Strike 1: Michael Malone must be a baseball fan. He very likely remembers “Rocktober,” and has clearly seen how MLB managers handle things during the final weeks of spring training as they prep for the real thing to come.

For the Denver Nuggets, the real thing to come is the start of the upcoming NBA playoffs.

The Nuggets head coach watched his team muddle through the last month and a half of the regular season, turning it on against teams like Memphis, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but shutting down completely against lesser lights like San Antonio, Chicago and Houston. When a Memphis loss clinched the top spot in the Western Conference for Denver, many observers (who clearly didn’t learn anything watching Nathaniel Hackett fail miserably to get his starters ready for the season by not playing them in the Denver Broncos 2022 preseason) called for Malone to stop playing his starters at all and save them for the postseason, despite the fact that they’d been in a severe slump and looked nothing like the top seed in the west.

You heard the word “hopefully,” as in “hopefully they’d get it together and be ready for the playoffs.”

Smart coaches don’t do “hopefully.” Had Malone subscribed to that nonsense, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr and the rest of the key members of the playing rotation would have gone 11 days without playing a single game, and would have had zero momentum going into the playoffs, which start next Saturday.

Coaches know the benefits – and drawbacks – of long layoffs. Momentum is a funny thing. Layoffs – especially long ones – tend to put a halt to all of it.

Fans might recall the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who after a frantic and fantastic end to the regular season that saw them win the National League pennant, were forced to only practice and not actually play any games for nine days before meeting the American League champion Boston Red Sox in the World Series. While the Sox were clearly the better team, the layoff cost the Rockies every drop of their momentum they’d built up and they were swept by Boston.

These Nuggets didn’t close strong overall, but Malone did give the regulars a chance to sharpen up by playing them a bit in the final two regular season games.

Malone played the last two games much like a baseball manager would have done at the end of the spring. The starters played about 2/3 of the second-to-last game – breaking a good sweat and getting some quality work in – before going to the bench. In the finale, the starters sat while a couple of key reserves mixed in with those who don’t get a lot of game minutes in a season ending feel good victory.

Denver’s key players will now have a week to get ready for their first playoff opponent. They don’t have a ton of momentum going into the playoffs, but they won’t be too rusty either. They’re healthy and will be rested. And rest assured Malone will work them just hard enough and have them ready for whomever arrives in town for round one.

Strike 2: The question now is who will Malone turn to off the bench for key postseason minutes? The coach will likely go with eight and perhaps nine in a rotation. Sixth-man Bruce Brown is a given, and rookie Christian Braun has certainly earned it too. The experience of ageless Jeff Green will probably earn him playing time. After that, it’s a jump ball.

Have trade deadline acquisitions Thomas Bryant and Reggie Jackson shown well enough to be part of any rotation? Bryant finally looked good in the last regular season game, displaying some outside shooting and rebounding prowess. Jackson brings a lot of energy, but his shooting hasn’t been good and his overall production doesn’t measure up to Brown at the point.

The head scratchers are young Zeke Nnaji and Vlatko Cancar. Both have had moments during the season that made you think they’d be big postseason contributors, but both have also scuffled more than a little too. The wild card is rookie Peyton Watson, who’s shined brightly on the defensive side the last two weeks. Will that be enough to get him minutes?

Coaches tend to lean on experience in the postseason. And Denver has one very experienced option they’ve used very seldom this season. There’s never really been an explanation as to why veteran center DeAndre Jordan has played so little. Injury? Wear and tear from a decade in the NBA? Jordan has done more coaching than playing this season, and his value in the locker room is well-documented. But his value as Jokic’s main backup could be front and center the moment the playoffs tip off.

Jordan only played in 38 games this season, averaging just five points and five rebounds per. But in the playoffs, when things tend to get more physical – and messages need to be sent and answered – Jordan could be very valuable. The Nuggets should expect their playoff opponents to try to get more and more physical and try to take Denver out of their game. There will be an effort to bully Joker and Co. The answer to that might be the guy who’s already been part of 11 (physical) NBA playoff series. Nothing will surprise him.

Strike 3: When this Nuggets season is over and done, regardless of whether or not things end with a parade, it will be back to work for general manager Calvin Booth and company as they try to build an even better version of the Western Conference’s top team.

It’s pretty clear already what this Nuggets team lacks: Another version of the guy that makes them so good in the first place.

Booth needs to search far and wide to find the next Nikola Jokic.

Joker isn’t going to win another Most Valuable Player award, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still the most irreplaceable player in the NBA right now. Just watch the Nuggets try to play without him. Strictly from a “style of play” perspective, you can see what Malone and his coaches are up against. Take Jokic out of the game for even a few minutes, and you’re taking your top facilitator, ball handler, rebounder and most times scorer off the court at the same time. How do you fill that void with just one player?

Denver can’t do it right now. Nobody on the current roster can even begin to replicate what Joker does for the Nuggets. When they do send in another big to give the two-time MVP a rest, that player is either a low post, traditional-type center or a player who is more comfortable handling the ball at the top of the key or on the wing, not both. The offense doesn’t typically run through the replacement center. Without Jokic, the main facilitator task reverts back to the point guard, rather than have things start with a high post pick and roll set up.

When was the last time we saw the Nuggets run anything close to their vaunted “two-man game” without it being Jokic handling the ball?

Green is the closest in terms of mobility, passing and cutting while showing the ability to play facing the basket or with his back to it. Cancar should be, but he’s become much more of a wing player and less of a presence in the paint. Nnaji, despite good gains in the weight room last off season, is still too slight to bang down low, and his hands are suspect at best.

What Booth and his staff should be looking for in the next draft or free agency is another big who has a similar skill set to Jokic: a guy who likes to handle the ball, is adept at passing and the pick and roll game, with a shooter’s touch and the ability to bang down low. Should be easy, right?

Of course not. We’re talking about a unique skill set. It’s very unlikely they’ll find another seven footer who can do all these things as well as Jokic, but they need to be looking for another big who at least style-wise plays the game the way Jokic does. That would make things much simpler for the rest of the guys coming off the bench.