The Denver Nuggets hired George Karl to be their head coach when I was 15 years old. Brought in midseason to replace the struggling Jeff Bzdelik, Karl led his new team to an astounding 32-8 record the rest of the way and got them back to the playoffs, where the Nuggets were then eliminated in the first round. At the time, all of us were ecstatic that our Nuggets even made it that far and we were convinced that brighter days were ahead. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a pattern that would become all too familiar to Denver fans: excellence and excitement in the regular season, mediocrity and frustration in the postseason.
When Karl was canned earlier this month after his team made one first round exit too many, the divide that took place around here was peculiar. You were either adamantly opposed to cutting ties with the reigning NBA Coach of the Year, or you were relieved that Team President Josh Kroenke finally showed him the door, which you felt was long overdue. We could debate the merit of such a move all day (I was fine with it), but the truth is the Nuggets aren’t immediately a better team without Karl on the bench, though the potential is certainly there. On the other hand, the new regime has an opportunity to enhance the team’s identity and correct the flaws of years past, and it all starts with the new head coach.
Enter Brian Shaw, a long-time assistant coach who has one of the most impressive resumes that you’re ever likely to see. His five championship rings (three as a player, two as a coach) are in part thanks to his timely landing with the Lakers during the Phil Jackson era, but are also a testament to the value that Jackson saw in keeping him around. Everyone who has worked or played with the guy has nothing but good things to say about him and it’s refreshing for a Colorado team to land a hot shot assistant when the popular thing to do these days is to hire a player from the glory days to run the show. Thus far, Shaw has proven he can talk the talk; he is motivated to keep the Nuggets playing into June and openly admitted that his new team is not nearly efficient as they need to be when forced into a half-court game. But if Shaw is going to get this team over the hump, he’s going to have to get a lot more out of center Javale McGee.
New General Manager Tim Connelly expedited that process during the draft when he dealt incumbent starter Kosta Koufos to the Grizzlies for forward Darrell Arthur, a transaction that speaks volumes as to one reason why Karl’s relationship with his former employer became strained. I like Kosta, but he was a non-factor in the series against Golden State and it’s past time the Nuggets found out what they have in McGee. To Shaw’s credit, he sees coaching up McGee to be fairly similar to working with Roy Hibbert, who became one of the best centers in the game under the tutelage of Shaw and Frank Vogel in Indiana. Even if he can’t bring McGee up to Hibbert’s level, you have to admire Shaw’s confidence in his ability to develop his players. It would be nice if he could help Kenneth Faried too, who may lose playing time to Arthur if he can’t improve his offensive game.
Not having a star player on your team makes it an absolute necessity to have a solid nucleus of young players and a head coach who believes he can win with them. Check those two items off the list, but it’s hard to see the Nuggets improving on last year’s disappointing finish without Andre Iguodala. Bringing him back won’t be easy, as he’ll likely have many suitors who will be more than willing to overpay for his services, which probably means the Nuggets will have to do the same to bring him back. They can offer him a five-year contract, which no one else can do, but I don’t think it’s all about money for Iggy. He’ll want to go to a place where he believes he can win a championship. If the Nuggets fail to resign Iguodala, there’s been talk that they could pursue a guy like Josh Smith or Al Jefferson, but I think it’s more likely that they hold on to their money for the future. Of course, should Memphis fail to hold on to Tony Allen…
While we wait to see what happens in free agency, let me be clear that I think the Nuggets have done a good job of rebuilding their front office on the fly. I don’t know much about Connelly, but everything I’ve read suggests that he is a promising young executive and if Kroenke hadn’t hired him, someone else would’ve beaten him to the punch. Trading down in the draft and picking up Erick Green looks pretty good to me, as that’s a guy who knows how to score and he should fit in well with the Nuggets’ scheme. And I absolutely love the Brian Shaw hire. There might be some growing pains along the way, but I believe Shaw is going to be a great coach and he just needed someone to give him an opportunity. Well, opportunity granted, Mr. Shaw. Let’s see what you can do.