Why Brian Shaw Became the Latest Phil Jackson Disciple to Fail

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMarch 3, 2015

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Brian Shaw's 56-85 record as Denver Nuggets head coach and firing Tuesday goes down in the books as another failure for Phil Jackson's coaching shrub.

Shaw's swift demise in Denver also goes to show that maybe the Los Angeles Lakers didn't miss out on that much by snubbing Jackson's protege and hiring Mike Brown over him in 2011.

Of course, he would've had a greater chance at success as a first-time head coach if he'd inherited Jackson's established Lakers format—and Kobe Bryant—rather than trying to create a new culture with some Denver folks who had some success and weren't overeager to get a post-George Karl voice in 2013.

Steve Kerr's fantastic work as the Golden State Warriors' rookie head coach, however, proves such a transition is doable. The key is to have, as Kerr did, a true vision—and have the confidence to adhere to it amid the countless voices and demands that swirl around the head coach.

Unlike many Phil Jackson proteges, Steve Kerr inherited a championship-caliber team.
Unlike many Phil Jackson proteges, Steve Kerr inherited a championship-caliber team.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

As much as we all breezily criticize head coaches, the job is ridiculously tough. You can't just stay in your lane and pick your spots to step out, which Shaw did as an outstanding assistant coach with the Lakers and Indiana Pacers. That has been the way for so many men working under Jackson over the years.

Being the leader is far different than being one counselor, however.

Kerr, notably, was not a Jackson assistant coach even if he largely formed his style by playing and winning championships for the Jackson-led Chicago Bulls. His success this season is about as good an example of "preparation meets opportunity" as you'll ever see—and he prepared, bottom line, to be the kind of head coach he wanted to be.

The New York Knicks have to wonder what might have been if Kerr had agreed to join them under their new team president, Jackson.

But even as Shaw's failure in Denver eliminates one huge what-might-have-been scenario for Lakers fans who felt Shaw was a no-brainer as Jackson's successor in 2011, let's indulge another.

After Brown struggled and was fired after barely a year as Lakers head coach, the team made a decision that for second-guessers is second only to the Chris Paul trade veto in turning the Lakers' fortunes. L.A. hired Mike D'Antoni as head coach instead of Jackson again.

Jerry and Jim Buss didn't want to go running back to Phil to save them again, yes. But there was no belief that Jackson offered a long-term solution. No one thought he would coach for a long time, and the Lakers wanted a sustainable new direction.

Jackson coming in immediately to coach the Kobe-Pau Gasol-Dwight Howard-Steve Nash superteam, with the understanding that Kerr, having established his family in San Diego, would be the Lakers' future head coach...that would've been something to behold for years to come.

Whenever Jackson was talking to other franchises, including as an advisor in the Detroit Pistons' 2013 coaching search, he already had Kerr in mind as the ideal head coach candidate.

Although Kerr ramped up his focus on finding a coaching job only recently, he has said he knew since returning to the TNT broadcast booth in 2010 that he would coach.

What might have been for the Lakers is reality for the Warriors, who are building their own West Coast marquee franchise under the front-office leadership of Joe Lacob, Peter Guber, Rick Welts, Bob Myers and Kerr—with the big move to San Francisco yet to come.

Brian Shaw struggled to harness Denver's young talent.
Brian Shaw struggled to harness Denver's young talent.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

By contrast, after so many near misses for top jobs, Shaw stepped into a far shakier situation in Denver. Just before firing Karl as coach, the team let general manager Masai Ujiri leave for more money from the Toronto Raptors.

Shaw, as he'd learned from Jackson, wanted to install system basketball (although not the triangle offense). But he drifted away from his principles as time went on, and his messages weren't getting through to players who were mostly overpaid second-tier guys anyway.

The irony is that Shaw's strength as an assistant was being the guy who could get along with players yet command respect. He did neither well as time went on with the Nuggets.

The widely repeated Denver Post report about Nuggets players breaking their huddle by announcing "six weeks" remain until season's end was actually them repeating Shaw's message they needed to break a drought of six weeks without winning at home. Nevertheless, it was believable because of how much was going wrong in Denver. Now, Shaw's firing is the story, and so is the lesson from it.

Everyone learns from everyone, and everyone steals from everyone. But even if you learn and steal from the most successful coach in North American pro sports history, it will only work if you know and trust that your personal leadership style and basketball vision are special.

As Kerr often reminds, he has the leeway of some great Golden State players to cover for him. It's why it made so much sense for him to refuse the honorable anointment of being Jackson's first head coach with the heralded New York Knickerbockers...with the shoddy roster.

Jackson's disciples, as Shaw realized, are not going to be afforded any extra time to build their programs in the legendary coach's triangular mold. The terrible records as NBA head coaches posted by Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis, Frank Hamblen and Bill Cartwright made sure of that.

Aside from Derek Fisher suffering through that shoddy Knicks roster for now, the likes of Cleveland Cavaliers associate head coach Tyronn Lue, Lakers assistant Mark Madsen, Warriors assistant Luke Walton and Auburn assistant Chuck Person will have to find great head coaching situations or be truly great head coaches in the future.

As Jackson and Kerr know, it's quite preferable to have both.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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