The Denver Nuggets ended Brian Shaw’s ill-fated tenure as their coach on Tuesday, a decision that was overdue. Shaw never managed to put his imprint on the team, failing to establish a cohesive defensive and offensive game plan and losing the players’ trust months ago. It was obviously not all his fault, as the front office wanted to implement a new system after George Karl’s fast pace-based offense, but they never provided Shaw with the type of players that would have thrived in a post-oriented triangle hybrid. It was a marriage doomed to fail.
Now the Nuggets will be coached by interim Melvin Hunt while they look for a permanent replacement. Names like Alvin Gentry, Mike D’Antoni and Avery Johnson have been mentioned as potential candidates. Instead of discussing their individual merits, which by this point most NBA fans are familiar with, let’s discuss which of the many available coaches would be the best fit for each of the multiple possible directions the team can go from here.
Full rebuild: Mike Longabardy
If the Nuggets are going to blow it up and build around young players, going with a first-time coach who could be cheap and has potential to be really good is the right course of action. Suns’ assistant coach Mike Longabardy fits the criteria, even if he hasn’t been mentioned as a potential candidate. Longabardy worked with Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers on the Celtics and has been the defensive coordinator of the Suns for the past couple of years. The Suns have slipped significantly this season on defense, but the uncertainty surrounding their roster and the lack of chemistry is most likely to blame for them failing to execute a system that requires all-out effort.
Longabardy is 45 years old, which makes him young enough to grow with the team. He has the credentials, the defensive background and the exposure to an explosive offense as a member of the Suns staff to do a good job as a solid overall coach that won’t be costly and could prove to be an up-and-coming star. It’s unclear how the veterans on the team would react to a rookie coach — they certainly didn’t seem to respect Shaw after playing for Karl — but if the Nuggets rebuild, they will be gone sooner rather than later.
Waiting out the storm: Mike D’Antoni or Alvin Gentry
D’Antoni has expressed a desire to coach the Nuggets, but it’s unclear if the front office has him on their short list. They tried to get away from Karl’s style and D’Antoni’s is similar. At the same time, D’Antoni’s disciple in Gentry reportedly is a candidate and the new philosophy Denver tried to instill didn’t stick. The roster is filled with players that thrived under Karl and could continue to do so under D’Antoni or Gentry. If instead of having a fire sale the Nuggets decide to try to remain relevant while they wait for their cap situation to clear itself out, one of the two former Suns coaches might be the best option.
There is enough athleticism and positional versatility already on the roster for D’Antoni or Gentry to put together a decent offense with minimal changes, while defensively the team would need a severe overhaul to even sniff the league average, one that could be hard to orchestrate. Having Denver play fun basketball before the cap explodes and they can add good pieces could be a good idea, and a fast-paced attack could inflate the numbers of some players, increasing their trade value for a potential big move down the road.
The biggest problem with D’Antoni is he would command a high salary and could be tempted to play Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari at the two forward spots — like he did when he coached them with the Knicks — which would marginalize one of Jusuf Nurkic or Kenneth Faried. Gentry would be a better option, but he might not want to leave the cozy situation he has as Steve Kerr’s head assistant in Golden State.
Stay the course: Avery Johnson
It’s possible the Nuggets’ front office is happy with the direction they chose after firing Karl and simply think they got the wrong coach. If that’s the case, Johnson seems like a perfect alternative. The Mavericks and Nets were among the slowest teams in the league with him at the helm, and when he had a decent roster in Dallas, he managed to lead his team to above-average defensive performances. He’s also a disciplinarian who demands the most out of his players. That’s what the Nuggets wanted from Shaw.
Johnson would do better with more veterans on the roster, so Denver would have to make some changes. Trading for an isolation scorer would be a must, but fortunately Joe Johnson is available. With the right players, Johnson could change the culture, although his tenure with the Nets proved he doesn’t do well when he doesn’t have continuity. So, the Nuggets would have to move fast to bring in the pieces he needs and fully commit to the direction they decided to follow when they hired Shaw in the first place.
It doesn’t seem like the best plan to go all-in on something that hasn’t worked in the past, but if that’s what the Nuggets’ brass wants to do, Johnson seems like their best bet.
Wildcard candidate: Michael Malone
Malone is a coach who earned the respect of DeMarcus Cousins in his time in Sacramento, had the Kings playing defense, gave the reins of the team to a small scoring point guard and, while respected around the league, wouldn’t command a prohibitively high salary. That is the perfect fit for the front office, which wants a defensive-minded coach, and the roster, which is comprised of players that bear similarities to the ones he led in Sacramento.
Nurkic isn’t even close to Cousins’ level as a player, but the two work better from the post. Faried is a better rebounder and offensive player than Thompson, but neither can shoot from outside, which is fine with Malone. Ty Lawson is a better version of Isaiah Thomas. What the Nuggets lack is a third isolation scorer – -the role Rudy Gay used to fill with Malone’s Kings. Yet Malone could prove adaptable given the freedom to experiment and could even give playing at a higher pace a shot.
There are other viable candidates the Nuggets could pursue like former player and Denver native Chauncey Billups, as well as Mark Jackson, but it’s hard to see them agreeing to join a franchise in disarray.
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The Nuggets find themselves at a crossroads. The next coach they hire will determine the direction the franchise will take. For the sake of the team, hopefully they make the right decision.