Barely two months ago, the basketball world looked upon the Denver Nuggets as dangerous — the kind of team that might pull a shocker and win the NBA title.
That seems like an eternity ago. Denver fell in the first playoff round, lost general manager Masai Ujiri to Toronto, jettisoned head coach George Karl — and by the time Miami and San Antonio locked up in their classic seven-game duel to decide the title, the Nuggets had long since been dismissed.
Now it's July, and Denver's odds of winning the NBA title have dropped from somewhere around 9-1 (entering the just-concluded playoffs with a 57-25 record) to 25-1 for next season. Not exactly a vote of confidence in Nuggets team president Josh Kroenke and just-hired general manager Tim Connelly. Or, for that matter, new head coach Brian Shaw.
Denver's front office obviously feels that the roster is strong and deep enough to maintain a comparable success level in the regular season, and then Shaw can take the Nuggets deeper into the playoffs. That's a lot of pressure to put on Shaw, widely considered as the best-available NBA assistant — despite nobody having ever explained why he interviewed for at least six head coaching jobs in recent years without landing one until now, at 47.
So, is Shaw a great hire or not?
We won't know that answer for months, perhaps until the 2014 playoffs. But if the question is whether he was the "right" hire, that answer is probably yes. By all accounts, Shaw brings a personality totally different from Karl. Less egotistical, less judgmental about some players, more willing to develop young talent, more open to adapting.
This doesn't mean Karl was bad. You can't criticize a 57-25 record, especially considering he lost star forward Danilo Gallinari (knee) down the stretch.
But it's clear that the Nuggets management already has set the table for Shaw, knowing Gallinari might not return until midseason. You have to believe that Shaw understood and went along with those moves from his interview conversations.
Shaw's first project will be center JaVale McGee, who wasn't Karl's favorite and had to share time with, or back up, Kosta Koufos. Denver now has dealt Koufos to Memphis for power forward Darrell Arthur, who fills another Denver need and will be a priority for Shaw.
As for the backcourt, Denver needed a guard off the bench capable of filling it up, the way J.R. Smith once did for the Nuggets. After trading out of the draft's first round, Denver used the 46th pick (midway through Round 2) to grab Erick Green of Virginia Tech, the nation's scoring leader last season playing in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference. At 6-foot-3, Green has solid shooting and distributing skills, and was considered by many as a worthy first-rounder. Again, how quickly he meshes into the offense will be an early indicator of Shaw's coaching prowess.
All the scuttlebutt suggests that Denver isn't done with player moves, so let's not view today's roster as what to expect entering the 2013-14 season. But it's clear that Kroenke and Connelly, and by extension Shaw, will not be simply trying to build on Karl's accomplishments with the same cast. The new Nuggets will rise or fall depending on how much Shaw can get out of McGee, Arthur and Green; how fast Gallinari can come back, find his place, and resume his role as an offensive force; and whether Shaw can help Kenneth Faried and Andre Iguodala (if they're still around) in continuing to elevate their games.
That's a lot to expect from a first-time NBA head coach, yet Shaw will not have the luxury of patience from Denver's players, fans or front office.
Nobody wants to see a dropoff. But if the end result is "only" 50 wins but followed by a better postseason run, that will add up to success.
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