It’s been an eventful, but needed off-season for Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone.
After decompressing from a long year, it’s clear that Malone is reinvigorated. He spent some time on tour with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats in Copenhagen, Denmark, attending one of their many shows and enjoying his time away. Malone and Rateliff are good friends and go back a long way.
Nuggets players and personnel went their separate ways following the Game 5 loss to the Golden State Warriors back on April 27th. The Nuggets were eliminated from the first round for the first time since Malone arrived in Denver.
“We have played a lot of basketball in the last two, three years,” Malone said to local media at Friday’s pre-draft workout. “I think getting back to our normal off-season will allow guys like [Nikola Jokić] to kind of recharge mentally, physically, and emotionally.”
Perhaps no team has been more adversely affected by the scheduling issues caused by Covid-19 than the Nuggets. A long break in the middle of the 2019-20 season led to Denver’s deep Western Conference Finals run in the Orlando bubble.
Two months later, the Nuggets were back in the gym, and though they made it to the second round of the playoffs, they lost Jamal Murray to an ACL tear along the way.
Another shortened off-season went by, and the Nuggets lost Michael Porter Jr. in early November to a season long back injury. That left Nikola Jokić and the rest of the Nuggets with a shortened rotation, shortened off-season, and ultimately a shortened playoff run as a result.
“I learned when I first got into the league from Jeff Van Gundy that the goal in the NBA is to have short summers,” Malone shared, tapping back into his coaching origins with Van Gundy’s New York Knicks. “You want a short summer because that means you’re playing into June every year. That wasn’t the case this year.”
Malone went on: “I feel next year that if we add the right pieces and get healthy, we’re going to put ourselves back in position to be a true contender.”
The Nuggets knew they were operating at a disadvantage, but it didn’t stop them from feeling some disappointment at the poor luck they’ve faced in the last two playoff runs. The entire organization had title aspirations back in March of 2021 when they acquired Aaron Gordon from the Orlando Magic. Fast forward a little over a year, and the Nuggets are still in search mode for that championship gear.
It’s clear though, that Malone is excited to take advantage of Denver’s first long summer. He’s gearing up for the process of becoming a championship contender again and is interested in playing an active role to help find that next gear.
“After seven years, I think I have a pretty good feel for who we are,” Malone shared. “What our strengths are, what our weaknesses are, and how we can address those.”
Malone knows how important this off-season is for the Nuggets franchise. He said as much following the Game 5 loss back in April, and he reiterated those sentiments again today.
“You guys already know what I said when our season ended. I said how important this off-season was and how we have to be a much better defensive team. We can’t be 15th…we have to find a way to be better.”
There’s an overwhelming sense from the Nuggets players, coaches, front office, and anybody associated with the team that the goal for this off-season is crystal clear: get better defensively. With as poorly as the Nuggets performed against the Warriors and Phoenix Suns in Denver’s two most recent playoff exits, it’s unsurprising that defense is taking centerstage.
The Nuggets have always been an offensive team, but offense will only get them so far. Malone made sure to point out to media today that the final four teams in the playoffs this year were all top five defensive units.
“If you watch the Finals right now, it’s [all about] defensive versatility. Boston is a historically good defensive team. They switch almost everything, and they have big guys that can sit down and guard smalls, and they have smalls that can switch onto bigs and fight. So, you’re looking for that defensive versatility.”
He also echoed similar sentiments about players the Nuggets are evaluating in pre-draft workouts this year, though these were more all-encompassing.
“You can watch all of the film in the world. You can look at the stats,” Malone quipped. “When [NBA Draft prospects] come into our gym, I’m looking for intangibles. I’m looking for ‘How competitive is he? Is he vocal? Does he fight? Does he have a basketball IQ?'”
The Nuggets are expected to target the wing position this off-season in the draft, free agency, and trade market. They know that’s where the league is trending and also where the roster last year became most lacking due to injuries to Murray, Porter, and PJ Dozier.
But the Nuggets have also been known as a “best player available” team in the draft for several years. They’ve done a great job of identifying quality talent, even if some players have overlapping skill sets. That may change under general manager Calvin Booth, with some of those conversations to skew more toward defensive personnel this time around.
“I love my conversations with [Calvin Booth] right now,” Malone shared. “I love his thought process on how we can improve this team.”
Malone knows the departure of an entrenched figure like Tim Connelly can have an adverse affect on those goals. Connelly specialized in the draft, but he also specialized in relationship building. The vast majority of the Nuggets organization was crafted through Connelly’s vision, and upsetting that balance at this point in the process isn’t generally advisable.
Malone gets that. When asked about his communication during this time with players, he shared he’d spoken to Jamal Murray, Monte Morris, Bones Hyland, Davon Reed, and Zeke Nnaji in the wake of Connelly’s departure.
“When Jordi Fernandez left, when [Tim Connelly] left, I reached out to all of the guys to let them know: ‘As much as I love Tim, as much as I love Jordi, it doesn’t change anything about what we’re doing and what our whole focus is on this off-season.”
“The show must go on,” Malone reiterated.
On the departure of Jordi Fernandez, Denver’s defensive coordinator last season, Malone shared that he hopes to fill Fernandez’s spot on the bench in short order.
“Guys that I’m talking to have head coaching experience, guys that I’ve known for a long time who I think could not only help myself, but really enhance our coaching staff and help our team as well.”
“The guy that I’m going to bring in will probably be a guy that I have be on the defensive side of the ball.”
Somehow, someway, the conversation always seems to float back to the defensive side of the ball. With Jokić at the helm and the impending returns of both Murray and Porter, the Nuggets are confident in how this process is going to go. Through hell and high water, the defense will be addressed.
“Nikola’s window is only open so long,” Malone urged. “Let’s do everything we can to attack this and put the best team possible on that floor.”