Brian Shaw waited nearly 10 years for his first head coaching job following successful tenures as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers. Although he is relatively young (47) for a head coach and his NBA playing career doesn’t seem so long ago, it’s actually been 25 years since Shaw was a rookie sensation with the Celtics.
He is having moderate success reaching his younger players with the Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets followed an eight-game losing streak with a four-game winning streak, including victories over the Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder last week.
“The team is in a pretty good place right now, playing with the right kind of energy, defensively becoming more active and more stable,” he said. “If you walked around [the team Tuesday] you’d think that we’d won 16, 17 games in a row. Just trying to get them to continue to stay locked in and stay focused.”
Shaw said his young team has had maturity issues.
“We had to check a couple of people throughout the shootaround, the focus wasn’t there,” said Shaw. “Staying tight, staying on top of them, and keeping them on the right path. We can’t really afford to overlook anybody. It’s not like we’re at the top of the conference. We have lost here at home to Philly, Utah, Phoenix, and some other teams that we feel we should be able to beat on our home court.”
The Nuggets held a team meeting prior to a Jan. 5 victory over the Lakers. There were a lot of simmering issues with playing time, style of play, and roles.
“Everybody got a lot off of their chest in terms of whatever was bothering our team,” Shaw said. “I labeled it as we had a cancer that was growing within our team.
“There’s times where you put the effort out and just don’t play well, but this was like something that was restricting our movements, it just had us in a bad way. I don’t think it was a coincidence that after we had the meetings and everybody got to say what they needed to say, that the team immediately looked different and felt kind of free and liberated, and they’re playing that way right now.”
Meshing such distinct personalities on the team has been an arduous job for Shaw, who is considered a players’ coach.
“I’m not surprised — other teams that I’ve been on, I used to always say it’s just our team, but I think it’s across the board,” Shaw said of the declining maturity in players around the league. “When I came into the league in 1988, I was fortunate to come in with great veterans that wouldn’t allow for us to kind of stray off the path and not be focused, and respect the game [because] it was supposed to be respected.
“You look at most of the teams around the league, with the exception of a few with real veterans, most of the teams’ guys are between 21 and 25 years old. And [they] haven’t been shown how to do things the right way. That lack of veteran leadership costs a lot of time and practice every day because the time we could be focused on practicing and working on certain skills, we end up having to teach and try to bring the focus back in, and that should always be there.”
The fact that veteran Andre Miller, the oldest player on the Nuggets, is away from the team because of complaints about playing time has made Shaw’s inaugural season more difficult.
“You sign up for whatever you end up getting,” Shaw said. “It’s like in a classroom, a teacher has to connect how to make each individual student learn and every student learns differently and everybody has a different attention span. We try to present five or six different ways of presenting the information so they can learn whichever way they learn the best.”
Shaw said he gives the players plays on paper, on the grease board, through video, through lecture, and repetition in practice, giving them five ways to digest instructions.
“You have to do that when you have that kind of relationship,” Shaw said. “And we learn just as much from them as they learn from us in terms of how to deal with this type of personality or this individual that doesn’t have this attention span, and ways of trying to connect with them.”
Shaw spent two-plus seasons with the Celtics, returning to Boston after spending his second professional season in Italy, and eventually logged 15 NBA seasons, winning three consecutive championships as a reserve guard with the Lakers.
Many of the younger Nuggets had little idea Shaw played in the NBA, let alone with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. That’s another lesson he has had to pass on.
“It’s interesting, [Danilo] Gallinari’s father was at shootaround and I played against him in Italy,” Shaw said. “And Danilo, he remembered. I ended up playing with Kobe Bryant’s father and I ended up playing with him and coaching him. The guys don’t remember. It’s just like a parent. We don’t understand the fashion. We don’t understand the music.
“I remember my parents saying the same thing about myself and my sister when we were growing up. It comes full circle. You just have to have patience and keep hitting them over the head with it, and hopefully at some point they get it and they pass it on when they deal with the next generation.”
Crawford adds to game while Paul is sidelined
Since Chris Paul has been out with a separated right shoulder, Jamal Crawford has been thrust into the Clippers’ starting lineup and has attempted to transform himself into more of a point guard after years of being considered nothing but a streaky shooter.
Crawford amassed 21 assists in three recent games after collecting just 85 in his first 35 games. And while he is still launching those rainbow jumpers — 62 shots in those three games — Crawford is also facilitating the offense, especially in victories over the Celtics and Magic.
When Doc Rivers took the Clippers’ coaching job last summer, Crawford admitted to him that defense was hardly a strength. Rivers asked him to make more of an effort to stop dribble penetration in Rivers’s help-style system. Crawford will never be known as a stopper (“I’m really trying on defense,” he said) but his overall game has expanded in his second season in Los Angeles.
“I like it because I’ve been known as just a scorer,” said Crawford, who has averaged 14 points or more in 12 of his 15 NBA seasons. “I like making plays. I like getting guys involved, and I think it keeps the defense off-balance. If you’re a guy who attracts attention and you’ll make a play for an open teammate, you’re a dual threat.”
Paul is expected to miss five more weeks, so Rivers is relegated to using the combination of Crawford and Darren Collison running the point. Both are explosive scorers not known for distribution, but their responsibilities have changed.
“Nobody in the world can beat Chris Paul, so we have to make do using each other’s strengths and hide each other’s weaknesses,” Crawford said. “Honestly, I’m not worried about scoring as much because I have more responsibility. Especially when J.J. [Redick] comes back, I go back to my natural role off the bench and I can be more aggressive at times. But for now I want to continue to score but definitely set the table for my teammates.”
Crawford entered the league as a raw but talented scorer. It required nine years for him to find his niche as a sixth man after some difficult, pressure-filled years in Chicago and New York. The past few years he has been more appreciated for his skills, shaking his selfish tag.
“I was just thinking, 14 years in, who gets their own shoe?” he said about his new sneaker deal. “Obviously, the market [Los Angeles] helps, but winning is everything and I think when you win you’re on a stage where more people see you. It’s almost cooler to me to get 10, 12 assists than get 30 points because I’ve gotten 30 points plenty of times and people know me more for that.”
STAYING ABOVE GROUND
Hawks can still fly high despite major setbacks
Perhaps the most surprising team in the Eastern Conference is the Atlanta Hawks, who entered the season with a bunch of new pieces and a neophyte coach in longtime San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks have maintained their winning record, despite losing center Al Horford to a season-ending torn pectoral muscle two weeks ago.
The club has relied on the leadership of Jeff Teague, who is averaging a career-high 16.5 points and 7.8 assists, and former Utah Jazz standout Paul Millsap, who has been on a scoring tear recently, including a 34-point outing at Boston and 33 against Charlotte.
“I think we really like that group that’s come together,” Budenholzer said. “Keeping Al, and keeping Jeff and keeping Kyle [Korver], Lou [Williams], and John Jenkins and Mike Scott, it was a nice place to start. We had a lot of flexibility to go out and add the kind of players we thought would fit together, that had the kind of character and competitiveness we were looking for. I feel fortunate to be coaching this group.”
Teague, who nearly signed with the Milwaukee Bucks and former coach Larry Drew in the offseason, has been the stabilizing force after a couple of inconsistent seasons.
“I think Jeff’s play so far this year has been something we thought could happen,” Budenholzer said. “There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with the way we’re playing, and he’s really embraced that. His aggressiveness and his attack create opportunities for himself and the whole team and he’s done really well. On the other end, I think defensively, he’s had a lot of progress there, too. If you look at the guys he’s had to guard, it seems like it’s been an All-Star every night and we feel like him and the whole group have done a good job to make it tough on the other team’s point guard.”
Cavaliers’ problems go deeper than Bynum
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ disposal of Andrew Bynum was perhaps the team’s biggest issue of the early season, but not the only issue. Coach Mike Brown’s return to the Cavaliers has been anything but smooth, and though the addition of Luol Deng could help, the crew of youngsters general manager Chris Grant has compiled isn’t playing with cohesion.
Anthony Bennett is transforming into one of the biggest rookie busts in recent memory and headlines a disappointing rookie class. The Cavaliers are 24th in the league in scoring and 29th in assists, despite having one of the league’s more dynamic point guards in Kyrie Irving.
The problem is chemistry. Second-year guard Dion Waiters wants a piece of the stardom pie along with Irving and is willing to shoot himself into that position, but at just 41 percent from the field, his quest isn’t working. Tristan Thompson is handy rebounding but remains raw and undersized, and his 45.9 shooting percentage is below average for a big man.
Bynum provided an inside presence but league sources said he wanted out when he figured the Cavaliers wouldn’t even be competitive in the putrid Eastern Conference. Now he’s a free agent looking for work. Deng will bring a veteran presence, a reliable forward to mentor Bennett, but he’s a free agent at season’s end.
The Cavaliers have to learn how to win quickly. They entered Saturday 1½ games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and had lost eight of their last 11.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to go out there together, we’ve got to be on the same page,” Waiters said. “We know what we’ve got to do defensively: talk, help, things like that, and I blame some of that on myself, too.”
The Cavaliers signed Jarrett Jack to a four-year contract to be a stabilizing veteran and mentor to Irving. So far, he’s perplexed at the team’s inconsistency.
“That fourth-quarter [comeback] stuff is cool but we only did that when we were facing an uphill battle,” Jack said of the team’s late rally that fell short against the Celtics. “We shouldn’t have to dig ourselves a hole to make some dramatic climb out of it for us to play the style of play that we set out to play in the beginning.
“There’s so many games into the season, we should know to come out with that same intensity and urgency every time we step on the floor. It’s starting to become a recurring theme with us and until we do something about it, we’re going to have the same outcome.”
Jack came from Golden State, and has been a difference-maker in his other stops. Asked how he could make a difference in Cleveland, he said: “It’s to a man at the end of the day. All of us are professionals. All of us are grown up. You try to lead as best you can, but we’ve all got to take some accountability for it individually and understand how much each other’s contribution means to this team. It’s definitely difficult but you just keep plugging away.”
The Lakers gave Shawne Williams another NBA opportunity, and for a while he took advantage. But his shot never was consistent and he was a victim of the team’s desire to create roster space when its waived him last week. Williams seems as if he’s been around forever but he’s only 27 and could serve as an asset off the bench for a contending team. Williams has played with five teams in six seasons. The Hawks also disposed of 3-point specialist CartierMartin, who could be another solid addition to a roster on a 10-day contract . . . Ryan Gomes was never going to play for the Celtics. His trade to Boston served as a way for the Thunder to clear a roster spot for a potential big man and to get second-round picks in 2015 and 2017. Gomes is likely done in the NBA . . . The Suns welcomed back Leandro Barbosa on a 10-day contract after he sat out nearly a year following a torn left anterior cruciate ligament he suffered while with the Celtics. Barbosa was traded to the Washington Wizards in the Jordan Crawford deal and then waived . . . Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who declared for the NFL draft, has agreed to a contract with LRMR, the management company spearheaded by Maverick Carter, a close friend and business partner of LeBron James . . . The Celtics recalled MarShon Brooks from NBADL Maine after a five-game stint. Brooks averaged 27.4 points, showing the ability to score, as he has in the NBA, but the Celtics want to see Brooks play more impassioned defense and also become more of a distributor. He returned to the Celtics on Friday . . . The Charlotte Bobcats are shopping Ben Gordon because they have guard depth and could use another frontcourt player to help Al Jefferson in the paint. Bismack Biyombo was once filled with potential but now has been relegated to spot duty.