The Denver Nuggets fired head coach Brian Shaw on Tuesday.
With a 20-39 record, Denver will miss the playoffs for the second year in a row.
It’s a far cry from where the team was two years ago when they won 57 games and finished third in the Western Conference.
The 57-win team from 2012-13 used an up-tempo, small-ball offence under coach George Karl that ran opponents off the court. Despite lacking a go-to scorer, they had a core of role players in Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, and Kenneth Faried that fit the system and played well together.
But after getting upset by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, the franchise melted down over a disastrous five-week span.
In late May, GM Masai Ujiri left the Nuggets for the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri was the NBA Executive of the Year, and had re-built the Nuggets after Carmelo Anthony trade.
A week later, the Nuggets fired Karl, who had just won Coach of the Year a few weeks before. Denver wouldn’t commit to giving Karl the contract extension he wanted, and at the risk of having him go through the season as a lame duck, they fired him with the belief they could attract a coach with their talented, young roster, according to Adrian Wojnarowski.
Then, early in July, the Nuggets lost Iguodala, who’d just had a solid season averaging 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game as the de facto leader of that 57-win team.
In just over one month, the Nuggets lost their GM, head coach, and best player.
As Karl’s replacement, the Nuggets hired Shaw.
Shaw had been a highly regarded assistant coach with the Lakers and Pacers, and upon being hired by the Nuggets, announced he was going to change the Nuggets’ style of play:
“It won’t be the same break-neck pace that it was last year. My experience playing here (in L.A.), we played the Sacramento Kings, the Phoenix Suns, teams that got up and down, made it a fast pace and won a lot of games during the regular season that didn’t necessarily translate to going deep into the playoffs.”
The Nuggets’ offence didn’t actually slow down. After averaging over 97 possessions per game under Karl, the Nuggets averaged 100.6 possessions per game under Shaw in 2013-14. However, the Nuggets’ offensive rating plummeted from fifth in 2012-13 to 17th in 2013-14. The defence got worse, too, falling from 11th in defensive rating in 2012-13 to 21st in 2013-14.
They finished 36-46 and missed the playoffs in Shaw’s first year.
New Nuggets GM Tim Connelly also didn’t do much to try to remake the team to fit the new direction. He continued signing role players like J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson to surround the core of other role players, and in the summer of 2014, gave a $US60 million extension to Kenneth Faried — a player reportedly not well liked in the organisation.
At the 2015 trade deadline, the Nuggets were ready to give up on their current group, making almost all of their players available to trade, according to Zach Lowe. Lowe also mentioned that Shaw and Lawson — who was supposed to become the face of the franchise — had clashed at times during the season.
The Nuggets’ intended fire sale at the deadline didn’t go as planned. They only made two trades, getting a lottery-protected first-round pick and some bench players for guard Arron Afflalo, and sending a first-round pick to Philadelphia in order to get rid of JaVale McGee.
Through February, turmoil between Shaw and his players continued to mount, with players chanting “1, 2, 3 — 6!” in a team huddle, referring to the six remaining weeks in the season.
Shaw is gone, and the Nuggets are now in a giant state of flux. They have a roster they’re not committed to and don’t have a long-term answer at head coach. The Nuggets will have some cap space this summer, and they do have draft picks to help rebuild, but there doesn’t appear to be any quick-fix in sight for a team that looked promising two years ago.
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