tipoff As fans file in, Martinez watches to ensure the pregame programming—videos and presentations—go smoothly. This year fans will enjoy the addition of a new high-definition scoreboard that’s three times the size of the old screen, as well as a new sound system (read: sensitive listeners, bring your ear plugs).
• Pregame The Super Squad fires a round of T-shirts into the crowd—the first of many such stunts. The NBA checks in once per year and during the offseason to let Martinez and his league counterparts know what’s working and what’s not. Last year they noted the T-shirts were a big hit. Among the league’s latest (and long overdue) suggestions is to turn off the music while the ball’s in play.
• Just before tipoff Martinez checks in with the marketing department to confirm the attendance of game ball recipients, an occasional happening, and where they will be seated. (Recent honorees include Missy Franklin, Governor John Hickenlooper, and Mayor Michael Hancock.)
• TIPOFF Once the game starts, Martinez sits next to PA announcer Kyle Speller so he can listen, watch for changes, and react accordingly—such as a 20-second timeout switching to a full or an injury causing his performers to lose one of their scheduled slots.
• Halftime Martinez also oversees the booking of halftime acts, which the organization tries to change yearly—with the exception of rapper Vanilla Ice, who’s killed it twice on the Pepsi Center hardwood. This year Debbie Gibson might make an appearance for ’80s night. Since halftimes are too short to move an entire band on and off the court, these acts can bring their own headaches, such as when Martinez had to switch to a backup CD when one act’s music didn’t cue.
• Third quarter Now things get interesting, depending on whether the Nuggets are down 10, up 10, or if the crowd is hyped. The latter part of the game is when you might see a “hot” timeout, when all the performers hit the floor to keep the arena’s energy bubbling. But if the Nuggets are trailing by 20, Martinez won’t prolong the agony with extra entertainment.
• After the buzzer Martinez concludes the night with a meeting with his crew to discuss what worked and what didn’t and how to improve for the next game.
The Nuggets’ team photographer, Garrett Ellwood, who has worked for the NBA since 1995, shares the keys to capturing an NBA game.
Setup. I usually sit right next to the basket on a fold-up camp chair. I use six cameras: two in my hands and four at the other end that I’ll fire remotely. They might sit on a catwalk, behind the backboard, or above or below the basket, depending on who’s playing. If a team like the Miami Heat is in town, I’ll use every camera I have.
Photo shop. I send about 50 select shots to Getty Images each night, out of about 800 I shoot during a game.
There will be blood—but you won’t see it. The photos are marketing for the league, so I’m looking mostly for “cleaner” action shots. I have a ton of pictures from fights or players bleeding from injuries, but they rarely see the light of day.
Crash test dummy. I’ve been run over I don’t know how many times. I got killed at summer league this year; there were just a lot of guys trying to make the team, and I got crushed four or five times in Vegas.
Say “cheese.” I was in L.A. when Shaq was there, and he knocked the shit out of me one time, under the seats and into someone’s nachos. I was on the Jumbotron. It was a disaster; I had that cheesy sauce all over me the rest of the game.
How to take a hit. We photographers just hope we don’t hurt one of the guys. We’re sitting there with metal objects, so the last thing we want to do is cut someone or trip them up.
Tight quarters. Some buildings are way worse than others. Sacramento has to be the worst. The patrons’ knees are in your back, and you’re getting kicked by a ref the whole time.
The money shot. We try to make the crowd look good. It’s easier during the playoffs when they hand out towels and T-shirts. And Getty has big demands for celebrity shots, especially during the NBA Finals or an All-Star Game. Sometimes it seems like you focus more on that stuff than on the game.
Rocky bombs. My remote cameras get knocked out all the time. The one above the basket is especially vulnerable to half-court shots. But it’s mostly Rocky. I want to kill him when he does that half-court shot; he’s drilled my camera like three times, but it’s such a good angle I have to put it up there and deal with what happens.
The camera loves them. Allen Iverson was awesome to shoot—he was always slashing to the basket, yelling, flailing. Melo was great. Nenê always seemed like he was looking at the camera. JaVale McGee is a goofball, just a funny guy, so he’s fun to shoot.
Little known facts about some of your favorite Denver players.
Was the first athlete member of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that works to encourage the acceptance of others and end homophobia in sports.
Attended the launch of One Colorado to celebrate the passing of Senate Bill 11, the Colorado Civil Unions Act.
Wears No. 94 because it’s the area code in his home region of France.
Inspired Evan: Le Reve Américan (The American Dream), a film about his rise from the French pro leagues to the NBA, which premiered in Paris on October 17.
Has a degree in geography from Villanova. Started the Randy Foye Foundation in 2007 to help inner-city kids in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey.
Is the oldest of seven siblings.Dunked for the first time at age 13. (In case you’re thinking BFD, he’s five-foot-nine now.) Played defensive back for the University of Washington football team in 2002 before his father convinced him to give up the sport and concentrate on basketball.
Produces a Web series, “State of Nate,” that chronicles his life on and off the court.
Has an older brother (Gary) who played basketball at the University of Miami and played pro ball internationally in Japan, Germany, and elsewhere; his two younger brothers, Isaac and Daniel, are considered top prospects in college and high school, respectively.
A history of basketball in Denver.
James Naismith, having invented “basket ball” in 1891, moves to Denver to work for the Denver YMCA.
Colorado’s first Amateur Athletic Union team, the Denver Safeway-Piggly Wigglys, plays at the Denver Auditorium.
The team changes its name to the Nuggets for two seasons.
The professional Denver Nuggets play one season in the NBA, finishing 11-51, before dissolving.
Founded as the Denver Larks, the team becomes the Rockets after trucking magnate Bill Ringsby buys it for $350,000.
Name change: The Rockets become the Nuggets.
The team loses to the New York Nets, led by Julius Erving, in the last-ever ABA Finals before the ABA-NBA merger.
Three straight excellent regular seasons are capped off with three straight premature playoff exits.
The team scores at least 100 points for 136 straight games, averaging 126.2 per game—both records.
The Detroit Pistons beat the Nuggets 186-184 in triple OT, the highest-scoring game in league history.
McNichols Arena hosts its first NBA All-Star Game, highlighted by the inaugural slam-dunk contest.
The Nuggets reach the Western Conference Finals for the second time before losing to the Lakers.
The Nuggets win 54 games but are once again upset in the playoffs.
The team gives up more than 130 points per game, earning the nickname ’Enver Nuggets (no “D”).
The team becomes the first 8-seed to upset a top seed in round one of the playoffs, thanks to Dikembe Mutombo’s 31 blocked shots over five games.
Converted Muslim Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Chris Jackson) causes a national controversy when he refuses to stand for the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The team vacates McNichols Arena for the Pepsi Center.
Stan Kroenke purchases the team and the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche.
A 17-65 record enables the team to draft Carmelo Anthony with the third overall pick. The Nuggets win 43 games the following season and haven’t finished under .500 since.
A Western Conference Finals loss to the Lakers ends the Nuggets’ best season since 1985.
Anthony is traded to the New York Knicks.
Déjà vu. The team wins an NBA franchise-record 57 games before being upset in round one of the playoffs.