Strike 2: Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, just a year removed from winning the franchise’s first ever NBA championship, is now catching heat for putting too much emphasis on winning regular season games and not enough on using those games to develop the younger players on the roster.

It’s no secret that the Nuggets lack of depth torpedoed their hopes to repeat. Certainly it would have been great if players like Peyton Watson, Julian Strawther and others had earned more minutes and become consistent contributors off the bench. Alas. That didn’t happen.

But to say it didn’t happen because Malone wanted to win too much? Complete and total nonsense.

First, a quick (recent) history lesson: During the latter stages of the 2023 regular season, the NBA’s Western Conference was less than stellar. Memphis, which ended up the second seed before disappearing in the first round of the playoffs, was no real threat. Neither was Dallas. Or Oklahoma City. They were nothing like the teams each organization rolled out this past season.

Remember, the Nuggets dispatched of the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in five games last season. The seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, warts and all, made the Western Conference Finals. Remember?

Denver was able to coast to the top seed in the West last year. They rested starters and still finished with the best record in the conference. Nice when it works out like that – as it did for Boston this year.

But please do not for one second underestimate the importance of that top seed/home court advantage. It was extremely important in the Nuggets run to the NBA Finals. And it was a big part of the Finals win as well, because when Miami upset Boston and handed Denver the home court, it was time to start to plan the parade. No way the Heat was beating the Nuggets in Denver.

So everything broke Denver’s way in 2023. Don’t forget that.

Not so this past season, when the West was a meat grinder. And given the fact that these Nuggets have been so great on their home court, no one should dare question Malone’s efforts to have his team earn that top seed once again. And they would have, except for an inexplicable meltdown in San Antonio near the end of the regular season. Had they had enough in the tank to get past Minnesota, the home court would have been huge against Dallas.

And it’s not like Malone didn’t try to give the young guys minutes this past season. Strawther – who could not stay healthy – had one big game off the bench, but otherwise showed he was not close to being ready to contribute in the clutch. And while Watson played a lot during the second half, his horrid shooting and penchant for mistakes showed he wasn’t ready either. The Nuggets tried to get young players to fill the roles of Jeff Green and Bruce Brown, but simply put, no one took advantage of the chances they were given.

And they were given. For instance, does everyone remember March 9? Remember that date. That’s the night the Nuggets led the lowly Utah Jazz 78-44 at halftime. The perfect time to send a banged up Nikola Jokic (who missed shootaround that day with a bruised arm), Jamal Murray and Co. to the locker room to watch the second half on the big screen with their feet up. But no. The bench – the one that Nuggets fans are now looking back at and saying was underutilized – couldn’t hold that 34-point lead, and the shorthanded and under talented Jazz outscored the Nuggets by 20 points in the third quarter. Midway through the fourth, against a undermanned, last place team, Malone had to go back to his starters to secure what became a 142-121 win at Ball Arena.

And that wasn’t the only occasion like that. It happened again in San Antonio in the next to last regular season game. More often than not, the young bench wasn’t able to hold up their end, and the starters had to play a lot more than they should have. That’s not Malone’s fault.

The young Nuggets off the bench could not be trusted this past season. And there’s no reason to think they’ll be able to next year either. That’s why “going young” in order to deal with salary cap restraints, isn’t the best plan for next year’s Nuggets, either. Not if the goal is another parade.