First off, Andre Miller was wrong.
Everyone has wanted to cuss out a coach at some point in their lives. It’s like a rite of passage for every young athlete, a couple steps after “getting a ‘participation’ trophy” and usually right before “realizing a career in professional sports probably isn’t in the cards.” Players and coaches are human beings, which means they won’t always agree.
But a player can’t do what Miller did against Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, when he received the first “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” of his 15-year NBA career. Miller, 37, had a streak of 239 consecutive games played snapped that night, and he reacted in a manner inconsistent with his behavior through most of his long and respected career. He lashed out at his coach, on the bench, berating Brian Shaw loud enough for fans and reporters seated nearby to hear toward the end of the Denver Nuggets’ 114-102 loss to the Sixers.
Miller has since been excused from the team and the Nuggets reportedly are exploring trade possibilities for the veteran guard. The saga has raised some concern that a savvy player with a long history of professionalism might leave the NBA under a shroud of unprofessionalism. But the biggest questions raised by the whole fiasco don’t pertain to Miller. They pertain to Shaw.
Shaw, a former NBA point guard and longtime assistant coach, has been one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks for years. Multiple reports named Shaw as Phil Jackson‘s preferred choice to succeed him as Los Angeles Lakers coach in 2011. The Lakers went with Mike Brown. It didn’t go so well.
Shaw got his chance last summer with the Nuggets, after NBA Coach of the Year George Karl and the Nuggets parted ways in a black offseason for the organization. General manager Masai Ujiri bolted for the Toronto Raptors and forward Andre Iguodala, arguably Denver’s most important player, left for the Golden State Warriors. Key role players Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer were also lost via trade and free agency, respectively.
A team that had won 57 games the previous season lay in shambles. Yet there was optimism about Shaw, who was getting a team of his own to show what he could do as a head coach after so many seasons in the second seat on the bench. Less than midway through his first season, however, Shaw has come across as either disingenuous or incompetent, more often than not.
In defending his choice to bench Miller, Shaw claimed he had no idea of Miller’s streak. Even if he had known, Shaw told reporters, it would not have affected his desire to rework the rotation.
Therein lies Shaw’s first delinquency as a coach. Miller’s streak might not have been at the top of Miller’s scouting report in bold-faced type, but it was in the packet. Coaches — particularly first-year coaches — are expected to know minutiae like this, whether a player prefers to run pick-and-rolls to the right or the left, how he’s played in the second half of road back-to-backs, whether he shows up literally every game for six years ready to play. In essence, they’re supposed to read the packet. (Brad Stevens probably memorized every one for his players and a few of the opponents’, too.)
If Shaw wasn’t aware of such a long streak by one of his players, he couldn’t have known how much pride Miller took in it, and if he didn’t know how much pride Miller took in it, he never could understand the best way to motivate Miller to the betterment of the team, which is the whole point of being a successful coach.
If a player needs a shot early in the game to get a rhythm, a good coach sees that the player gets that shot. Just look at the terrible post-ups Kendrick Perkins has gotten in the first quarter over the years with the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder. By giving up a little, Doc Rivers and Scott Brooks maximized Perkins’ impact the rest of the game. Shaw either didn’t want to give or didn’t know what to give up to keep Miller happy and on board.
The streak aside, though, Shaw’s move to bench Miller and his subsequent defense raise a different question about Shaw. That is, what exactly is his motivation this season?
John Schumann of NBA.com dug out an interesting stat after Miller’s blow-up. He found that Denver was 11-5 when Miller played at least 19 minutes, 3-12 when he didn’t. The loss in Philadelphia was Denver’s eighth straight. The Nuggets were already playing pretty bad; benching Miller looked like a way to make them even putrid.
The Nuggets have won four straight since Miller’s DNP, which would seem to justify Shaw’s actions. But if Miller was the sole reason Denver lost eight straight, then conversely he would have to be the sole reason Denver won seven straight in November and December. Of course, neither is true. The four teams the Nuggets have beaten — Memphis, the Lakers, Boston and Oklahoma City — are all damaged in some way, while there were plenty of games during the drought — close losses to Golden State and Miami, for instance — that suggest Miller wasn’t a debilitating problem. That Denver has gone on a winning streak in Miller’s absence may be a consequence or coincidental. There’s no way of saying which.
All we can try to deduce is where Shaw’s thought process may have lied when he chose to keep Miller on the bench against Philly, through a 44-point second quarter by the Sixers and a 4-for-16 combined shooting effort by point guards Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson. The Nuggets were bad. Shaw knew that sitting Miller could make them worse, which smells a bit like tanking, or he didn’t know that sitting Miller could make them worse, which means he wasn’t aware of information most teams would want their coach to have. Getting tossed in Tuesday’s game against the Celtics, while his team was winning by 28 points, added another bizarre layer to Shaw’s recent performance.
Before all this gets sorted out, with Miller returning to the court for the Nuggets or another team, Miller will have to step up with apologies and mea culpas — again, rightfully so because he was wrong.
Ultimately, though, Miller will come out of this with the stain of having a poor attitude, which is an uncomfortable but not fatal blow for a player with his resume. But Shaw could come out with a much different type of stain, with much more serious questions raised about whether we were all wrong about Shaw, the supposed coaching phenom, in the first place.
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