The Bitter End: Shaw recounts shady fallout with Lakers' brass
Brian Shaw spent 15 years as a player and seven years as a Lakers assistant
When Phil Jackson retired, the Lakers hired Mike Brown and ditched the triangle
Shaw is miffed that the Lakers have parted with many staffers linked to Jackson
INDIANAPOLIS -- Brian Shaw works and waits thousands of miles from Los Angeles, where he helped the Lakers win five championships, where Phil Jackson taught him to win at the highest level.
Now Shaw is the associate head coach of the Indiana Pacers, rounding out one of the NBA's most promising staffs. Three or four days each week, head coach Frank Vogel gathers Shaw, Jim Boylen and Dan Burke in an office or on an otherwise empty court to discuss theory as they wait for the lockout to end.
"The question, 'How did you guys do it?' is asked every day around here," Vogel said. "How did you teach post spacing or post cutting? How do you teach your ball-handlers and set-up men in the pick-and-roll? There's really an infinite amount of topics that you can have debates about and learn from each other. That's what we're doing right now."
Each of Vogel's assistant brings his own perspective to those questions. Burke has been a Pacers assistant for 14 years under Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Rick Carlisle and Jim O'Brien. Boylen was a winning head coach at the University of Utah after assisting the Rockets' championship teams of Rudy Tomjanovich and other NBA franchises.
Then there is Shaw, who played for a variety of coaches before attending his version of finishing school as a four-year player and a seven-year assistant to Jackson in Los Angeles. Shaw promises to be the most qualified head-coaching candidate in the NBA, based on his 15 years as a player in the league and in Europe, and his coaching experiences in L.A., where he maintained a strong relationship with the game's biggest star in Kobe Bryant and helped transform a young roster into a championship team while dealing with a variety of difficult issues.
Yet his time with the Lakers hasn't been the boon he assumed it would be, which is one of the reasons he has come to Indiana. By helping the Pacers this season, he may be able to distance himself from Jackson's triangle offense.
"I talked to him last week," Shaw said of Jackson. "I said to him, 'I never realized how many detractors you have out there.' Because when I go out on head-coaching interviews and if I mention the word 'triangle,' it makes general managers and owners cringe. They don't want to hear about the triangle offense, they don't want to hear about Phil Jackson. It was funny, even when I came here and I sat down with them, jokingly Larry [Bird, the Pacers' president] was like, 'I don't want to hear anything about that triangle bull----.' And that's kind of the attitude that everybody has."
That skepticism appears to be based on the failure of coaches other than Jackson to implement his offense of intricate team play. Jackson's assistants -- Jim Cleamons (with the Mavericks from 1996-98) and Kurt Rambis (with the Timberwolves from 2009-11) -- tried and failed to install it elsewhere.
"I interviewed Brian four years ago and we talked about that," Bird said. "He said, 'I like the triangle, it's great, but you've got to have the right players to run it. I would use part of it, but it's according to the talent that we have. You've got to have the right guys.' "
Yet Shaw believed his experience in the triangle -- supplemented by his understanding of other systems -- would help him become the Lakers' new coach when Jackson retired after their second-round sweep by the eventual champion Mavericks. Instead, Jackson was concerned for Shaw's future in L.A., because Jim Buss was taking control of the Lakers from his father, Jerry Buss, the most successful owner of the NBA's modern era.
"Phil let me know going into the interview [with the Lakers] for me to almost disassociate myself from him, that anything that I said about him or the triangle system would hurt me because of his lack of relationship with Jimmy Buss," Shaw said. "So when I did interview, that was the point that I tried to make about the fact that I had played for Phil only my last four years, and that I played for all of these other coaches."
They met at the home of Jerry Buss, where Shaw was interviewed by Jerry and Jim, along with general manager Mitch Kupchak. Shaw spoke of how he had been a point guard for six NBA franchises before finishing his career with the Lakers from 1999-2003. He mentioned that he had played USA Basketball in 1986 for Lute Olson and had tried out for John Thompson's 1988 Olympic team. Yet he found himself having to defend Jackson during the interview, he said.
"There were some things that were said that I won't really get into," Shaw said. "It was kind of bashing Phil Jackson, that I just refused to just sit and listen to. And that's when I said, 'Hey, I love Phil Jackson. I appreciate everything that we've all been able to accomplish under him. We've all prospered since he's been the coach here.' "
Told of Shaw's comments, Kupchak said he and the Lakers will always appreciate Jackson's 11 seasons.
"Phil and I have a great relationship -- I was with him two days ago and we sat down for an hour a week ago," Kupchak said. "We had been to seven NBA Finals and won five Finals with him, and this organization is eternally grateful to have had him as a coach.
"I don't know what you're referring to what took place in that meeting. I don't even want to speculate. ... Phil has been very, very good to this organization and city, and we are very, very grateful to have had him as coach. I consider him as a friend and somebody I owe a lot to personally."
But Shaw says Kupchak wasn't the one speaking poorly of Jackson.
"The negativity toward Phil didn't come from Mitch," Shaw said. "It was more from Jimmy Buss just doubting some of the decisions he made in terms of how he was handling and running the team and coaching the team on the sidelines, and sitting down instead of getting up. People look at coaches and want them to pace up and down the sidelines and bark instructions to the guys. That's not Phil's demeanor. That was viewed as a negative in my estimation -- but it won him five championships with the Lakers and six with the Bulls, and that was his coaching style when he won, so why was that not acceptable now?"
Shaw emphasized that he was not bitter that the Lakers chose to hire Mike Brown as coach in late May.
"If I'm playing devil's advocate on the way the situation went down, I could say, 'Well, they went out four-zip to Dallas so we need to do something completely different now,' " Shaw said. "At the same time, I can deal with the competition of another coach being hired instead of me. It was Mike Brown, and he has head-coaching experience, he's been Coach of the Year, he's taken a team to the Finals, he's coached a superstar [LeBron James in Cleveland], he's won a championship on the staff with San Antonio -- most of those things, the check goes in his box as opposed to mine. So I can accept that."
Shaw's issue with the Lakers was that it took three weeks for them to let him know they were cutting ties to him.
"The only issue I ever had with the Lakers' organization and the way things went down was the way I was handled after having given service for 12 years," said Shaw, who served as a Lakers regional scout for one season before joining Jackson's staff. "I didn't get [an answer] for three weeks after they hired Mike Brown. And I was still protecting them, because when reporters were calling me to find out what happened and how did they let you know they were going in a different direction -- they never did let me know. But I wasn't talking to anybody because I didn't want it to appear like it's sour grapes and he's mad because he didn't get the job."
Shaw is prohibited from discussing current NBA players during the lockout. A league source told SI.com that Shaw first learned of Brown's impending hire when he was texted the rumor by Kobe Bryant. Shaw tried to reach out to Kupchak but never heard back. Three weeks later, they met at Shaw's house.
Kupchak regretted that he was unable to inform Shaw personally.
"It's never that simple, OK?" Kupchak said. "But it did take longer than usual for me to get in a room with Brian, unfortunately.
"We were working on a deal with Mike. We did not have a deal, but we were working on a deal when the story broke. I guess Brian got a phone call or two and then the rumor was out. Even though we did not have a deal with Mike, we had started to negotiate and immediately Brian's agent [Jerome Stanley] and I spoke. His agent asked me, 'Is this true?' I said, 'We don't have a deal with anybody, but we intend to negotiate a deal with Mike.' The agent and I talked for quite some time that morning, and he indicated Brian was very upset."
Kupchak told Stanley that he understood why Shaw was upset "but now is not the time for me to talk to him."
Shaw viewed his treatment as part of the larger trend of layoffs throughout the Lakers' basketball department.
"Jim Cleamons is coaching in China right now," Shaw said. "Frank Hamblen [a longtime assistant to Jackson] is retired. I ended up coming here, but the equipment manager, Rudy Garciduenas, who had been there for 28 years -- he got let go. [Assistant GM] Ronnie Lester was hired by Jerry West, had been there for 25 years -- he got let go. And a lot of other people on the basketball operations side who had been there through the Showtime era and the championships when I was playing, and even the championships from the time when I was coaching, for no reason they are let go. And that's the sad part of it and the part that is hard to understand when you say we want a new voice, we want a different direction or we want to change the culture around here. I'm like, 29 other teams in the league would love to have this kind of culture and direction, to go to the Finals seven times in 11 years and win five of them.''
Shaw simply cannot understand why his experience with Jackson wasn't viewed as a strength.
"I love the triangle and I love Phil Jackson, and I respect him and I appreciate everything that I was able to accomplish under him," Shaw said. "But I'm not him. And so we did feel like we were lepers or something. I think somebody said there were 30 championship rings within the coaching staff of the Lakers, and then basically the whole staff is out on the street. Being affiliated and associated with Phil Jackson was to our detriment.
"And I don't understand how it could be like that. Any iconic coach who has accomplished as much as he has, I think always has had the ability to set up whoever is on the staff to continue the transition smoothly. When Jerry Sloan left [the Jazz], Tyrone Corbin, who was on his staff, took over. If [Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich was to leave, one of his guys would be there. When Pat Riley left the Lakers, Randy Pfund and whoever else came next, they were under him. When Pat Riley left New York, Jeff Van Gundy was his guy. And in this situation, the Lakers basically said anything associated and affiliated with Phil Jackson, we don't want anything to do with it anymore.
"It's the weirdest thing. It's like we should be ashamed, when it should be the other way."
Two weeks after he heard of Brown's impending hire, Shaw said he received a voicemail from Jerry Buss.
"Dr. Buss did call and leave a message saying that his son is in control now, and he has to let him make whatever decisions that he makes, that I was still one of his favorites, and that he was sure that I would be OK going forward," Shaw said.
One week after hearing that message, Shaw received a visit from Kupchak. Shaw said he did most of the talking in order to emphasize that he wasn't questioning the Lakers' decision to hire Brown, and to let Kupchak know that Shaw had been trying to protect the organization by not publicizing the Lakers' neglect of him.
"Personally, I don't have anything against Mitch, and he apologized for how everything was handled," Shaw said. "I made it very clear that I was not very happy with the way that I was handled, especially having to shield all of the requests for interviews because I didn't want it to come off the wrong way. I know Ronnie Lester, when he did an interview he kind of blasted the [organization] -- there's a whole lot of stuff that a whole lot of people wanted to say, and Ronnie said some stuff that needed to be said. But at that time, because it was still so new and so raw, if I would have got started [talking publicly], it probably would have been bad."
It is clear that Shaw and Kupchak continue to respect each other.
"Brian is going to be a head coach one day, and he's going to be a good head coach," Kupchak said. "I actually think he is ready to be a head coach now. The fact of the matter, in our organization, there are three of us that made the decision. We interviewed several candidates, and Mike's interview was just excellent and we made a choice and decision as a group to pursue Mike Brown. For me to say anything else would not be true."
Shaw's potential was affirmed by the Pacers' pursuit of him. He had been invited to audition for a commentating role by ESPN and there was interest from other coaching staffs, but the Pacers were adamant.
"I already had this relationship with the guy who arguably should have been taking over the best team in the league and could have been the head coach the year before with Cleveland," Vogel said. "He's available, I have a friendship with him and Larry Bird has a friendship with him because they played together in Boston. So he immediately became my No. 1 target.
"It was a recruitment of him. I treated it like I was a college coach going after a player. I'm calling him and texting him and trying to sell him on our team and where we're going, and we're going to be a playoff team, and we're going to be one of the most exciting teams in the league over the next few years -- but we need someone like him to help us get there."
Vogel had actually worked under Shaw as an advance scout for the Lakers in 2005-06; he had been hired, at Shaw's urging, after Vogel and O'Brien's staff had been fired by the 76ers in 2005. By 2007, Vogel had been reunited with O'Brien, who had been hired as the Pacers' coach. When O'Brien was fired last January, Vogel was elevated to interim coach and led the Pacers to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Bird named Vogel full-time coach last summer, and gave him crucial advice.
"Right after the season, when I brought Frank in, I said, 'The first thing to do is don't be like most coaches and think you know everything. We need to get experience on the bench,' " Bird said. "And he went out and got some pretty good ones."
Vogel hired Boylen away from the Lakers and Cavaliers, who were highly interested in him. At the same time, he asked Shaw to take on a larger role than he had experienced in Los Angeles.
"I was able to sell him on the idea that it's best for him to be a head coach very soon, and his best path to get there was to stay in the game," Vogel said. "And this would be an opportunity where he would be my associate head coach and he and I would sort of coach this team together because I was a young coach that doesn't have it all figured out yet.''
He emphasized the optimism that is building around the Pacers, who challenged the Bulls throughout their first-round series last spring. The Pacers are young and deep and will have cap space when the lockout ends.
"And then I had to sell him on Indiana," Vogel said. "He's coming from L.A. and this is going to be a culture shock coming out here. He and his wife have two small children, and to me this is the greatest place in the country to raise a family -- the cost of living is great, the [low] crime rate, the school system is off the charts. Everything out here is family-friendly, so when he came out to visit, it was like a recruiting visit where I took him around town and showed him my neighborhood and all of the developments that he would be looking at in terms of places to live."
The Pacers will be installing a simplified low-post offense with read-and-react keys to bring their young players together.
"People would say, 'Is he really going to help you being a triangle guy?' " Vogel said. "But he went to the Finals as a starting point guard on the Orlando Magic. He played in that Brian Hill system, which was a simple system with not a lot of plays, just working on execution. He played in a lot of different systems before he ever touched the triangle.
"The triangle has so many good offensive concepts that make it a good offense to apply to our offense. The spacing they incorporate, the movement, the reads -- a lot of that stuff within the triangle is just basketball. And he's already made us a ton better because he's cleaned things up in my mind so much in how they taught things. And that has been very, very helpful."
Shaw insists that he is ready to move on to a new approach, and that he is no longer angry with the way his Lakers' association ended. That's why he went out of his way to reach out to Brown during a coaching clinic put on by the Mavericks' Tim Grgurich in September.
"It was my first time really being around Mike Brown and I got an opportunity for five minutes to talk to him," Shaw said. "I felt there was this tension or awkwardness between us, and so I got an opportunity at the clinic to pull him aside. I think that so many people in L.A. anticipated or expected me to be the coach, and a lot of people wanted that. I wanted him to know that I really am OK with them hiring him. He got a lot of the negative vibe from folks not because of him and who he is and the way he coaches, but because of the way the situation went down with me. So my conversation with him was, 'I don't have any problems with you. You're more qualified in [a lot of areas].'
"I told him, 'I just want you to know that everything is cool with me, and if there's any way at all that I can help you, let me know. I have the pulse of this [Lakers] team better than anybody does, nobody knows them better than me. Anything that you need, if you're having a hard time reaching these guys, or you want to run something by me or bounce something off me, don't hesitate to call on me.'
"I offered that to him because I'm over it. I have relationships with a lot of the people in the organization and a lot of the people on that team. I want him to do well, I want the people that I know to do well and I want the fans there to give him a chance instead of coming down on him because they expected something different.
"So I told him that and it was strange. It was like a weight had lifted. It was like he took a deep breath, we hugged each other on the back, and he said, 'I really appreciate you saying that to me.' He texted me that evening that it was nice being around you the last couple days, it was nice getting to know you and I appreciate what you said to me.
"I really want the fans to give him that chance, and to not let the stuff that happened with me and the other people of the organization to put a damper on him and what he's going to bring to the organization going forward."
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