….And it’s a good problem to have.
It’s well known that the NFL is a coaching/qb league. The MLB is a league that prides itself on stats….so…so…many stats. The NHL is the don’t blink league and the NBA is the so called players league. Coach’s often get glossed over as they are viewed as secondary to team stars and leaders like LeBron James, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. I’ve always argued that because the NBA is known as a “players league” it makes the job of head coach even more complicated.
Professional hoops players are some of the most popular athletes, collectively, in the world of pro sports. They appear in commercials, shoe brands, song lyrics and even the greatest movies of all time. (Space Jam and likely Space Jam 2). A star in the NBA, one can argue, is just as popular as an NFL star save for maybe a few top tier QB’s. With all that fame, comes the ego. A star player needs his minutes, his touches, his play calls. But if that player gets everything he wants then someone, a few someones, are going to have to sacrifice their opportunities for the betterment of the team. It’s hard to ask grown men, grown professional ball players, to sacrifice their potential growth as a player to allow one or two to shine.
Phil Jackson is known as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, yet the argument against that is “well he had Jordan and Pippen then Kobe and Shaq.” Exactly. He had to keep those guys happy. Not only was he in charge of the minutes and determining the best fit on the floor, he had to balance his superstars ego while still trying to keep the Rodman’s, Kerr’s, Jones’ and Fisher’s happy. Obviously the conducting of practice, play design and game plans play huge roles in being an NBA head coach, but the proper handling of minutes, to me, is absolutely essential for most teams in order to have consistent success.
Enter Mike Malone. Now in his 4th season as the Nuggets head coach and his team is still on top of the Western Conference. A conference more wild than ever. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are playing at an all star level and, perhaps the most impressive part, they are/were winning a lot of games with 3 of their starters out due to injury. Will Barton went down in the second game of the season and hasn’t been back since. Both Paul Millsap and Garry Harris missed significant time over the last month or so and the Nuggets have yet to see Isaiah Thomas, a backup PG with a ton of big game experience. Malone has taken a young team – one of the leagues youngest – and turned them into a contender. Yes, Tim Connelly deserves a huge chunk of the credit as he has been mixing and matching a young roster while at the same time not fully giving in to the “rebuild” talk. But Malone’s overall attitude and commitment to defense is really starting to personify on the floor. SIDE NOTE: Remember when George Karl always preached defense yet they were always considered a high scoring, run you out of the gym unit? He wanted a defensive team but he just couldn’t get the bulk to buy in. Malone has the buy in.
It’s not just Jokic, Harris, Millsap and Murray that are seemingly all in on what Malone is selling. Guys like Juan Hernangomez, Torrey Craig, Malik Beasly and backup PG, Monte Morris are all playing significant minutes while the Nuggets get healthy. And there, finally, lies the heart of this blog. Guess what? The cavalry has arrived. Millsap saw his first action in over a month over the weekend, Harris got back in the lineup on Monday against the Knicks and Will Barton could be back any day now. Obviously, when those three are fully healthy, they’re starting. They’ll eventually get their minutes: 25 plus but who takes the hit? How in the world can Malone go to a guy like Beasley, who had a team high 23 against New York on Monday, and say we are trimming your time. Or a heck of defensive player like Craig he’ll need to step aside? Hernangomez will likely still get a good chunk of time but not 20 plus like he’s been seeing.
Fortunately, Malone doesn’t have Jordan or Kobe to worry about. He has team stars. Much different than stars on rosters belonging to Golden State or Houston. If Murray is fading, Morris will be in. If Millsap can’t lead the D, then in goes Plumlee. This team is deep and for now, extremely well coached. There’s no doubt, to me at least, that Denver will be a top 5 playoff seed. However, the West is crowded. Phoenix is the only team I feel comfortable saying will not make the postseason and we are nearly at the halfway mark. A true measure of a coach in the NBA is how you handle your chess pieces. Malone has the best roster I’ve ever witnessed in Denver. But contrary to popular opinion, coaching a contender is a challenge. If he can find the right combination this Nuggets team could be even better than what we’ve seen so far. And that could mean winning the organizations FIRST NBA title……