In his playing days, Brian Shaw was more of a role player, taking a back seat to the bigger names on the court.
His coaching career sort of had a similar feel: A respected basketball mind, only no one would give him a shot to lead a team.
That is, until now. After a dozen interviews over the years that all ended the same way — teams going in a different direction — the longtime assistant finally landed his first head coaching job with the Denver Nuggets.
”At times, it got frustrating,” Shaw said at his introductory news conference on Tuesday. ”At the same time, I just looked at it as it allowed me more time to learn and to get better.”
Shaw steps in for George Karl, the NBA Coach of the Year who was ousted after the team won a franchise-record 57 games, only to be bounced from the first round of the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
The 47-year-old Shaw isn’t trying to follow in the footsteps of Karl.
And he’s not trying to simply be a clone of his mentor, Phil Jackson, either, a name that might have actually hindered him over the years, instead of helped.
See, teams were leery of Shaw. Sure, he captured three championships as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers and two more titles as an assistant under Jackson, but the intricate triangle offense that Jackson taught scared off some organizations.
”I jokingly said to (Jackson), `Coach, I thought playing for you and working for you would be my biggest asset. Actually, it’s hurt me the most,”’ said Shaw, who’s still working on assembling his assistant coaches. ”I’ve never gone into an interview and said, `I only believe in the triangle and this is the system I’m going to run.’ But I understand everyone’s thought process because it’s such a unique system.”
Jackson is pleased his protege is finally getting a fair shake.
”He’s one of the brightest young coaches in the game and has a great future,” Jackson said in a statement. ”I commend the Nuggets for recognizing this and for giving him this opportunity.”
As for what type of offense Shaw will indeed run, well, he said that’s still a work in progress. He wants to evaluate what the team did well last season — push the ball up the floor and score in the paint — before devising a scheme. One thing’s for sure: He wants this team to be more productive in a half-court setting, since that’s what wins playoff basketball series.
On Tuesday, he had a few of his new players show up for the news conference. Kosta Koufos was there. So were youngsters Quincy Miller and Anthony Randolph.
Shaw knows he has to earn their respect — his five championship rings are a powerful motivator, but actions mean more.
”They don’t necessarily care how much you know, they want to know how much you care,” Shaw said. ”I’ve been through a ton of things in my life that puts things in perspective for me so when I sit down with a player and I say, `I know how you feel, I can relate to that because I’ve dealt with that,’ they feel it.”
Shaw said that coming up soon is not only the 20th anniversary of the car accident that killed his parents and sister, but also of losing good friend and former teammate Reggie Lewis, who died of a heart condition.
”The things I’ve had to deal with in life, basketball just pales in comparison to those things,” said Shaw, who played 14 seasons in the NBA.
Although Jackson has been a big influence in the career of Shaw, so, too, has Indiana coach Frank Vogel. Shaw was the associate head coach for Vogel during the season that just ended, when the Pacers made it to the Eastern Conference finals before being eliminated by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in seven games.
Vogel is certainly a big Shaw fan, saying after a pre-draft workout on Tuesday: ”I don’t think people understand how good he is. I think they’ll find that out in the next couple of years.”
Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard couldn’t agree more.
”He’s paid his dues, won championships, and I think you’re going to hear a lot about him (in the future),” Pritchard said.
Shaw still remembers his first interview for a head coaching vacancy — and the crushing words delivered. Hard to forget, since it was with Larry Bird, when he was running the Pacers.
”The first thing out of his mouth when I sat down across from him was, `I’m not going to hire you for this job. But as a teammate, I respected your instincts and your basketball IQ. I think you’re going to be a good head coach one day and I wanted to start the process for you,”’ Shaw recounted. ”I was disappointed for a second but then I understood what he was getting at and I appreciated that. It just gave me a little bit more of a comfort level.”
This time around, he didn’t feel like the underdog.
No, he was clearly the favorite as he beat out Lionel Hollins, the former Memphis Grizzlies coach.
”There is a process to winning at the highest level and I think that Brian’s championship experience both as a player and a coach is going to be invaluable to our roster,” team President Josh Kroenke said.
Kroenke made a similar move with his other team, the Colorado Avalanche, when he hired Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy as head coach. Roy was a four-time Stanley Cup winner with Montreal and Colorado.
”That kind of championship pedigree is something you can’t take lightly,” Kroenke said.
This played a part, too: With the Pacers, Shaw was an integral part in developing young players such as Paul George. The Nuggets are youthful, boasting the third-youngest team in the league last season.
”I love this roster. I think it is young, fresh and energetic,” Shaw said.
Shaw also believes this team is close to contending now.
”The 57 wins during the regular season were a great story, but I’m accustomed to playing and going far in the playoffs and playing into June,” Shaw said. ”That is something that is going to be emphasized and stressed on a daily basis. I’m looking forward to working with these guys and start planting that seed.”