The Denver Nuggets have a problem, and while you can see its effects on the court the issue is one of the heart: the Nuggets lack trust. Unfortunately for them the failure in belief is between their coach Michael Malone and their best player Nikola Jokic, and it may be too fundamental to be bridged in time to salvage the season.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe detailed in November, Malone has long been worried about how his team will respond with Nikola Jokic as the centerpiece of such a young team.
Last spring, Malone warned Jokic of the coming burden. He needed to get in better shape, and stay even-keeled. “When s--- doesn’t go your way, sometimes you become a baby,” Malone told him. “You take bad fouls. You take bad shots. Your body language does this and that. You think it’s just about you. But what do you think Jamal [Murray] is looking at? What do you think Gary Harris is looking at? All eyes are on you. If you do that stuff, it filters down. At the end of the day, Nikola knows I love him.”
Leaving aside the irony of Malone telling someone to stay even-keeled, does Jokic believe that Malone’s love equates to trust? How many times has the coach deviated from the plan to base the offense around Nikola’s unique skillset, and how many times was it ultimately successful to do so? Telling someone that you love them while also acting like you do not trust them is a good way to start a fight, and the tug of Jokic’s offensive allure has conflicted with Malone’s preferred play-style since the beginning.
In his rookie year, Jokic came on after Jusuf Nurkic’s slow injury recovery left time at center to be filled, and boy did Jokic fill it. Malone still moved him to power forward the next year, however, and told anyone who would listen that it was unfair to put significant pressure on Jokic’s shoulders as the Nuggets stumbled badly out of the gate. December 15th was eventually etched in Denver lexicon but it was too late to make the playoffs.
This year the Nuggets signed Paul Millsap and paid Mason Plumlee to provide the interior defense that is not Jokic’s strength, but instead Malone ran the offense through the other two in the paint and called a bunch of set plays to middling effect. The only true effect was to frustrate Jokic, who then gave up the keys to the offense and returned to standing around and giving up on making Denver’s engine function.
Nikola Jokic is not a stupid player. Michael Malone is not a stupid coach. But it’s not about intelligence, it’s about belief. Malone believes in defense turning into offense, as well as defense being an indicator of worth and perhaps containing a cure for cancer. Jokic believes in the power of offense and selflessness creating a nearly unstoppable force, as well as showcasing the beauty and intelligence of the game.
The question is whether a leopard can change its spots. Can Jokic learn to appreciate defense and the effort it will cost him to be better at it? Can Malone willingly forego defense if it brings him more wins? Quotes like this make it hard to believe that Malone will ever understand that a point scored is the same as a point prevented:
#Nuggets coach Michael Malone on Paul Millsap getting back to "imploring" teammates to pick up the defense in huddles: "It’s like music to my ears, like a light shining through stormy clouds. Somebody actually talking about defense that is not a coach, I love that."— Gina Mizell (@ginamizell) March 5, 2018
How many times can Denver’s offensively-oriented players listen to the mantra that ignores what they are good at and only implores them to do what they are poor at? Malone benched Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic last night for the fourth quarter, thus removing his best chance to win in order to teach... something.
Here are the defensive ratings of Malone-coached teams in full seasons, including this year: 26th, 29th, 24th, 23rd. Those are his credentials as a defensive head coach. How do you sell a young squad on your defensive principles if those principles haven’t worked without All-Star-caliber defenders?
It’s similar on offense. How can you tell budding young stars to run your plays when they are so much better when you get out of the way? Every single time Malone has called fewer plays and given the keys to the offense over to Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray the offense has thrived and been enough to win games. The Nuggets played like a 45-win team last year after 12/15 which would have easily made the playoffs if that had happened all year. They just went 10-4 in a stretch after Malone stopped calling as many plays and before Millsap returned.
So what happened when Millsap came back? He suddenly became the focal point, because he plays the game the way Malone wants it played. Malone’s love for Jokic only extends so far. Their primary beliefs about the focus of basketball don’t seem to align, and a lack of trust is easier to see than ephemeral proclamations of love. When Malone changes the focus Jokic immediately steps back now. Back when Jokic was volunteering to go to the bench in order to save Nurkic’s ego he would still play his game - he does not do that now, and in some way I don’t blame him. How many times should he try to pull Malone’s bacon out of the offensive fire before he throws his hands up?
Perhaps Jokic is too sensitive. Malone doesn’t believe that a team can win in the playoffs with defense this poor and he’s absolutely right. There are lessons that all the young Nuggets need to learn before they can take the next steps in their growth, and Malone is trying to teach them. But when Denver does things Malone’s preferred way they are a lesser team for it; they are not built for the way he wants to coach, and his way makes them worse at the only thing they’re great at. How long can that continue?
Time is running out for the players to bridge the gap with their coach. The Western Conference is too tough for Denver to be throwing away games against tanking teams or to struggle to figure out their offense on the road. Malone will have to reach the heart of his best player - a player he may not understand. Barely missing the playoffs again would have a profound effect on the makeup not just of the team but also potentially for the coaching staff and front office as well.
Nothing proves trust like pressure. That’s why the prisoner’s dilemma is such a classic game theory puzzle. When it benefits two people to work together out of mutual interest but there are penalties for one of them being untrustworthy, will they be able to overcome their suspicions to do so? All Malone has to do to make the playoffs and potentially retain his job is to trust Jokic with the offense and get out of the way. All Jokic needs to do to lead Denver to the playoffs is trust that Malone has his best interests at heart and commit to following his instructions.
Whether both men are willing to do that over the last 18 games of the regular season will determine whether Denver gets to play any more games this year, and possibly much more than that. Their time begins now, and Denver’s season hangs in the balance.