DENVER – 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 through 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.
“This team is full of young players with a lot of promise and it will be my job to get them to play to their full potential.”
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 be like 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,”’ Shaw said. “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 – pushing the ball up the floor and scoring 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.”
Although Jackson has been a big influence in the career of Shaw, so, too, has Pacers 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 certainly is 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.
“That kind of championship pedigree is something you can’t take lightly,” Kroenke said. “With both Patrick and Brian, there’s a process to winning. You have to lay a foundation. You have to have that in the front of your mind on a daily basis and build toward it.”
This played a part in the decision to bring in Shaw, too: With the Pacers, he played 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.
“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.”
AP Sports Writers Arnie Stapleton in Denver and Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed.