A morning after the Nuggets lost to the second worst team in the NBA my tears have finally stopped…or I’m just dehydrated either way. Suffice it to say that game was infuriating; like someone better lose their job infuriating. Mike Malone, a coach I have stuck up for since day one, has to be better. He was asked earlier last week if missing the playoffs would define their season. He basically said no….but it should. Isn’t that what this 82 game season is all about? Either striving for the playoffs or preparing for the lottery? But I digress. Back to Saturday night. Enter the Memphis Grizzlies; a team wanting to lose, needing to lose and were doing a mighty fine job of it for 19 games straight. Yep, the tanking Grizzlies lost 19 in a row. It was the start of a 7 game road trip for the Nuggets; a road trip that will or perhaps already has claimed their playoff hopes. But starting it off against a team like the Grizz should have been a cake walk, right? Not for Denver. For some reason, the Nuggets can’t beat bad teams consistently and can’t hold big leads like Thursday’s nights home game against Detroit. Mark of a young team or an uninspiring coach? Sadly, I’m beginning to believe the latter. Why does this team relax when up big? Why can’t this team show up against one that is tanking? Yes, Garry Harris was out but you are a playoff (hopeful) team. One guy shouldn’t keep you from beating a bad club. Malone gets frustrated with effort, frustrated with guys relaxing, frustrated with undisciplined ball and so on and so forth. So what can he do? Other playoff hopeful or playoff clenching coaches seem to get the best from their guys when they need it most. Malone’s guys tend to do the opposite of what winning teams do down the stretch.
Here’s one example. The Nuggets were desperately trying to come back in a MUST win game against Memphis. Signs of life were starting to show slowly but surely. Will Barton, a skilled player but at times, very undisciplined, got a big steal late that could have given Denver a lead. He takes off, tries to elude a defender, dribbles behind his back into a second and turns the ball back over. One play, big moment lost. I see that kind of thing happen time and time again; undisciplined plays. NBA players are ALWAYS going to try and make plays and sometimes, the wrong one. It’s on a coach to limit those occurrences. That’s but one example of Malone losing control of his players. Jokic is suppose to be their star, yet there are games when he’s passive. Can Malone not motivate him to rise to his full potential? Can Malone not get Murray to back off from dribbling through traffic and turning the ball over in key moments? Sure, it’s not all on the coach, but the trends and bad habits aren’t stopping. Who’s responsible for that? Sure would seem that falls on the ole head coach.
Now, a season full of so much promise has dissolved into a nerve racking, unlikely playoff birth. Unlikely because the road has not been kind to the Nuggets and that’s nearly half of their remaining games. They are far from controlling their own destiny too. It’s still a jumbled mess in the west but Denver needs a lot of things to go right in order to get in. It’s possible, but there’s a few guys on this team that need to “dig in” in order to avoid the post season for a fifth year in a row:
Mike Malone: It starts here. He has to get the best out of his guys. Needs to control the one on one tendencies, force this team to shake that relaxed state when they are up and challenge his stars, Jokic, Murray, Millsap and Harris to lead this group.
Nikola Jokic: He’s the star. I’ve said it for years now that the Joker is a superstar in the NBA. But Superstars don’t stand back when times are tough. They force the issue and make the game center around them. 12 games left. Joker needs to be Mr. 25 plus in most of them.
Jamal Murray: Only 20 yet he’s shown he’s going to be a big time player. He has the attitude and skill set to be a mega star like Curry and Durant, truly. But he was suppose to be a 2 guard. Malone and staff liked him at the point and for the most part he’s fine there. But there are big moments when he dribbles into traffic like a 2 guard rather than back away and let the play happen like a real Point Guard. He has to quarterback this team.
Paul Millsap: His injury set him back, no question. But he’s the Nuggets one proven all-star. He was brought in to help this young team battle through the tough times. Well…here they are.
Garry Harris: GET HEALTHY.
So it’s make or break time, put up of shut up time, win or go home time…..however you’d like to say it. These next 6 road games are pivotal. And of course, a lot of fingers crossed while watching the western conference scoreboard. If they can’t squeeze in, then look for an intense “Should Mike Malone be fired” discussion to take place this summer.