NUGGETS

Michael Malone is Jared Bednar from a year ago, he needs to win big now

Dec 13, 2022, 6:00 AM | Updated: Jan 11, 2023, 11:27 am
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It’s do or die time for head coach Michael Malone and the Denver Nuggets.

This is the season he needs to get his team over the top and into their first NBA Finals in franchise history. If not, the consequences for Malone could have him looking for a new job next summer.

Much like Jared Bednar, his fellow coach at Ball Arena, got it done with the Avalanche last year, the pressure is ramping up on Malone to take the Nuggets to new heights. After three straight second-round exits in painful fashion, the worst kept secret in town was Bednar’s seat being scorching hot. If the Avs failed in the playoffs again, Josh Kroenke and Joe Sakic were going to have to make a tough decision.

Thankfully, they didn’t, and instead went on a dominant and memorable playoff run that brought Colorado’s third Stanley Cup back to the Mile High City. Bednar’s bunch didn’t have a series go more than six games, and he proved he’s a championship level coach. Now, it’s time for Malone to do the same.

The Nuggets are finally healthy. Even though the latest Michael Porter Jr. injury is costing him games, at least it’s not another back situation. Jamal Murray had a memorable buzzer beater in Portland the other night and looks like himself, after a pesky ACL robbed him of 18 months of basketball.

And while Nikola Jokic probably won’t win a third MVP this year, “The Joker” is still elite. He makes spectacular plays on a nightly basis, and for my money, remains the best basketball player on Earth. Aaron Gordon has taken his game to a new level, playing with confidence that’s through the roof.

Offseason additions Bruce Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and rookie Christian Braun are fitting in nicely. Yes, the Nuggets need to play more defense, but they’ve needed to play better defense their entire existence. That’s unfortunately not a problem that’s unique to Malone.

But it’s also how Malone was branded and billed, and even talks about himself, which is a good defensive coach. The Nuggets are giving up 113.8 points per game, which is 18th in the NBA. That’s got to get better, and it should be, especially if it’s Malone’s speciality.

General manager Calvin Booth built the roster with Malone in mind this summer. He got rid of defensive liability Will Barton and turned him into a much better defender in “KCP.” He signed Brown, known for his defense, and drafted Braun, an agitator with the national champion Kansas Jayhawks last year.

So, between the health and new and improved roster, there’s no one to point the finger at except Malone if the Nuggets fail this year. He’s taken them as far as a Western Conference Finals back in the COVID “bubble” in 2020, but now it’s time to go further. Denver needs to be one of the final two teams standing for this season to be considered a success. Preferably, they’d win the whole thing.

For as much as Kroenke didn’t want to make a change with the Avalanche, he probably knew he had to if Bednar didn’t get it done. Luckily, that was a moot point. However, the same cloud of expectations that hovered over the Avs last year has officially shifted to the Nuggets. And Malone needs to make sure it doesn’t start raining.

The reality is there’s no team in the Western Conference that flat out scares you. Just look at the standings thus far, with the Nuggets at No. 3, the Grizzlies at No. 2 and the Pelicans at No. 1. Really? Both New Orleans and Memphis have some nice young pieces, but neither team would have Denver fans sweating in a playoff series. Again, they need to win the West. This year.

Bednar knew a season ago what had to happen. Malone knows it this season as well. One guy got it done, and the other is now up.

Let’s make it two-for-two on championships produced with the pressure boiling on high.

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