It seems Michael Malone, and his Denver Nuggets squad, are making their own change to start 2018.
After playing what is essentially a seven and a half man rotation for the majority of the month of December, Malone is realizing that — while the Nuggets have been much improved — there are repercussions that will eventually take effect when playing mainly just seven total players.
“I own the fact that I have played seven and a half guys,” Malone said at the first practice of 2018 and one day prior to the Nuggets taking on the Phoenix Suns. “Let’s be honest, it has been pretty good to us, but after that Philly game — when you see how tired our guys are — I cannot continue to do that.”
The Nuggets are just flat-out exhausted and it is beginning to take a toll on their on-court production. Malone is not blind to this fact.
“I looked at Will Barton sitting on the floor of the court the other night and he said, ‘coach, I need a blow’. Wilson Chandler was saying, ‘coach, I need a blow’,” Malone explained when talking about Denver’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. “Gary Harris had a look on his face to where he just looked so fatigued and tired. Every time he shot the ball, I did not think it had a chance to go in. He was that fatigued down the stretch.”
Malone seems to be trapped in a rotational conundrum that has left him torn on a philosophical level. On one hand, it is hard to fault Malone for sticking with just seven rotational players, because Denver has been playing well and owns the sixth-best net rating over the past seven games. On the other hand, the Nuggets’ ability to hit shots from distance has fallen off a cliff. In the past seven games, Denver is shooting a measly 32.9 percent from three-point distance which is good for 26th in the NBA.
“I think we are missing shots because we are tired, and I think we are tired because I am not trusting our bench at all,” Malone explained. “I am playing the starting-five, I am playing Will Barton, I am playing Trey Lyles, and I am playing half of Torrey Craig. I have to find ways to trust our bench — and play more guys — so I do not run our guys into the ground. It is a long year and there is a lot of basketball left.”
Now, the difficult part is figuring out which players are able to be trusted with playing time that will also allow Denver to continue to play solid on defense. There is no denying that cutting Kenneth Faried and Emmanuel Mudiay out of the lineup has helped the Nuggets play a better brand of basketball. So where does he go from here?
“I am asking too much of Gary (Harris), Will (Barton), Jamal (Murray), Trey (Lyles), Nikola (Jokic), and all of those guys,” Malone said. “So whether it is more Malik (Beasley), Juancho (Hernangomez), Richard Jefferson, Kenneth (Faried), Darrell (Arthur), or Emmanuel (Mudiay) — I have to find a couple guys that can spell our starters and key players so they are not just dead.”
What makes this situation so precarious is that the players on the Nuggets’ bench have not produced when called upon. When Malone was asked if it is difficult to start trusting his bench suddenly, he gave a very direct response.
“I went to a small rotation for a reason,” Malone explained. “Early in the season, we had a rotation and were playing guys 9 or 10 deep. Obviously, I went to a seven — or seven and a half man rotation — and it has been pretty good to us.”
Malone also does understand that he needs to continue building his players up and trusting them. One of the biggest lessons that Malone has learned as a coach — and a term that he continues to reiterate whenever applicable — is that the best thing you can do for a player as a coach is giving them confidence. That is, once again, in the forefront of Malone’s thoughts.
“I don’t want seven or eight other guys in the locker room saying, ‘those guys are so tired, but he doesn’t trust any of us’. That is bad for morale,” Malone said. “So I have to find ways to get those guys in, and those guys have to understand that whoever I do play, that we are defending at a high-level right now. If you go into the game, you have to help us continue to defend at a high level. It is one of those things where I have to trust, but they have to prove that they are trustworthy.”
Malone is right. He does need to learn to trust his bench unit more than he has. The starting unit is being run ragged which has led Malone to yet another realization.
“It is funny. My mindset heading into the game with Philly is that we are going to have three days between games,” Malone said when reflecting after the loss to the 76ers. “If I have to play guys for 48 minutes then I am going to play guys for 48 minutes. We have to get this game, but it was not that game. It was the cumulative effect. It is all of these games and minutes.”
That consistent buildup in minutes is finally rearing its ugly head. Malone is now faced with a binary dilemma: continue playing just seven — or eight players — in his rotation stubbornly and eventually burn out, or begin relying on players that have not been relied upon since the start of the 2017-18 season.
“I don’t want ‘trust’ to be a hollow word. Yes, guys have to prove that they have earned that trust, but I have to trust in our players more and our bench more,” Malone said. “If I start doing that, it will help our bench and our starting group.”