I have to start this off with a bit of honesty. I absolutely loved the Paul George-Lance Stephenson led Pacers. Their ability to challenge the Heatles and take them to the brink in the Eastern Conference Finals gave me hope that teams didn’t need three legitimate superstars to win a championship. Just a dedicated system implemented by a respected coach that talented players executed.
That being said, it should come as no surprise that Brian Shaw’s hiring is, for me, cause for celebration. Shaw impressed Pacers head coach Frank Vogel and the Indiana front office enough to become the team’s associate head coach. Shaw helped the team reach the playoffs in 2011, their first postseason appearance since 2006.
Nevertheless, you can’t ignore his disastrous stint as the Nuggets head coach. Although his 56-85 record over two seasons would have made fellow Laker brother Byron Scott proud, that mark wouldn’t cut it for most NBA franchises. Shaw notoriously lost the locker room in the worst way. From an admission of researching how to relate to millennials, to publicly bashing his players (another Scott specialty), to clashing with the Nuggets best player, it only took two years for Denver’s front office to realize the situation had gone sour.
How much of the blame belongs to Shaw? Maybe he wasn’t ready to be in charge yet. Maybe he relied too much on Phil Jackson’s sometimes abrasive treatment of his players, when in reality Shaw hadn’t yet earned that privilege. After all, a head coach who raps a scouting report to his team might be in over his head.
But let’s be honest. The 2014-2015 Nuggets team that only won 30 games wasn’t going anywhere special. That team lacked serious veteran presence, an issue only exacerbated by the fact that Ty Lawson was voted a captain of the team. No disrespect intended, as struggles with alcoholism are no joke. But if you can’t rely on your captain and best player to be professional, maybe the team is doomed from the start. And to be honest, two years of questionable personnel moves doesn't sound like the right amount of time nor decisiveness needed to build a contender.
In reality, each guilty party, from the roster, to the front office, to the entire coaching staff deserves some of the credit for manufacturing one of the most entertaining failed experiments in recent memory.
Even though Shaw once yearned to be the man at the helm, his best work as a coach came when he was second in command. Pacers players were incensed at Shaw’s firing, with David West calling the move “bulls---.” West knew the lack of veterans put a cap on the team’s potential. “[They] never gave him a team…You can’t win without grown-ups.”
Shaw had grown-ups in Indiana, veterans like West, Dahntay Jones, and Leandro Barbosa. Players like that help set the tone of the locker room. But Shaw also showed an affinity for connecting with vital players on the team. He’s been consistently credited with helping George Hill, Paul George, and Lance Stephenson flourish during the Pacers’ heyday, invoking stories of Kobe Bryant’s work ethic to energize and motivate the young players. That tactic might have even more effectiveness with a roster that actually played with Bryant, but never got to see the results of that work ethic first-hand.
Like Bryant, Shaw is adept at the art of trash-talking, one of the sparks that pushed George and Stephenson to a higher level of performance. But he also knew when to switch his style, and encourage them to instill confidence. Stephenson credits his own three-point progression to Shaw’s after-practice work; after only shooting 35 threes in his first two seasons, he hit 62 out of 188 during the 2013 season.
The question is will Shaw be able to relate to the young players on the Lakers roster. He’s shown an ability to motivate players in different ways. Julius Randle got to observe Kobe’s insane work ethic for at least half of the 2014-2015 season until Bryant season-ending rotator cuff surgery. The Mamba-centric motivational tactics might be more effective for him. Jordan Clarkson has already showed progression from behind the arc the last couple of years, and post-practice games of Around the World with Shaw talking him up could help the trend continue. Clarkson and Anthony Brown both could benefit from a Lance Stephenson-type of trajectory, even if the Indiana version of Stephenson ends up being Clarkson’s ceiling. As for D’Angelo, Shaw should be able to recognize that Scott’s brand of tough love wasn’t effective for the point guard. He was able to be the supportive voice that Stephenson, George, and Hill needed. With time, hopefully he can recreate those same relationships with not only Russell, but the rest of the Lakers’ young core as well.