If you ask Draft Kings, they’ll tell you that Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone will get edged out for NBA Coach of the Year honors – just barely – by Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer.
If you ask me, I’ll tell you to check back with me on April 1. On April Fool’s Day, we’ll know if the Nuggets are for real, or if they’re fool’s gold.
And Malone is the man to mold the metal.
Has the analogy gone too far? Too much trickery? Alliteration?
Fine. Here’s the quick and dirty: The destiny of the Nuggets is controlled by Malone.
Yes, the game of basketball is won by the players on the court. The thing is, the Nuggets have the players to match up with – and beat – any team in the NBA, save for Golden State. To say the Nuggets “should win” a seven-game series against anyone other than the Warriors isn’t entirely irresponsible. To say the “can” is completely reasonable.
I’m talking of course, of the 42-18 Nuggets. Not the 1-4 Nuggets.
On February 26, the Nuggets beat the Oklahoma City Thunder – handily – giving them aforementioned and incredibly impressive record of 42-18. But since then, the Nuggets have been on a slide. In five games, they’ve won just once. Oddly, the 1-4 skid is as bad as it sounds, if not worse. There’s really no silver lining.
Two of the losses have been at home (one where Denver was manhandled by Utah, and the next against a Pelicans team the Nuggets have no business losing to anywhere). A loss at San Antonio was excusable seven seasons ago, but in this particular game, they were/are the better team, and they had multiple chances to win late but didn’t. The only excusable loss – despite Malone’s assertion that his team wasn’t ready – was at Golden State. And win? Well, that was against a hapless Lakers team whose playoff hopes are circling the drain.
On Monday, Malone met with his team, then the media (all of which is chronicled here), and was candid with both. Malone, a coach who trusts the numbers, recited all kinds of analytical data, most of which proved his team has been anything but good of late. Perhaps the most telling statistic, which just so happens to be one of the simplest, is number of passes the Nuggets complete in a game. On the entire season, the Nuggets make an average of 307.1 passes per game; in Denver’s eight games since the All-Star break ended, that number has plummeted to 266.4.
In the team film session, Malone had all sorts of reasons and examples as to why his team has been struggling – selfish play, poor shot selection, not – in a larger sense – playing “Nuggets basketball.”
But here’s one he left out: The Nuggets are out of sorts.
What looked like poetry in motion for most of the season suddenly looks like a team trying to play precision hoops in two feet of mud.
Some – not all – of that falls on the Isaiah Thomas experiment. The Nuggets are trying to figure out how, where, when and with whom a now-healthy Thomas should play. Quite frankly, it’s not working.
Some of the miscues fall on an undeniable abundance of able bodies yet a shortage of minutes to go around. The Nuggets are finally healthy from top to bottom. Earlier in the season, when the roster was plagued with injury, there were no decisions to make – it was either sink or swim for the “next man up.” For the most part, the Nuggets swam. But now, with everyone healthy, Malone must allocate those minutes between all of those players. Having the assets is nice, but perhaps there’s a blurred line when it comes to exact roles and expectations all of a sudden. In a way, the Nuggets are drowning in options.
Some of the poor play may not have been so poor in December, back when most NBA teams have set the cruise control. It’s almost April, and in the NBA, that’s when teams and players step on the gas. A team that hasn’t made the postseason since 2013 may not be fully ready for that increase in intensity and ability.
The Nuggets are the same team – if not better – that they were through February. They’ve got good players who are finally healthy.
Now, it’s Malone’s duty to re-orchestrate a once great band.
The Nuggets have three straight home games, starting with a grudge match against Minnesota Tuesday night. It’s imperative they win them all. Then, they head east for that dreaded east coast swing (the one that seemingly takes place earlier in the season every year; the one that typically chews up and spits out the Nuggets). A successful road trip returns at least 2-2.
There was a short stretch where a few Nuggets wins meant that Michael Malone would coach in the NBA All-Star game; his team rose to the challenge and sent its coach to Atlanta to lead the stars.
Now, it’s the team that needs Malone. The parts are in place, they just need to be put in the right place.
If Malone can do that, his team will not only enter the playoffs flying high, but he’ll be the NBA Coach of the Year.