I first met Brian Shaw 24 years ago, in October 1989, at a banquet in Rome honoring the Nuggets, that year’s NBA entry in the McDonald’s Open, a four-team bracket during the preseason that passed for international competition at the time.
Longtime Nuggets fans may remember that international road trip — coach Doug Moe stood for most of the trans-Atlantic flight because he hadn’t yet discovered Valium for his flying anxiety — as coinciding with former owner Sidney Shlenker’s increasingly desperate attempts to sell the franchise.
A couple of young American players had taken Italy by storm, choosing the Italian pro league over the NBA. Danny Ferry, the second overall pick in the NBA draft that year, and Shaw, a first-round pick the previous year who spurned the Boston Celtics’ qualifying offer, were instant celebrities. They were validating European basketball.
I got an opportunity to speak with them for only a few minutes at that banquet. Like John Elway six years earlier, Ferry didn’t want to play for the flaky owner who had drafted him, in this case Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers. Shaw, then 23, had a more complicated tale. Only one quote from our conversation made the Rocky Mountain News on Oct. 22, 1989:
“The chance for security for me and my family was really important. I want to eventually go back.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, Shaw offered more detail on the radio show last summer, just after being hired to replace George Karl as the Nuggets’ head coach:
“When I got drafted by the Celtics the year before that, in ’88, they were over the salary cap and I was only able to make the minimum for a first-round pick. So what I did was I only signed a one-year deal, which everybody kind of said was crazy, but I felt confident in my ability that I’d have a good showing my rookie year and so it made me immediately a restricted free agent my second year.
“So basically the Celtics came back and they just gave me a qualifying offer and they was playing hardball. Fortunately for me, Danny Ferry had just gotten drafted by the Clippers. He didn’t want to go play for them. Our owner over in Italy, a very wealthy man, offered Danny $2 million to come over there and play for a season, which was unheard of over there. I think at the time Bob McAdoo was the highest-paid player in Europe and he was making about $400,000.
“So I was making $150,000, that’s what I made my rookie season. So this owner, he said he wanted to make a splash. At that time, most NBA players only went over there at the end of their NBA careers. He wanted to get some young, first-round picks to come over and kind of change things up. So he offered Danny Ferry $2 million and he offered me a million dollars to come over, which took me over all the guys who were drafted in front of me.” Shaw was the 24th overall pick in ’88, out of UC-Santa Barbara.
“So, 35-game season, as opposed to 82 here, and Boston still was playing hardball with me, so I said, hey, basketball is basketball, and I went over and played a year there as a teammate with Danny Ferry and had a great, great experience. No regrets, learned a lot, and it made Boston, in my mind, come to their senses, and they came back with a fair offer. So I came back the next season.”
Shaw returned to a four-year, $5.5 million contract and played in the association until he was 36.
The point of the story is that Shaw has always been a bright and independent sort, which are excellent qualities in a head coach. It’s beginning to look like he will need all of that and more. His hiring was only one part of owner Josh Kroenke’s deconstruction of a 57-win team.
“I think I called it stupid,” Karl told me after the June meeting with Kroenke at which he was fired. He concluded that the young Kroenke, Stan’s son and the man in charge, thought winning was easy and had come to take for granted the Nuggets’ regular-season excellence. After all, Karl had been the coach throughout the younger Kroenke’s tenure as an executive with the team.
The fact that I disagreed with the decision to fire Karl doesn’t mean I want Shaw to fail. Quite the opposite. There are few people on Earth more willing to engage in conversation about basketball, besides Moe and Karl, of course, especially Moe when trapped on an airplane back in the days before they made you evacuate the galley and sit down.
But the decision to fire Karl was paired with a misread of free agent Andre Iguodala, who Kroenke thought would accept an offer to stay until the day he signed with Golden State. General manager Masai Ujiri’s departure for Toronto just before Karl’s firing left the Nuggets scrambling to adjust to Iguodala’s defection with a front office in flux.
New GM Tim Connelly collected a random sample of the available journeymen free agents, from Nate Robinson and Randy Foye in the backcourt to J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur up front, the latter in trade for Kosta Koufos, the center dispatched to make room in the starting lineup for JaVale McGee, who had averaged 18 minutes off the bench for Karl.
It’s been only two games. Last year’s team was not only 0-2 but also 0-3. With a road-loaded front end of the schedule, Karl’s last Nuggets team was 11-12 in mid December before taking off. So, yeah, it’s very early.
Still, a year ago’s 0-2 was a little different. Except for LeBron James and the Heat, the Nuggets won all their early home games. They just didn’t have many of them.
When they lost to Portland 113-98 Friday night, it was their first loss of a home opener in five years and broke a 23-game home regular-season winning streak. It was their first regular-season loss at the Pepsi Center since last January. At 38-3, they were the NBA’s best home team last season.
Like Moe before him, Karl took advantage of the environmental advantage provided by the mile-high elevation, not to mention the time change for visiting teams on back-to-backs from the west coast. So it was strange to see the Nuggets looking exhausted and the visiting Trail Blazers looking invigorated Friday night.
“Our team looked very tired, just to be honest with you, from the jump, especially our bigs,” Shaw said. “They just looked winded. (The Blazers) looked like they’re the team that play in the altitude and we were the team that was coming in on the second night of a back-to-back, the way we came out tonight.”
The rationale for firing the coach of a 57-win team was the history of first-round playoff exits. So Shaw came in with a mandate to coach a style more conducive to postseason success, meaning slower and more half-court oriented, to better suit the style characteristic of the postseason.
The irony is that Karl’s final first-round exit, the one that broke the camel’s back, was to a team that didn’t attempt to slow down the Nuggets at all. The Warriors beat the Nuggets at their own game, mainly because they shot the ball better — .494 from the floor, .404 from three and .785 from the line, compared to the Nuggets’ .438, .311 and .730.
This defeat might have been interpreted as reflecting an overemphasis on athleticism and underemphasis on skills in assembling the roster. Or it might have been interpreted as the consequence of an unfortunate late-season knee injury to forward Danilo Gallinari, one of the Nuggets’ best shooters and a big forward whose ability to shoot from long distance spreads the defense and creates lanes for athletes who want to get to the rim. Or it might have been interpreted as bad luck, running into a hot team.
It wasn’t. It was interpreted as further proof that Karl was not a coach for the postseason. But the question remained: Did the Nuggets overachieve in the regular season or underachieve in the postseason?
When Shaw arrived, he talked about playing inside-out — a more traditional half-court game in which the point guard’s first and preferred option is to toss the ball inside to a big man in or around the low post. He can shoot it or pass to an open man, depending on how the defense reacts. Shaw also talked about making defense the team’s signature.
After leading the association in scoring a year ago at 106 points per game, the Nuggets under Shaw are 22nd through two games at 93 per, consistent with their scoring average during the preseason. They have lost to a pair of teams in Sacramento and Portland that are not expected to make the playoffs this year. And they seem to have lost the high-flying athleticism that made them so entertaining under Karl.
More to the point, a large part of the basis both for firing Karl and Shaw’s new offense — the talented, enigmatic McGee — has so far been pretty much the guy Karl thought he was — not ready for prime time.
Starting at center, he played 10 minutes in the opener, getting in early foul trouble, and 13 on Friday night, finishing with six points, three rebounds and one blocked shot. All six players who came off the bench, in addition to the other four starters, played more minutes than he did.
“His physicality,” Shaw said. “And part of that is his wind as well. He was one of the guys that at the beginning of the game just looked gassed out there on the floor. We talked about, when the shots go up, he can’t just turn around and go follow the flight of the ball. He’s got to put a body on somebody. The guys that he plays at the center position usually outweigh him. He thinks that with his length he can just go and get the ball, but they just kind of wedge him underneath the basket. We’ll look at film and show him and just keep working with him on it, but his stamina has to get better and his physicality has to raise up a few notches.”
As Karl often pointed out, deploying McGee and power forward Kenneth Faried at the same time is a prescription for defensive chaos, and not necessarily in a good way. So Shaw began the season with Faried coming off the bench as he recovered from a strained hamstring.
“He played with the kind of energy that people around here are accustomed to him playing with,” Shaw said after Faried collected 11 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench against the Blazers. “He always plays with a lot of heart. That’s what I wanted to see out of him. I talked about before the game, if it looked like he was getting that bounce back into game shape that I would take a look at putting him back in the starting lineup.”
The Nuggets abandoned the inside-out thing early Friday night, in part because McGee was seldom available — although he did hit a sweet left-handed baseline hook shot in one of those flashes that make you yearn for more — and in part because they were behind early. In the fourth quarter, as part of a spirited but futile comeback attempt, Shaw did what Karl did so often: He went small. With guards Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson and Randy Foye on the floor together, his team made a run. Suffice it to say that’s not a lineup that’s going to make defense your team signature.
“You can’t even blame the system, because he’s stepping away from it,” Lawson said afterward. “We’re not going into the post as much as he’s talking about or doing the elbow catch. So it’s all on us. Today we played like we did last year — pick-and-rolls, drags, into the basket. We weren’t hitting shots. It was a tough night for us.”
“We knew this was going to be a process,” Shaw said. “The way we’re playing isn’t the problem, I don’t think. Tonight, defense was the problem. Sixty-four points in the first half. They finished 14 for 22 from the three-point line and I would say probably 16 or 18 of those three-point shots were uncontested. So it’s more a problem of that than I think the style of play that we’re trying to play.”
In fairness, Iguodala, Gallinari and Wilson Chandler were important pieces of last year’s success. Iguodala is gone and neither Gallo nor Chandler has played yet.
“I’m searching for answers,” Shaw said. “I’m trying to patch, mix and match and patch lineups together to try to see who’s going to bring it for us. . . . But together as a team we’ve just got to find a way. We’ve just got to keep plugging away at it. It’s not the way we wanted to start out the season at 0-2, but it’s where we are right now. We’ve just got to continue to work.”
Implementing a new system with four new players would take some time under the best of circumstances. But the impression the Nuggets have left through their first two games is their talent level isn’t particularly high and their style isn’t particularly interesting — at least until they fall way behind.
This is pretty much the worst of both worlds — becoming less competitive and less entertaining at the same time. Fans don’t seem thrilled with the off-season changes. Although the opener was announced as a sellout, there were plenty of empty seats.
The returns of Gallo and Chandler should help, but it will take all of Shaw’s considerable resourcefulness to get this bunch into the playoffs.