BROOKLYN — Brian Shaw was certain he was ready to make the instant leap from playing to coaching, until the greatest coach in NBA history bluntly informed him otherwise.
It was 2003, and Shaw had just retired after 14 years in the league, the last four with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he was a key leader and role player for three championship runs. Teammates saw Shaw as a natural coach: smart, cerebral, steady and a skilled communicator.
Phil Jackson saw the same qualities. But he refused Shaw a position on his staff anyway.
“You need to take at least a year away from the guys before you try to come back and start coaching them, so they can respect you as a coach,” Jackson advised Shaw then. “Because these are the guys you played with and played against. They still look at you as a player.”
Shaw recalled the conversation with a warm smile. A decade later, things have turned out OK.
Jackson eventually hired Shaw, who parlayed that apprenticeship into a job as associate head coach with the Indiana Pacers under Frank Vogel. In June, Shaw finally got his own team, when the Denver Nuggets tapped him to replace George Karl.
Despite some injuries and a slow start, the Nuggets are 11-6, thriving in the ultracompetitive Western Conference and making Denver officials look smart for giving Shaw his first head-coaching job.
The Nuggets rolled to their seventh straight victory Tuesday with a 111-87 rout of the plummeting Brooklyn Nets, providing an uncomfortable visual for anyone in the Barclays Center executive suites.
The Nets also interviewed Shaw in June, and team officials came away impressed. But they gave the job to Jason Kidd, who had retired as a player just 10 days earlier—a decision that stunned the league then and looks even more questionable now, with the Nets (5-13) in utter disarray.
Just before Tuesday’s game, Kidd announced he had dismissed his lead assistant, Lawrence Frank, citing a difference in “philosophies.” Frank was reassigned to a role compiling daily game reports.
The tension between the two coaches had been simmering for weeks, according to team sources. Kidd had begun exercising more authority, while Frank—who was once Kidd’s head coach with the Nets—continued to aggressively push his own ideas, making for an uncomfortable dynamic.
When they gambled on Kidd, the Nets stressed he would have a veteran staff on which to lean. Now Frank, the only assistant with head-coaching experience, is gone, leaving an even heavier burden for the rookie head coach.
Any comparison between Shaw and Kidd is inherently unfair, given the circumstances. The Nuggets, despite injuries to Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee, are generally young and spry and intact. The Nets have been reshuffling on a nightly basis, dealing with injuries to Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry. Their much-hyped All-Star lineup has hardly played together.
But Kidd has done little to distinguish himself or put any imprint on this team, leaving him wide open to criticism. The sudden dismissal of Frank only raises more questions.
There are no such concerns in Denver, where team officials and players are thoroughly enamored of their rookie head coach.
The 47-year-old Shaw has demonstrated his flexibility on the court, blending his own emphasis on half-court execution with the Nuggets’ already-potent transition game. Denver ranks sixth in offensive efficiency, with the fourth-highest pace in the league.
Point guard Ty Lawson is enjoying his finest season, averaging 20.2 points and 8.1 assists while shooting .465 from the field. The Nuggets are also getting quality play from unexpected sources, with J.J. Hickson and Timofey Mozgov capably filling in for McGee and Randy Foye starting at shooting guard.
Easygoing by nature, Shaw has found his voice as an authority figure—tolerating and even encouraging a certain amount of frivolity in practice, but yanking the reins when necessary. Shaw relates better to the businesslike Andre Miller, but he has made room for the puckish antics of Nate Robinson.
As a head coach, Shaw said he has tried to blend the best of Jackson and Vogel, two radically different role models. Jackson practiced Zen, led his players in meditation and projected infinite patience. Vogel was all about structure and organization, film study and statistical analysis.
“I have a laid-back personality, so I like to incorporate fun,” Shaw said. “But there’s some seriousness with it, too. There’s still an objective behind it. Organized chaos, so to speak.”
He added, “I think the guys are really starting to get a feel for what I expect, what their roles are and things of that nature.”
Shaw had hoped this opportunity would come much sooner. He interviewed with 11 other franchises over the years, and like a rookie who slipped in the draft, he can name them all, as well as the coaches who were selected instead of him.
Reggie Theus got the Sacramento job. Indiana hired Jim O’Brien. Charlotte hired Mike Dunlap. Cleveland took Byron Scott. Phoenix hired Terry Porter. Orlando chose Jacque Vaughn. Chicago hired Vinny Del Negro. The Lakers, infamously, opted for Mike Brown. Portland hired Terry Stotts.
This past summer, the Clippers hired Doc Rivers. And the Nets chose Kidd.
Shaw carried the odd burden of being viewed as a Jackson disciple and an adherent of the triangle offense, with all of its complexity. While proud of his association with Jackson—and the five championships he won working under him—Shaw notes that he played for seven coaches in his career and is well versed in multiple offenses. (He is using triangle principles in Denver, but the playbook is broader.)
“We won five championships as part of that system,” Shaw said, “and a coach who’s the best coach in all of professional sports history, in my opinion. Why wouldn’t I want to be affiliated or associated? It didn’t make any sense to me.”
While waiting for his chance, Shaw practiced his own brand of Zen, valuing his time under Jackson and Vogel, soaking up every lesson he could along the way and realizing that —as Jackson advised—he probably wasn’t ready to coach in 2003.
“There were so many things, looking back now...that I definitely wasn’t prepared for,” Shaw said.
Things like preparing a practice plan, for instance, or balancing the need to win with the need to develop young players, how to deal with the media, how to build trust in your players, including the ones at the end of the bench.
“There’s a ton of things that as I put more years in as an assistant coach, you just keep learning and you get a better feel for,” Shaw said.
One assumes Kidd would have benefited from a similar path, but Shaw—a fellow Oakland native who used to play summer league games against Kidd—said it was too soon to judge his old friend.
“He’s dealing with some circumstances, too,” Shaw said, alluding to the Nets’ injury issues. “And the expectations are so high here.”
Shaw added later, “I grew up with Jason. I think he’s bright. He’ll do fine.”
Shaw, too, heard some early grousing after the Nuggets stumbled to a 1-4 start. Fans who were already angry over Karl’s firing were quick to blame the rookie head coach. The Nuggets have gone 10-2 since then, quieting the critics for now.
Under different circumstances, it might have been Shaw sitting on the Nets’ bench Tuesday night, a broken lineup on the court, a perplexed look on his face, wondering when the next victory would come. The same critics going after Kidd might be questioning whether Shaw was up to the task.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Shaw said. “Everything has worked out the way it was supposed to work out, and I’m in a great situation.”