Michael Malone is pushing all the right buttons for the surging Nuggets
These are the dog days of the NBA season. We’re a month removed from the holidays, two weeks away from the trade deadline and three weeks out from the All-Star break. With regular COVID outbreaks across the league and winter weather across the country, it’s the most mentally challenging stretch of the season before the pressure of the playoffs.
Michael Malone and his staff are doing a heckuva job managing it.
The Nuggets have won eight of their last 11 after dropping back-to-back games to Dallas and Utah early in the new year. Denver has not only maintained the sixth spot in the Western Conference standings, but has also moved within a game of Dallas for fifth, and is now only two games behind Utah in the loss column for the lead in the Northwest Division.
After blowing a big lead in a disappointing 87-85 loss to the Clippers, Denver has responded, averaging over 121 points in the last eight games. They’re winning with newfound offense.
Nikola Jokic has been masterful, but he’s finally received some help with players making shots. New heroes have emerged in different games, with Austin Rivers three-point barrage in Brooklyn being the latest example.
Earlier in the season, the team was being praised for holding their opponents under 100 points, which they’ve now done 14 times this season. “Munders,” as the most loyal Nuggets fans like to call them were something we haven’t seen a lot of over the last 20 years, but definitely fit the defensive profile Malone has talked about since he arrived.
They’ve proven to be adaptable and managed to stay competitive and improve their standing in the West with a great deal of lineup uncertainty. That’s a credit to the coaching staff and the organizational culture.
Denver’s managed to find its stride despite a failed trade canceled due to a physical, a successful trade to bring in Bryn Forbes, a revolving door of 10-day contracts, and as many games lost to health and safety protocols as any team in the league.
Missing Jamal Murray and a healthy Michael Porter Jr. is the obvious challenge the Nuggets have faced all season. Additionally, they’ve dealt with injuries or games missed to protocol for 11 other players along with Malone and most of his staff. Through it all, the Nuggets could have easily gone a huge slide and made the same excuses we hear out of L.A. or Portland. It would have been understandable.
Instead, Malone and his staff have embraced players on 10-day contracts and trusted Davon Reed to make big plays in crunch time. He’s both benched Bones Hyland and challenged him with a bigger role while the rookie continues to develop. He’s empowered Will Barton through a rough stretch and seen him respond by carrying the offense for halves at a time. He’s defined roles for Rivers and JaMychal Green that could be significant on one night, then not again for a week or more. He’s continuing to try to find an answer for the bench problems, and has been more willing to mix up the rotations and minutes as of late. And he’s allowed the front office to roll the dice on a talent like DeMarcus Cousins, who could prove to be a huge addition in a playoff series if he stays.
Malone will always have his critics until he wins a championship in Denver. Maybe even beyond. That’s just the way it goes in today’s NBA.
Considering what he’s been managing and juggling this season, he deserves some credit for where the Nuggets are, and where they’re going. Looking at the remaining schedule, there’s good reason to believe that will continue to be up.