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Jeff Caplan

Brian Shaw
Brian Shaw spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the Pacers.

Finally in the big chair, Shaw has lots of work to do in Denver


Posted Aug 7, 2013 11:09 AM

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series on first-time head coaches in the NBA for the 2013-14 season. Coming Monday: Dave Joerger of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Brian Shaw's long wait is over. Even a month after the fact, his assiduous ascension to NBA coach has not seemed totally real.

"It hasn't and it has," the Denver Nuggets' rookie coach said in a recent phone interview with NBA.com. "It has in the million phone calls and text messages I got, from even before I got hired when it was speculated that I was close to getting a job. It's sunk in from that point, and being at Summer League and how people address you.

"I don't think it will really sink in until we actually take the floor and I'm on the floor."

It almost had to feel as though the next time Shaw stepped onto the floor he would still tote the title of Associate Head Coach, again unable to break through despite the rave reviews and pronouncements. A former assistant under Phil Jackson for six seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, and for the last two seasons as the right-hand man under the younger Frank Vogel with the Indiana Pacers, Shaw has smiled through numerous rounds of executive handshaking, laid out his plans time and again during lengthy interviewing and accepted all of the conciliatory phone calls telling him how close he had come.

This time around required all the patience and faith Shaw could muster. He seemed destined to fill any one of several job openings, but Shaw -- busy with the Pacers in the East finals -- watched as others were introduced at news conferences before the end of May. Charlotte picked first-time coach Steve Clifford. Phoenix chose first-timer Jeff Hornacek. The Kings hired Mike Malone and the Hawks entrusted their future to Mike Budenholzer. Memphis severed ties with Lionel Hollins, but Grizzlies assistant Dave Joerger was the new front office's choice there.

Shaw seemed the frontrunner to take over the Brooklyn Nets until Jason Kidd retired and decided he wanted the job. Shaw was a favorite for the Clippers' opening until they pried Doc Rivers away from Boston. Philadelphia was (and still is) taking the long-range approach to hiring.

So that left Denver, which fired George Karl and had interest from Hollins, who was fresh off a first-time West finals in Memphis.

The end of a long and often aggravating ride came when Denver's newly hired executive vice president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and its president, Josh Kroenke, both more than 10 years younger than Shaw, handed him the keys.

"It was [a long ride], and it was a long time coming as well," Shaw said. "I didn't lose hope or count myself out because it was dragging on. I just had to wait."

Maybe the rest will come easy for Shaw. He enters a unique situation, with Karl getting fired after a 57-win season, winning the first Coach of the Year award of his distinguished career but failing to get out of the first round again. Connelly, 36, got his break as a first-time GM because Masai Ujiri, the young GM with the Midas touch, left for a sweeter deal with the Toronto Raptors.

"I think it's fantastic that he and I are going through the same experience together," Connelly said of Shaw. "We all want the same thing and Brian could not be a better partner to work with to help build something better."

Exactly what that will be, no one can be quite sure. Will the Nuggets remain the high-speed offensive juggernaut that led the league in scoring last season? Will personnel changes force Shaw to slow it down, to take fewer risks and play a more traditional style?

"Initially," Shaw said, "my focus will be on defense and halfcourt execution, because in the playoffs you have to be able to execute in the halfcourt."

The personnel has changed. The front office and coaching upheaval led Andre Iguodala to leave after one season for the Golden State Warriors -- the team that knocked the third-seeded Nuggets out of the first round in six games. Bench spark plug Corey Brewer returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"We expect to play basketball and win games. I don't know how we're going to play yet," forward Kenneth Faried said while participating in the Team USA minicamp last week in Las Vegas. "We're just going to play basketball and see what happens. It doesn't matter how you switch it up. There's guys that belong in the NBA. Everybody knows each other."

The Nuggets had other roster changes, too. Center Kosta Koufus was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur. Randy Foye came aboard from Utah in the three-team Iguodala trade. Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson signed as free agents.

"I'm not sure what to expect yet," Shaw said. "I have to see where everything fits. On paper, I know what it looks like, but until I see how they work with one another, that's yet to be seen. I'm excited about the opportunity and to put the pieces in place."

Shaw said he will mold an offense around his personnel, which still includes speed-demon point guard Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler, Faried and center JaVale McGee, who figures to get a boost with Shaw's arrival. Danilo Gallinari, who suffered an ACL injury in April and is recovering from surgery, does not yet have a targeted return date, Shaw said, but could miss two months or more.

So for the first time since 2002, the Nuggets enter a season with a new coach. And Shaw, in his maiden voyage as a coach, will look to do something Karl, as successful as he was in Denver, managed just once in nine seasons -- advance past the first round.

"I would be reluctant to say we're going to take off where they left off after last regular season," Shaw said. "I'm not concerned about the record or the number of wins. The record that really mattered to me was the playoff record."

Jeff Caplan has covered the NBA since 2005. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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