There's a syndrome in sports that creates an either / or situation. You know what I'm talking about? The need to blame one entity as being more culpable than the other in a complex situation. The reality never really matches the interpersonal relationships and organizational politics that hover over everything. Simply put, there's no one single reason for someone to get fired or traded - but multiple reasons.
However, we can begin to see where things all went wrong for the Denver Nuggets players and their new-ish coach. It starts with one word, and one word alone ...
The word Brian Shaw used to describe a run and gun offense, like the type that the Nuggets ran under previous coach George Karl, was that one innocuous word. Cute. Not offensive at all in most contexts, outside of the one he used it in. This was all the way back in his firs press conference as Denver Nuggets head coach. While all the assembled media laughed and gave coy smiles, these smiles weren't reciprocated in the most important place however: the Nuggets locker room.
Trust and embracing a new coach, with no head coaching cache (despite his championships as a player and as an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers) was made much more difficult. The implication was "what you accomplished the previous season, winning 57 games, was an illusion. Only I know the way. Look at my rings". Forgetting he has neither the gravitas nor the coaching weight of a Karl, or Shaw's mentor Phil Jackson, to come in so heavy handedly was likely a mistake that Shaw is still climbing uphill from.
From there Shaw's fractious relationship with his players has played out publicly in various forms. A massive sideline blowup featuring Andre Miller stemmed from the coach not informing the player he would sit out that evening. It got so bad that Miller was exiled from the team. The relationship with Jordan Hamilton deteriorated to the point where Hamilton was traded to Houston for the expiring contract of Aaron Brooks. The Kenneth Faried saga has gone on since Shaw first set foot in Denver.
Fast forward to this season we've had "issues" crop up with Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari at various times, and once again, as we learned last night, the Faried issue is still an issue. This doesn't take into account Shaw blasting the players publicly for being unprofessional and leaving trash in places and on planes. All the while players like Ty Lawson insist, behind the scenes, that this sort of thing doesn't go on and the players understand what Shaw expects of them.
If one thing is for certain, it is that communication between coach and player, player and coach has been sub-par. To the point where multiple one-on-one meetings have been called to smooth things out, as Shaw stated publicly in this CSG video from December 16th, 2014:
This cannot keep happening over and over and over again. Before the last game against the San Antonio Spurs, Shaw was asked by Matt Moore of CBS Sports.com if he considered starting Darrell Arthur to help with some of the defensive issues, Shaw had this to say, starting at the 6:14 mark of the video:
While this needs to be taken into context of the Nuggets 43-point blowout to the Golden State Warriors the day before, it needs to be said that it seemed to be in general a shot at the Nuggets entire front court. Kenneth Faried, who was part of this lumped-in critique was asked about these comments by Nick Groke of the Denver Post in the locker room after the game. Here is the audio with question included:
Now, Groke's question isn't "exactly" what Shaw said. In fact it's a supposition based on Shaw's statement. Obviously Shaw isn't going to start all guards in place of the frontcourt. However, Shaw saying "if I started all the players who give me everything" is a clear shot at the frontcourt players. Which is all well and good. What's more important is Faried wasn't spoken to about these concerns. Communication.
After a year and a half we keep coming back to the same tired, sorry song. The most fundamental part of a player / coach relationship is communication. Knowing what the coach expects of you. Do any of these players know? It seems like certain things are expressed through the media (a la Phil Jackson), but either aren't communicated in private or not communicated properly. One cannot forget Gallo's striking interview with an Italian publication in early December about his playing time and coach Shaw. In it, Gallo says he had no idea what the team was running and it switched from game to game.
If something as fundamental as communication is still an issue in a season and a half, that's an alarming sign. Yet I'm left to wonder if these issues wouldn't be so pronounced if Shaw had got off on a better foot. I think it's a legitimate question. We cannot deny that things have been off for the entire tenure and no one knows how this will play out, or how it will end up. You can't constantly churn players on a roster for the sake of one guy, and you also can't keep firing coaches.
One thing has to give though. It is always up to the players to "buy in" to whatever the coach wants. However, a combination of lack of communication, trust and a bit of square peg, round hole has made the Nuggets an inconsistent mess for a season and a half. Add to that injuries last year and there you've had it.
What is the solution? I don't have that answer. Yet, deep down, I think we all know that change is coming in a big way. Deep down, I think we're all prepared for it.