When Brian Shaw was fired as head coach by the Denver Nuggets yesterday, the only surprise was that the team did so before the end of the season.
After all, continuing to lose at this point might actually help the team get a better draft pick, and Shaw had gotten pretty damn good at doing that.
When viewed in that light, the Nuggets' win versus Milwaukee last-night in their first contest under interim head coach Melvin Hunt suggests that sacking Shaw early was yet another stupid decision by a franchise that's been making a lot of them lately.
But even if Shaw's eventual ouster was inevitable, it's still dispiriting — and I'm not saying that just because he autographed a basketball for me last season.
The scrawl above was arranged by Bill Hanzlik, a former Nugget player and coach turned Altitude studio analyst who's a friend and colleague of my wife, Deb — as well as my nominee for Nicest Guy in the World.
To mark our thirtieth wedding anniversary in February 2014, Hanzlik arranged box-seat tickets for a game against the Los Angeles Clippers, a meeting with mascot Rocky that resulted in a photo of him standing next to me wearing an "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt, a cameo on the "Kiss Cam" and the basketball above, with a nice note from Shaw.
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The autograph didn't spur me to root for Shaw. I was already in his corner owing in part to an HBO Real Sports broadcast from earlier in the season, in which he told the heartbreaking story of taking in and raising his niece, Brianna, after his parents and beloved sister were killed in a tragic car crash.
The segment showed him to be a sincere, stand-up guy — the kind most of us wish were in greater supply and typically want to succeed.
But the mojo seemed to be against Shaw from the start. At the end of the previous season, Josh Kroenke, son of Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke, had fired coach George Karl despite a 57-win season and coach-of-the-year honors, because the team had gotten bounced in the first round of the playoffs, albeit to a squad that's now seen as elite, the Golden State Warriors.
Josh appeared to believe the Nuggets were close to championship caliber and only needed a little boost to reach the promised land. But as subsequent events demonstrated, the Nugs actually overachieved under Karl, who has an innate ability to make middling outfits better. Once he was gone, the team instantly reverted to type, propelled by injuries to Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee, both of whom were expected to be major contributors.
In fact, the Clippers game on our anniversary was arguably the highlight of Shaw's first season, and perhaps his entire tenure as head coach. The Nuggets withstood an epic night from Blake Griffin, who netted 36 points, to win 116-115 on a last-second prayer tossed by Randy Foye. When it went in, the crowd leaped to its foot, turning the Pepsi Center into the biggest party zone in town.
There wouldn't be many more nights like that for Shaw and the Nuggets. The departure of general manager Masai Ujiri, who was largely responsible for assembling a roster that worked for Karl, was a big loss, and new GM Tim Connelly has done nothing to compensate.
More injuries undermined Shaw's efforts, too, as did his obvious inability to build any positive momentum. He didn't seem to know how he wanted the team to play, creating an unwieldy hybrid of the old run-and-gun style with a more half-court-oriented, defensive-minded approach that achieved none of his objectives. Moreover, he alienated his players with gambits like confiscating their cell phones when he perceived they weren't paying attention to him and publicly suggesting that they were losing on purpose.
The slow-moving disaster finally crested this past Friday, during a home game against the Utah Jazz that Deb and I also attended — and the contrast between that contest and the Clippers game last year couldn't have been more striking. The players gave an absolutely abysmal "effort," with only Kenneth Faried displaying the slightest energy en route to a humiliating defeat to a mediocre Jazz team.
It wasn't until afterward that I heard reports that the Nuggets had broken a huddle that night with the chant "1-2-3, six weeks!" — an apparent allusion to the amount of time until the season was over. But on that night, they showed they were already on vacation.
Yesterday,numerous commentators on ESPN and other outlets blamed Shaw's failure on the immaturity of his players, and there's something to that: During the Jazz game, they were so unprofessional that they should have returned their paychecks. Yet it's the coach's job to get the most out of the talent at his disposal, and Shaw simply didn't figure out a way to do that. As a result, there was no path forward for him at the helm.
Still, there's no addition by subtraction in this case. Josh Kroenke's moronic miscalculation has completely undermined a team that seemed to be on the rise, and without a draft-day miracle or some other unexpected twist (like, say, convincing Mark Jackson to become the team's next coach), the Nuggets are facing the prospect of being lousy for years to come.
Shaw deserves some of the blame for this situation, but not all of it. Not even close.
Look below to see three videos: a CBS Sports piece about his firing, highlights from the 2014 Clippers game, and an excerpt from his appearance on HBO's Real Sports.
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