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Brian Shaw on Head Coach Duties and Lessons Learned From Pacers

by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness

January 25, 2014

When moving on from a great situation, it’s not unusual to miss what one had — particularly the people involved. That’s how Brian Shaw feels about the Pacers, where he served as the associate head coach for the past two seasons as they were an up-and-coming team. They didn’t have any stars, but rather a group of high-character individuals who wore their hard hats to work everyday and put it all on the line.

That team spirit and selfless mentality resonated with Shaw, who played 14 seasons in the league and was an assistant for almost a decade before getting his shot, after more than a dozen interviews, to be a head coach in NBA.

He had the pedigree – five NBA titles, an assistant under Hall-of-Famer Phil Jackson and then Frank Vogel – but more importantly, he had earned the respect of everyone within the Pacers organization. There wasn’t a person that wanted to see him leave, even though they knew this is what he had longed for.

His goal came to fruition last summer, on June 25th, when the Denver Nuggets introduced Shaw, or B-Shaw as he’s referred to within the Pacers organization, as its 20th head coach in franchise history.

Speaking with Pacers.com before facing his former team for the first time this season Saturday night, Shaw is excited that his friends in Indiana are atop the league standings. As far as his own position goes, nothing has surprised him, despite having increased responsibilities as a head coach. He has a lot more media obligations, which comes with the territory, and coaches usually take the fall if the team is losing. Now, he has his hands in everything.

“Organizing your time that you can prepare practice plans, shootarounds, and making decisions about the hotels the team is going to stay in on the road, meal times and things of that nature that you don’t really think about but those responsibilities end up falling into your lap,” he said.

One item that received attention throughout the league was his move to ban junk food from the locker room before games. A handful of other teams do the same. The Nuggets were in Philadelphia and not too long before tipoff, Shaw walked in and saw giant pizzas, nachos and chicken tenders that were ordered through the ball boys. On a losing streak, and after starting games slow too many times, Shaw intervened.

“I just put a stop to that because you can’t fill your stomach up with all of that and then 20 minutes later, go out there and not be sluggish,” he explained.

“This year for me I kind of labeled it is a year of discovery, for me to get to know and learn our players and to see exactly what he had and what each guy is made of. I’m familiarizing myself with what guys can do, what they can’t do, what their habits are, how I can challenge them, what I need to do to push certain guys’ buttons, who’s sensitive and who can take it. Just trying to figure out all those types of things to get a better understanding of our team.

“It’s hard for me to say (what our identity is). We’re a team that doesn’t really have ... a captain or a leader. We’re a young team and everybody is kind of on the same level. Nobody has really stepped into the forefront and taken the leadership on. I can’t say we’re a smashmouth basketball team like the Pacers, because we’re not.”

Shaw picked up a lot of new ideas while working with Vogel for two seasons. Different from legendary coach Phil Jackson, Vogel is into film study and really getting to know your opponents before playing. His positivity and the usefulness of it rubbed off on Shaw.

“I love the way that he organized practice and his approach, his positivity that he has with the team, instilling confidence in them,” he said. “Defensively, being true to your defensive beliefs and principles.”

When Shaw joined the Nuggets, a high pace and high-scoring team that finished third in the Western Conference last season with a 57-25 record, Shaw thought he could instill some of the same principles, but the personnel just wasn’t right.

“Coming into it, I thought, ‘Hey, we have some young, athletic guys that should be able to do some of the same things that we were able to do with the Pacers,’” he said. “But what I quickly found out was that the mindset and mentality that the guys have here is completely different than the guys on the Pacers.

“Guys on the Pacers have a defensive mindset. Paul George wants to guard and lock people up every night, so does George Hill and Roy Hibbert doesn’t want anyone scoring in his paint. And they all have the ability to guard their position one-on-one and without having to double-team. I thought that was something we’d be able to do but what I found out quickly was that those guys are special. And their ability to guard and their whole mindset and mentality about guarding and playing defense is unique and special to them.

“There’s not any defensive stoppers or guys with that type of mentality that will lock down the other team. Here, as well as a lot of other places around the league, most guys think about shooting the ball and scoring first, and defense last. That part of it is very, very different for me here in trying to establish that.

“Offensively, I love to push it and get out and score a lot of points but I also know that defensively, if you want to go anywhere, if you want to go deep into the playoffs, you have to be able to shut teams down as well. Going forward, if I have any input in where we’re going and what we’re doing, a big part of it will be evaluating guys, whether it be on the college level or through trades, that have more of a defensive mindset to round out our team.”

There was lots of turnover when Shaw arrived in Denver. General manager Masai Ujiri left for Toronto, executive vice president Pete D'Alessandro became Sacramento’s GM and scouting director Mike Bratz followed as D’Alessandro’s assistant. Plus, head coach George Karl was fired despite being named the NBA’s Coach of the Year. Things were chaotic and Shaw knew it.

“One of the things when I left Indiana that I said was most impressive to me was the fact that everybody whom I’ve crossed paths with was happy to come to work for the Pacers,” Shaw said. “I think everybody felt like they had some ownership in the team and to me, it was pretty evident in the relationships that were established between the coaching staff, and the training staff, and the strength of conditioning staff; all the people upstairs, Larry Bird, Kevin Pritchard, Donnie Walsh, (administrative assistant) Susy Fischer, and then the operations staff that set up the arena everyday. You pass by so many people in Bankers Life Fieldhouse and everybody seemed to be happy and smiling.

“The little things that they did in terms of employee of the month and the emails that went around that kind of just kept everybody tuned in to what was going there was different for me. I hadn’t experienced that in L.A.

“It was the first place that I had been where I really felt like everyone was connected, everybody really felt like they had some ownership in the team. So to coach around there was great, and I think it was reflected in how things were run there and how the guys on the team played. The player development department with Clark Kellogg and Heather Denton, and how they deal with the players on and off the court and all the stuff Heather did for the families on game day in the family room and dealing with the player’s tickets and all the kind of stuff, to me it was just amazing.

“That was the biggest compliment that I could give to Mr. Simon, Larry, Frank and everybody there with the Pacers is that coaching around there was unbelievable and if I could, I wanted to mimic that here in Denver.

“So one of the first things that I tried to do was to get to know everybody here in different departments and see what the morale was. I tried to do things in terms of people that had been here for a long time, been loyal, and looked at what their salaries were and tried to help them get raises and promotions, and feel like we’re on the same level and that it was important that our lines of communication were open and that we were all on the same page.”

Shaw still frequently connects with many Pacers players and staff. After every one of Stephenson’s three triple-doubles, there was a text from Shaw. When trainer Josh Corbeil’s second child was born, he sent him a text. And when George was voted in as an All-Star starter, Shaw fired a text his way.

When asked who specifically, he rattled off 18 names without hesitation. In his short time with the Pacers, it was like family, and that’s a culture the team is proud of — and the best it’s been in more than a decade.

After home games, Danny Granger’s twins or a couple of Luis Scola’s kids are in the locker room with their pops. Paul George, who’s locker is next to Scola’s, will always give them high fives and be like, “Hey! What’s up, Tiago!”

After being in on the ground floor on what the Pacers are doing, Shaw, who watches every game he can, said he still feels part of it by extension.

“I feel like I have a vested interest,” said Shaw. “Obviously, I’m with a different team now in a different conference and all of that. It’s like when you have kids and they graduate and they move on to the next phase of their life, you don’t stop caring about them and following what they do. You keep tabs from wherever you are.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Who do you think is going to come out of the East.’ Well, I think the Pacers are. I know that team and last year felt like we were going to make it to the finals and we came up a little bit short. The team is still together and the improvements they made in the offseason with the bench made this team even stronger. It’s not a coincidence that they have the best record in the league and that they’re playing the way that they are.

“I truly believe that it’s going to be hard for anybody to beat that team in a seven-game series, especially the way they can defend. I’ve seen the growth of Paul, and Lance continuing to grow and Danny [Granger] accepting his role as what it is. I thought that was going to be critical in him accepting coming off the bench and playing the role that he’s playing.

“Frank’s doing a masterful job of handling all of that. Yeah, I’m pulling for them and still feel like I’m a part because we accomplished a lot in the two years that I was there and I know how much time Frank put in, and how much (assistant) Dan Burke and how much time I put in personally getting to know and figuring how to push Paul’s buttons and Lance’s buttons to get them going.”

Shaw was instrumental in the growth of both George and Stephenson, one All-Star starter this season and another that, in Shaw’s mind, deserves to be in the game. He watched film with them, talk them through how championship-caliber players prepare and compete, and he would never stop being in their ear.

After just about every practice and shootaround, Shaw would challenge those two to shooting contests, around the world. Though he’s 47-years-old, Shaw still had a shot and that would frustrate both George and Stephenson — but best of all, it fired them up and gave them repetitions in ideal situations because “they don’t want to lose to an old, retired coach, so it makes their focus on point,” Shaw said.

“It’ll be fun,” George said of seeing his former coach. “B-Shaw here was like a big brother for me. He was a huge mentor for me, somebody I respected and looked up to while he was here, and continue to look up to. It’ll be fun. I know there will be a lot of words exchanged. He’s probably one of the biggest trash talkers and guy that likes to get under your skin.”

Shaw remembers what he was told about Stephenson coming in, and then spent countless hours helping him to develop into the player he is today. Stephenson had all the abilities, and the last two summers he has put in tireless hours in the gym every day, but his approach and mentality needed to be altered. He also just needs to be put in his place sometimes and Shaw, a great trash talker, was good at that.

“One of the areas I’m so proud of him is for coming from what he was when I first got there to what I see him becoming now,” Shaw explained. “He is one of the leaders of that team. I think he realizes when he plays a certain way that makes them almost unbeatable. When he’s rebounding and pushing the ball the way that he is, and obviously right now he’s a lot more confident in his 3-point shot where he used to doubt himself sometimes. I don’t see any of that doubt.

“Even though he does still do some crazy antics and things out there on the floor, I think not just him but Frank and everybody else around him understands that he has to play with that edge in order to get the most out of him and for him to be the most effective. He’s doing it, but it’s more about the confidence that he has now in understanding his importance to the team and how they rely on him to provide a certain level of consistency and effectiveness for that team to be good.

“In my estimation, I think he’s played well enough to earn a spot on the All-Star team this team in the East.”

Before hanging up, after nearly a 30 minute conversation reminiscing about the past two years and providing his observations about this year, Shaw noted that one of the biggest thing he misses is putting in sweat equity as assistant coaches must do. Before games with the Pacers, he and the other two assistants were in dri-fit t-shirts and shorts rebounding and passing to the same guys night after night. Shaw said that this season, his body wants to sweat, but instead he’s in a suit talking with the media and putting together the finishing touches of his game plan.

Shaw has his challenges like every coach does, especially first-years, but he’s also enjoying steering the Nuggets into the right direction. In an uber competitive Western Conference, he’s looking to shape his group into a championship-level organization that is sustainable for years to come.

Just like the Pacers.

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