History Shows Downside to Denver Nuggets’ Coach Brian Shaw

The Denver Nuggets traded in Coach of the Year, George Karl, for Coach of the Future, Brian Shaw. Now an organization trying to rebuild itself has to ask what it will take to get Back to the Future; on pace with the 57 win team of this year. While Brian Shaw said the right things at his opening press conference, and has the right endorsements, from the Kobe Bryant’s of the world, Nuggets fans should be wary.

Shaw laid out several key elements to success in his press conference. The general buzz is that Shaw became the coach because he motivates, is well-liked by players, develops talent and commits to working on the half court offense to make sure the Nuggets win in the playoffs. In other words, everything the Nuggets say Karl was not doing.

The motivating factor is big for NBA players. This was a strength of Karl’s with the roster assembled. However, he was judicious in his playing time, believing he distributed it to maximize players’ potential and work effort, relying on his assistants to work with everyone. While Shaw was great at motivating as an assistant coach, he did not have the power to give out minutes. This changes the game.

Coaches in Denver’s history who have been well-liked by players, but not particularly great motivators include the Colorado Rockies’ Jim Tracy and the Colorado Avalanche’s Tony Granato. The players felt that the hands-off approach and general openness created a better locker room atmosphere. However, Granato never helped the Avs ascend back to Western Conference Finals, where they played six times in seven years before his arrival. Tracy initially had success, but when the team struggled, he had no way of turning things around.

The second factor in the management selecting Shaw is that he will play the young players more. It has been a poorly kept secret that team President Josh Kroenke was upset by the lack of playing time for Javale McGee, Evan Fornier, Jordan Hamilton and others. Karl believed in developing players in practice and saw little point in playing guys too much when they were only reinforcing bad habits (think Tebow’s throwing motion). Since it was presumed that Karl would not be okay discussing playing minutes with management, he was replaced.

Former Avalanche coach Joel Quenville had a similar disagreement with Kroenke management over player development. He told the staff that they were over valuing the talent accumulated on the roster and so they replaced him with Granato (his second time as head coach) and then Joe Sacco. The Avs have qualified for one playoff since parting with Quenville, who just won his second Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

It appears that Shaw does have a good chance of turning the Nuggets half court game around for the playoffs, but at what cost? I’m of the camp that believes Karl’s Nuggets won about 10 more games than they should have, which would have kept them out of home court advantage. If they had lost 12 more games they would have been out of the playoffs. To management’s point, the Nuggets were not focused heading into the playoffs and maybe Shaw is the coach to deal with that problem, but perhaps the Nuggets were just too young realize how hard the playoffs truly are.

I hope that Brian Shaw succeeds and these perceived weaknesses are not cracks in a strong team’s foundation. The 2012-2013 season was the most enjoyable regular season of any pro team I can remember since the 2000-2001 Avalanche. I will be sad if the Nuggets are no longer that team. However, every Nuggets fan will be devastated if the playoff berth streak soon comes to an end.

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