Year in Review Series
By Gordon Gross
In the offseason, Michael Malone was picked to head the next iteration of the Denver Nuggets over fan favorite Melvin Hunt. Hunt was a link to the perennial playoff Nuggets and a reminder that 50 wins are possible here, and as interim head coach was an excellent antitode to the Brian Shaw stench that had fouled the team for the better part of two years. Hunt went 10-13 but the change in atmosphere and enjoyability of Nuggets games was through the roof - and yet Malone had both players and observers in the palm of his hand as of his very first press conference.
Such is the power of Malone’s spirit. He is the coach Boogie Cousins sends his All-Star jersey to, who jokes with Lebron James minutes before a game and who plays defense so hard on the sidelines he might be better than some of Denver’s on-court defenders. From the moment he took over the team he bristled at the suggestion that he was so defensive-minded that he couldn’t understand how to run a team full of more fast-paced offensive players. "I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm also not the dumbest guy in the world," Malone said at his introductory press conference. "To not use altitude to your advantage would be silly."
That’s easier said than done with a roster stuffed with first- and second-year players, though. The Nuggets came out incredibly flat at home, losing 11 of their first 16 games in the Pepsi Center. Denver eked out a winning record the rest of the way (13 wins against 12 losses) but it was too late to make Denver back into a feared home court in 2016.
Malone was constantly refining both his offensive and defensive approaches throughout the year as the personnel carousel continued. Mudiay, Nurkic, Gallinari and others missed large swaths of the season but the offensive continued to find its footing as the season went on, and the Nuggets went down fighting the entire season, with only a few scattered 4th quarter blowouts to their name. Denver's offense underwent some fairly significant changes from the Shaw Experiment as well (chart via Nylon Calculus):
Continuing that growth next year would be welcome.
Denver never really found its defensive chops though, and whether the issue was personnel, health or age that’s something Malone will have to figure out in the offseason. Near the end of the campaign he was lamenting the guard play on perimeter defense, but he’ll need to find a way to make it work. The Nuggets notched victories over both Golden State and San Antonio, but got rocked by the underbelly of the league too many times. If next year is a push for the playoffs, then Malone - a young head coach with just 106 games under his belt before this year - will have to fine tune both his teaching and his own performance in the coming season.
Setting up a better team culture was yeoman’s work this year, though. Doing it while suffering the fourth-worst injury situation in the NBA and playing so many young players for vast minutes was even better. Watching those young players all improve significantly while the vets who either stayed or were added clamored to be back next year for the second stage of the process makes it feel like Malone was indeed the correct choice to lead the next successful era in Denver Nuggets basketball.
By Gordon Gross
That’s the number of player meetings, nationally ridiculed chants, coach-rapped scouting reports or other shenanigans that happened to the Nuggets this year. Emmanuel Mudiay and Michael Malone had one five-second shouting match on the sidelines which Mudiay took as coaching and was a better player for it the rest of the year. That’s it. Malone started the year skipping the talk about improving the culture but embraced it by year end as this team seemed to genuinely like playing with one another - and playing for him.
Culture is no substitute for wins in the long-term, but for this year it was the most important thing for him to fix. Poor culture leads to young players being caught on tape shouting derogatory things at women or recording their teammates and publishing private conversations on the internet. Good culture creates a foundation to build wins from, and in tearing down the poorly built structure from the last two years Malone has crafted a clean starting point on which to build Denver’s next contender.
Room for improvement
By Adam Mares
Malone had a solid first year with the Nuggets but that doesn’t mean there aren’t question marks that lie ahead. The young head coach will have to deal with growing expectations, improved player development, and figure out playing time for a roster that will get deeper next season. However, the biggest thing that malone can improve on will be his rotations. Malone had a tendency to stick with bad lineup combinations for far too long this season. He had a tendency to ride the hot hand for two or three minutes longer than he should have and he also repeatedly played lineup combinations that didn’t work. As the Nuggets develop more of an identity, Malone will need to figure out which players work with which combinations and develop more consistency.
By Kayla Osby
This video, filmed during training camp before the 2015-16 NBA Season, was a great indicator of the kind of coach Malone would be for the Nuggets. It shows him engaging with the players in a lighthearted way, enthusiastically participating in drills, and coaching and encouraging the whole team. Watching this highlight of training camp explains why the Nuggets were able to change the culture of the team compared to last season.
Best Game of the Year
This is tough, because I don’t think that Coach Malone’s best game should be the Denver Nuggets best game. It should be a game where he performed at the peak of his abilities as a head coach, not one where the players on his team executed the best. With that in mind, Coach Malone’s best game was on March 6, when the Nuggets defeated the Mavericks in overtime.
The Nuggets and Mavericks battled for 47 minutes, 52 seconds, and Dallas was up by two points. Chandler Parsons had to inbounds the ball near the Denver bench, and Michael Malone wanted his team to play defense. They denied Deron Williams well, and Parsons had to throw the ball in-bounds in order to avoid a five seconds call. Mudiay picked up the loose ball, drove the length of the court, fed Faried at the rim, and the resulting slam dunk sent the game to overtime.
In overtime, the Mavericks had a shot to win, but Malone put Nikola Jokic on Parsons this time, and then Mudiay blocked Wes Matthews Jr. in the corner to preserve the win.
But Malone’s, uh, level of activity on the play likely contributed to Parsons failure to execute a pass to one of his teammates. Huge turnover, without it, the Nuggets don’t win, and without Malone, the Nuggets definitely would have lost that game.
Coach experimented with a beard this season, which brought mixed results. How much would you like to see coach Malone grow a James Harden-esque beard next season?
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): Please no. If anything, he should start doing more arm exercises, stick a corn cob pipe in his mouth, a sailor’s hat on top his head, and embrace his Popeye appearance. Then all he’d need are tattoos of anchors on his forearms.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): He should definitely stay with the Popeye look. He looks like a grizzled barfighter that way, maybe a mob enforcer, or possibly a sea captain on Deadliest Catch. He probably shaved it because he was scaring his players too much, but if he’s gonna have the beard he needs to Popeye it all the way.
Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares): We need a photoshop of Malone with different facial hair styles to determine what is best. Malone has a very tough look to him and that tough look only gets tougher the longer his beard grows. Also, very few coaches are iconoclasts. Stan Van Gundy and Brad Stevens don’t wear ties and I only know that because that’s considered edgy for a coach. Imagine a coach with a long beard, maybe a few tattoos, and even a Westbrook-ian sense of fashion. That is the future of the NBA. Make it happen, Malone.
Coach Malone often times is referred to as a defensive minded coach and not one where running is emphasized. Would you agree with that assessment?
Lewis: I agree with part of that. I think that Malone wants his team to be stout defensively. It’s one of the reasons I think the Nuggets picked up JaKarr Sampson, and eventually put him in the starting lineup. I saw the Nuggets in half-court sets on offense more than with past regimes. That may be due to the fact that while Malone wanted the Nuggets to be a good defensive team, they were pretty bad on that end. Get stops, and then they can get out and run - you have to do the first part of that though.
Gross: He’s more half-court oriented on offense, but doesn’t seem afraid to run. He wants it to be off of defense and there were plenty of times he was on the sidelines exhorting his team to run and they weren’t doing it. I think after the awful start to the season at home that he recognized he needed more offensive freedom to help the kids out, and they got that after the new year (which is why the scoring went up). I’m more concerned about defense.
Thibs has his teams grinding from the get-go, but Malone’s have been pretty poor defensively in his limited time as a head coach. That might partially be fit (Sacramento and Denver haven’t had a lot of experienced or willing defenders) but Malone has certainly not gotten those kinds of results from his teams so far. I think he identifies as a defensive coach, and has a defensive heart. No amount of offense will get him to smile the way good defensive play will - now he needs to get that defense working, so that Denver can run off their defense and both he and fans can be happy.
Mares: I’d agree that he is "defensive-minded" but not that he has a great defensive mind. There just isn’t any proof of that yet. You have to coach a top 20 defense at least once before you get that label. The Nuggets allow open 3-pointers and teams shoot more frequently from deep against Denver than they do against almost anyone else. That trend was there in Sacramento when he was the Kings’ coach.
A common gripe among fan bases when it comes to coaching is rotations. How well do you think coach Malone handled his rotations this season?
Lewis: I was glad to see the Nuggets play younger players over established veterans like J.J. Hickson. The Nuggets didn’t really have a lot of talent to work with, I’m not too concerned with how Malone managed those players in rotations.
Gross: It’s really hard to say with all the injuries. I thought by the end of the season he was getting better at overcoming his earlier tendencies to let the bench ride out the problems on the court together and would insert Harris, Jokic or Mudiay back into the game before their "normal" rest time was up to try to jumpstart things. We didn’t have nearly as many dead quarters to end the year as we did to start it, and he was more willing to experiment once the playoffs were truly out of reach. Hopefully he learned a few things down the stretch.
Mares: I wrote about this in the thing to improve section so my thoughts on this are known but I will balance my criticism by coming to his defense. The Nuggets had a decent amount of injuries and also a lot of youth. It’s really more of a "thing to keep your eye on" rather than a "thing to sound the alarm on" at this point. There’s a good chance that Malone will have a bit more consistency next season now that he has a better idea of what he has to work with on this roster.