Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone was a bit reflective in a post-practice interview recently at Pepsi Center. The team had just lost to the Phoenix Suns at home and had slipped out of the playoff race for the first time all season. The complaints were mounting, and his team looked about as sluggish as they ever have.
“Teams didn’t know what the hell we were doing last year,” Malone said. “We just played.”
The coach was referring to the offense the Nuggets ran last season, which was free form (outside of the occasional Triangle set) and relied on the skills and intellect of Nikola Jokic to make everything work. As I discussed here, Malone made the conscious decision to operate more like the 2013 Memphis Grizzlies than the 2017 Denver Nuggets. When Paul Millsap went down with an injury the Nuggets were often slow, plodding and controlled.
Certainly not what they did last year.
The conflict between the free-wheeling, fun offense the Nuggets ran last season and the controlled, defense-oriented squad of this season was stark and made for a thoroughly mediocre team up until the Nuggets’ loss to the Suns. There was a fun team in there, but it was almost like it was caged, held in prison by one thing: Michael Malone’s control over the offense, in particular the amount of plays he called.
One of the side effects of a slower paced, controlled, defensive approach to basketball is the coach will often call sets to run from the sidelines. Malone has been very hands-on with the Nuggets offensive approach this season. The offensive pace has been largely dictated by how fast Malone or lead assistant Wes Unseld Jr. could get the play out to Jamal Murray or Jokic and whomever is running the offense for the second unit.
In that practice after the Nuggets lost to the Suns on Jan. 20, Michael Malone spoke about calling “less set plays.” This was prior to Mason Plumlee getting injured in the heartbreaking loss to the Boston Celtics. While Plumlee has been the fans’ whipping boy for why the offense wasn’t running to perfection, it wasn’t fair. The Nuggets were running exactly the pace, style and lineup configuration that their coaching staff wanted them to.
Something had to change. And change it did.
Malone and the Nuggets’ coaching staff reached a moment of realization wherein they understood that the need to place the offense in the hands of their once and future star, Jokic, the catalyst and reason the Nuggets offense was so dynamic last season. This doesn’t mean that when Plumlee comes back from injury the team should return to their pseudo-Grizzlies ways. Even starting Plumlee won’t change the way the offense now is being run.
The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no putting it back.
You know what? That is a sign that Michael Malone is maturing as a head coach. The realization that — while he was able to scrape together a .500 record before – he needs to place the offense in the hands of Jokic, and trust Murray and Gary Harris is growth from a head coach who is growing along with this young Nuggets team.
When you try to slow things down and make them more defensive, your offense and defense have to fit hand and glove. The Nuggets never quite did. They were an offensive juggernaut that needed greater defensive discipline and they were trying to be something they weren’t for the sake of a defense that wasn’t compatible with their offense. Nuggets needed more Golden State Warriors than 1997 Miami Heat.
It seems like now the Nuggets, and to his credit Michael Malone, are getting to the point where they understand that. They needed to unleash their best player (Jokic) while instilling greater defensive discipline while maintaining pace. That is a massive leap forward in NBA coaching by Malone and he should be given credit for recognizing that.
This points to greater things for this young Nuggets squad and fans should be excited for what is to come.