Michael Malone made defense a priority, so now he gambles on trust

Dec 8, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, center Mason Plumlee (24) ,guard Will Barton (5) and forward Wilson Chandler (21) talk against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To say that the Denver Nuggets are a talented young team isn’t telling the whole truth. They can shoot pretty three-pointers with a combination of guards and big men. Their Serbian star Nikola Jokic slings passes from any angle. The Nuggets can finish at the rim.

Denver has a young, offensively talented team.

When it comes to their defense, however, they’re a prosecutor’s dream. Their effort and preparation are not consistent, and it makes the Nuggets a hard team to trust.

Coach Michael Malone is a staunch believer that the only effort you can count on is your defensive effort. Sometimes the shots don’t go in on offense, and to still win those games, you have to furiously play defense.

This principle, coupled with the infuriating consistency with which the Nuggets lost games earlier in the season, caused Malone to shorten his bench. To gain access to the court, players had to deliver defensively. This meant favoring center Mason Plumlee and minor league call-up Torrey Craig over Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray in several close-game situations.

With this strategy, the results still led to losses and frustration for Malone. The Nuggets had a stretch in mid-December where they lost control of four games late, winning only once, in overtime, against the New Orleans Pelicans.

In those games, Malone essentially stopped rotating guys for the last five minutes. This led to a tired group. In my mind, the solution was to find rest for players earlier in the game. In Malone’s mind, it meant committing to an even tighter group from the bench.

Malone started playing only eight guys, a move that even the best college coaches would look at as overkill. It had positive effects to start — they limited the Golden State Warriors to 81 points and the Utah Jazz to 83 points — but the fatigue caught up to the rotation. Malone admitted as much this week.

“I own the fact that I have played 7-1/2 guys, and let’s be honest, it’s been pretty good to us,” Malone said this week, “but after that Philly game, when you see how tired our guys are, I can’t continue to do that.”

He went back to the bench more in the Nuggets’ last game, a 134-111 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night. Widening the bench definitely paid dividends. Malik Beasley’s play in the final seconds of the third quarter — a made free throw and a last-second bucket from a Jokic inbounds pass — helped the Nuggets run away with the game.

When looking at a Nuggets roster that seemed to have too many talented players at the beginning of the season, Malone’s requirement that everyone play strong defense has led to not having enough guys playing significant minutes.

The trust issues Malone has with his team are completely reasonable in a sport where faith wins on many nights. Malone was an assistant coach for teams with Steph Curry and LeBron James, and he knows what it’s like to be able to trust players to make the right decision. When James isn’t making his shots, he decides to make another play. When Nuggets guard Will Barton isn’t making shots, he keeps shooting.

Malone has to decide when to go back to players on a cold streak or those who are playing a one-dimensional game. He has to decide when to trust Plumlee’s defense, even when his offense becomes a liability. He has to decide when to roll the dice on Jamal Murray’s point guard skills over other options. He has to decide just how many minutes he wants to play Gary Harris, who has hovered near 40 minutes on many nights recently.

When Malone makes the wrong decision, he has to trust that the locker room will support him. Malone seems to have gained this trust from most of the team, a fun group that seems to like playing together. However, that trust is not unlimited, and Malone needs to ensure he doesn’t abuse it.

This year, it took a while for Malone to see Trey Lyles’ immense upside, which echoed Jokic’s situation last season; he didn’t start until December. Last week, Malone made comments putting down Kenneth Faried’s game publicly when the longtime Nugget already has to be frustrated with his lack of playing time. Add in the rotation issues in close losses, and trust really becomes key to the Nuggets making a playoff run.

As Malone vows to trust his players more, Nuggets fans must hope the players continue to trust Malone.