The Nuggets have been patient. When they had to trade Carmelo Anthony they took their time, played the Nets and the Knicks off against one another and netted several core pieces to their 57-win season out of it, as well as building blocks to their future (hello, Jamal Murray). When that 57-win team ran aground with new coach Brian Shaw, they were still steadfast and turned to the draft for assistance instead of trying to patch over the holes with long contracts. They turned to new coach Michael Malone and kept plugging away, with Tim Connelly constantly preaching flexibility as a core value. He discussed both this year’s draft picks and the veteran leadership of those Knicks’ trade pieces Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler this offseason.
But when balancing the future and the present, it’s hard to please two masters and sometimes patience becomes more of a sin than a virtue. Veterans who don’t feel like they have a part in the next good Denver team might check out or try to get stats to help their next contract rather than do what the team requires. Young players who are not given consistent minutes or roles may lash out. Depth and versatility is great, but being able to commit to what will be asked of you gets results, and right now Denver’s results are lacking.
Which brings us to the post-game comments from coach Malone after last night’s game:
Gallinari was asked about this and flat-out disagreed with the premise:
Coming after Nurkic’s frustrated comments about his lack of playing time, some of that goodwill and climate change within the organization post-Shaw seems to be fraying. And that’s only natural - Denver has too many players who could get minutes on other teams that they are not getting here. Jameer Nelson bristled in training camp when asked about being a mentor, because he still feels like he can play. The Nuggets re-signed Darrell Arthur to a multi-year deal this offseason, only for Malone to have to tell him he will be a healthy scratch on several occasions this year because his rotation spot is going to other players. Nurkic and Jokic were played together to start the year, but once that poorly-framed experiment ended one of them was not going to get starter’s minutes.
When a team is winning, it’s easier for players to suppress their personal frustrations. This team keeps losing winnable games, which makes every player second-guess their leadership. Malone talked after last night’s game about players freelancing and not trusting the game schemes, which against his old team had to be especially galling, but communication is supposed to be his strong suit. He does not handle the offense - that was Chris Fleming last year and Chris Finch this year. He is supposed to be in charge of the defense, but with as poor as his defenses have been both in Sacramento and in Denver I’m not sure he wants the credit for that. But after the Shaw debacle, Malone was brought in because he is thought of as a player’s coach. Of course so was Shaw, which begs the question: what is fueling the friction we’re seeing?
Losing is hard. Change is hard. The Nuggets have changed both offense and defensive schemes several times since the offseason, and expecting the players - especially young players - to be able to attack their gameplans with perfect attention to detail is asking too much. Asking them to play hard on closeouts and around screens shouldn’t be, which has to be part of what is driving Malone’s frustrations.
But the Nuggets chose this path and are trying to have the best of both worlds. They signed and re-signed these veterans knowing full-well who they are, and they added so many young players that half the rotation is 22 and under. Connelly has been playing both sides of the rebuild equation for a few years now, but the situation is coming to a head. The Nuggets can trade some youth and picks for more veteran help to solidify the rotations and build around a couple of key young pieces, or they can move the veterans and push their competitive window out a year our two while they add more young talent.
Stocking the bench with a bunch of players who should be playing but can’t get time doesn’t help the youth or the veterans, and it certainly doesn’t help the winning, now or in the future. If Jamal Murray is going to be a combo guard, then he’ll need to play some point guard. Juancho was brought over instead of stashing him in Europe to get his game ready, which is hard to do without playing time. The news that he and Beasley will get a stint in the D-League to work off the rust is a good thing, but that’s a bandaid.
Kenneth Faried wants to start, as does Nurkic. Jameer Nelson has played terribly with budding star Nikola Jokic and is part of that terrible defense that is grinding Malone’s gears. Gallinari and Chandler should probably be logging more time at the same position but as two of Denver’s better players some out-of-position shoehorning has been required. Will Barton is a bench force but some of his minutes come at the expense of Jamal Murray’s playing time.
Patience has become a sin, and the Nuggets are out of time to “wait and see.” Denver has played this out as long as they can. This team can work with some added vets at key positions, or can be built through youth and long-term planning, but right now the plateau of talent Connelly has crafted needs to be reshaped into more of a peak - before the cracks in the facade break wide open.
It’s time for some hard and potentially franchise-altering decisions to be made.