It’s been over a year since the Denver Nuggets fired Brian Shaw. The Nuggets are retooled with enough young talent to soon make basketball in Denver fun again. Their coach, Michael Malone, is well respected around the league and is held with reverence among difficult players. The Nuggets have been better than expected this year, but are not playoff ready.
However, Denver doesn’t trust the Denver Nuggets.
Whether you’re a company, a business, a friend or a sports team, trust is hard to regain if you make a mistake. In professional sports, fans invest their money in a team and then hold a belief that the team should act within the best interests of the paying fan base.
The Nuggets are still recovering from the credibility hit they took after firing coach George Karl. I covered dozens of Nuggets games between 2012-2015 and respect the people who cover and work for the team. As I’ve watched this Nuggets season from afar, I’ve been struck by the difference of opinion held by people close to the Nuggets organization and the casual fan.
The Nuggets Mistake
At least in hindsight, the casual fan still doesn’t understand why the Denver Nuggets fired George Karl. At the time of his firing, he had just won the most games in Nuggets history and kept the Nuggets in the playoffs every year. Karl was fired after losing in the first round to the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs before they were “the best thing that ever happened to basketball.” The Nuggets best player, Danilo Gallinari, was injured before the series and the Nuggets limped out of the playoffs.
There was a large contingency of diehard Nuggets fans calling for Karl’s firing at the time—they had been for years. It’s clear now that the casual Denver fan was content, but I think the front office listened to those diehard fans.
They brought in Brian Shaw, who wanted the Nuggets to be a little worse in the regular season, but better in the playoffs. The Nuggets never made the playoffs. They became an NBA bottom feeder with embarrassing incidents on and off the court.
After a year and a half, the Nuggets made the decision to fire Shaw, believing that such a move could restore the Nuggets integrity. That sense of prestige has not been restored.
Where’s the Nuggets Integrity?
To many Nuggets fans, the mistake was not in hiring Shaw, but in firing Karl. No one with the Nuggets ever really acknowledged that error in firing Karl. Fans don’t feel like they can trust the organization. President Josh Kroenke and General Manager Tim Connelly (I’ll get to him) are still making the team’s decisions.
It seems like the Nuggets’ management (and Shaw) were happy using their players as scapegoats. If you follow the Nuggets you know the problems included Gallinari’s injury, Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, Javale McGee and more. The Nuggets are cleaning up these problems, but fans are still comparing this team to the Karl Nuggets.
According to the Harvard Business Review, “of all the factors that can undermine behavioral integrity, among the most dangerous is managers’ inability to see an integrity problem in themselves.” This feels like the problem with the Nuggets—they never really grasped where the hits to their reputation were coming from.
Fans May Be Wrong, Nuggets May Be Crazy
“Real trust (even in our modern culture) doesn’t always come from divulging, from providing more transparency, but from the actions that people take (or that we think they take) before our eyes. It comes from people who show up before they have to, who help us when they think no one is watching. It comes from people and organizations that play a role that we need them to play.” —Seth Godin
The disconnect between people closely following the Nuggets and the casual fan arises at this point. Connelly seems like the right guy for the Nuggets and he is drafting well. People who know Connelly speak highly of him and he’s made great transactions. Head Coach Michael Malone seems like a good coach for a young team. However, neither person is building on the Nuggets integrity right now.
When the Nuggets fired Shaw, they replaced him with Melvin Hunt, a George Karl guy who was well-liked in the era of success. Choosing an unknown like Malone instead of Hunt or another well-respected Nuggets figure Chauncey Billups, didn’t restore that trust.
Come on, would those guys really bring trust? Think about how the Denver Broncos recovered from the disastrous Josh McDaniel era. They brought in the most trusted man in Colorado: John Elway. The same goes for the Colorado Avalanche. After seasons of poor play, they leaned on trust built up with the championships of the Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy era.
I’m not saying this is how trust should work, but in a city with four major sports teams, why spend energy on the Nuggets if the team hasn’t repaired that relationship?
So how can the Nuggets rebuild trust? Make the playoffs again. In fact, if they can win a playoff series in the next few years—this era of distrust might already be forgotten (although, I still know some fans that are mad the Nuggets fired Doug Moe). This may require some relationship counseling.
For more sportswriting by Derek Kessinger, visit DerekinDenver.com