Let’s get this out of that way right now: I do not think Michael Malone should be fired. I can give a number of reasons, from the injury to Paul Millsap, to the fact that the team let their top scorer from last season go for nothing, to the fact that the Western Conference is brutal this year, to the fact that Gary Harris went down with injury at the worst possible time. Bottom line: this team is better than they were at the end of last season. Given the adversity, I think there’s a lot of reasons to commend the coach and yes, give him an extension (a small one, mind you).
However, perception often is accepted truth and the mistakes are always more noticeable than the successes when a season ends in disappointment. Despite the improvement of the young players on the roster, despite the addition of an all-star caliber player in free agency (something that hasn’t happened in over a decade), the Denver Nuggets getting so excruciatingly close to the postseason and then falling short (again) will be disappointing if it happens and with that disappointment comes a calling, a desire, even a need for change. Unfortunately for Coach Malone, the Nuggets really only have one way to go on that front: change the coach.
There seems to be almost a fundamental disconnect between the way coach wants the team to play and the skill sets the team has to play with. Coach is a defensive guy; he’s been billed as a defensive guru with accolades such as helping turn the Golden State Warriors from an offensive juggernaut to an all around world beater. They were fourth in the NBA in defensive rating during Malone’s final year there. The Nuggets have a roster built around a player who at best will be a passable defender in his career even though he plays arguably the most impactful defensive position on the court.
They’ve also valued other skillsets or opportunities in the draft over defense. For example, when I asked Tim Connelly at 2016 media day whether he felt the team had addressed their defensive needs he noted that they are always looking for players who can be positive on each side of the court, but that his top pick, Jamal Murray, had work to do on the defensive end. In the 2017 draft Connelly elected to take a pass on O.G. Anunoby, picking up an extra asset in Trey Lyles instead. Anunoby, a noted defense first wing who now starts for the top-seeded Toronto Raptors, was drafted at pick number 23, one pick before the Nuggets drafted again. If his plan was to get both players, he just missed. It’s not that taking BPA or collecting assets is a bad strategy. Jamal is turning into a very good NBA player and Trey Lyles has had a superb season, but it highlights a simple fact: building this roster to suit the coach has not been the top priority.
With the Nuggets looking more and more likely to miss the playoffs in agonizing fashion once again, the calls for change will come from the fan base and within the organization alike, and this is where its going to get tricky. Denver has already spent their money, either in free agency with the signing of Millsap or with the extension and expected extension of Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic respectively. If the Nuggets are going to make changes to their roster to better suit their coach, it’s going to be difficult - in fact it’s darn near impossible.
Next season Denver has a little over $85 million already on the books in guaranteed contracts and the NBA is forecasting the salary cap to be very similar to this season, right around $101 million. $16 million is a lot of cash you say, plenty to bring in a solid player to help the team you say... but you would be wrong. Outside that $85 million the Nuggets also could potentially be on the hook for nearly $20 million more if Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur opt in to their player options. Doing so would put the Nuggets past the cap and unable to sign any impact free agents. What if the Nuggets get lucky and both of those guys opt out? Well, there’s still one massive problem: Nikola Jokic.
Denver has a team option on Jokic for the 2018-2019 season. They could exercise it, pay Jokic a paltry $1.6 million and save some cash. Unfortunately though, that would mean making Jokic an unrestricted free agent in the 2019 offseason. Pushing off paying your best player and keeping him as the lowest paid player on the team for an extra season just because you want some flexibility is not a good look, letting Jokic be an unrestricted free agent also exposes Denver to the risk that he would be free to sign wherever he wants. The Nuggets would be nuts to do that. The far more likely scenario is they will decline his team option, which will make him a restricted free agent (giving Denver the right to match any offer) this offseason. Unless the Nuggets want to chance their new franchise cornerstone walking next season, they have to pay him this summer and he’s going to command a max salary right around $25 million.
Salary cap space...
At best the Nuggets will have around $8 million available to them in the mid level exception which they could use to sign a bench level role player - not exactly the type of change the fans will be looking for. The next option for change in terms of the roster is of course to manuever through the trade market. Once again though, Denver has little flexibility. Essentially, if the Nuggets are hoping to make impactful change with a trade they are going to have to be willing to give up either Murray, Harris or Jokic.
There’s an outside chance they’d be willing to do that, if the right player were available, but one has to be wary of the idea that they could actually pull it off. Last year on draft night we heard about how the Nuggets were oh-so-close to a big deal and later the rumors were it was a three team deal that involved Kevin Love coming to Denver and Harris going to Indiana, but it didn’t happen. At this year’s trade deadline? Denver added a backup point guard. At the 2017 trade deadline they added salary in the form of Roy Hibbert right after making a losing trade that sent a starting caliber center and a 1st round pick to a division rival. The 2016 trade deadline they added...a backup point guard. Slice it any way you like, the biggest criticism of this front office is they can’t pull off major trades and whether that’s fair or not, well, the proof is in the pudding.
The only other avenue to change the roster is through the draft but the Nuggets are looking at a late lottery pick in all likelihood. While there is certainly opportunity to find pieces long term, the chances of them getting a major player who can step in from day one is very slim, even with as strong of a draft class as this year looks to be. No, like it or not, the group Denver has played the 2017-2018 campaign with is going to essentially be the exact same for the 2018-2019 campaign. Which brings us back to the original point: there’s only one way to go when it comes to making significant change next season.
Again, I’m in coach Malone’s corner. I think when you step outside the trees to see the forest you’ll find he’s done a solid coaching job. Denver has for most of the year played with a roster that was less potent than last season’s and, barring a total collapse, will end up with a better record than last season. Yes, Jokic, Murray and Harris are all better players than last season but that too should be viewed as a mark in coach’s favor, not against it.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets simply have no other options if they want to make changes to avoid narrowly missing out on the playoffs for a third straight year. Additionally, there’s reason to believe changing the coach would make an impact. While I stand by coach’s performance this season, I’m also not blind to the fact that the roster is ill-suited for the type of basketball he wants to play. With the Nuggets having little to no flexibility to change the roster, the answer, however unfortunate it may be, might have to be to change the coach.