NUGGETS

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone is squarely on the hot seat

Feb 1, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: 6:29 am

Michael Malone’s free pass is about to expire. The Nuggets head coach has avoided the hot seat throughout his time in Denver for a variety of reasons.

Injuries have been at the top of the list. A young team has been another. A star-studded Western Conference has been a factor. And COVID provided extra runway for figuring things out.

At this point, however, all of those things are no longer an excuse for falling short in the playoffs. For the first time, expectations are high in Denver. And if the Nuggets don’t live up to them, the finger of blame will point directly at the head coach.

In his last nine playoff games, Malone is 1-8. He had the MVP on the floor for all nine of those games. But the excuse makers let him off the hook for those woeful performances because the Nuggets were without Jamal Murray during their sweep at the hands of the Suns and five-game ousting by the Warriors.

Murray is back now, however. He looks more and more like the player he was before suffering a torn ACL in April 2021. For the first time in nearly two years, Denver is at full strength.

There also isn’t a “super team” in the West standing in the Nuggets way. They’re currently the No. 1 seed in the conference, with a 35-16 record through 51 games. In their rearview mirror, Denver is looking at Memphis and Sacramento. That’s a staggering lack of competition.

Sure, the Grizzlies have talent, led by Ja Morant. And admittedly, the Kings are a good story, transforming into a playoff team after a 16-year absence from the postseason. But those two franchises don’t scare anyone.

They aren’t the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s, led by Magic Johnson. They aren’t the 2000s edition of the Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant. And they aren’t the Warriors of the 2010s, with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

There isn’t a great team standing in the Nuggets way this time around. So anything short of a trip to the NBA Finals will be a disappointment.

That means the pressure is on Malone to take advantage of the opportunity. He has to get his team over the hump, something he has been unable to do during his previous seven seasons in Denver.

Yes, Malone got the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals in 2020. But that was in the bubble, where Denver didn’t have to win playoff games on the road.

Even during that run, Malone didn’t have a winning postseason record. The Nuggets were 9-10 in the bubble.

Outside of that unique situation, however, Malone has been even worse. The head coach is 12-17 in his other three trips to the playoffs. He won two series and lost three. There’s also a Game 7 loss at home on his resume.

These failures rarely get pointed out. When they do, they’re quickly shot down by the Malone apologists.

They’ll point to inexperience when it comes to the 2019 loss to the Blazers in the second round. They’ll cite injuries when explaining away the last two seasons.

Those days are gone, however. The excuses have run out.

The Nuggets have the best player in the world on their roster. Nikola Jokic has won the last two Most Valuable Player awards and is the favorite to win it again this year. Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are healthy. The big four, with Aaron Gordon in the mix, have had time to play together and form a chemistry. And the defensive liabilities that Malone lamented after last season have been erased with the offseason acquisition of Kantavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown.

Malone has everything he needs. His team will likely have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. His roster is loaded. The West is down.

If the head coach can’t get the Nuggets to the NBA Finals this season, when will he be able to do it? What else would Malone need to fall his way in order to get the job done?

This is the time. This is the moment.

There are reasons to believe Malone can’t get it done. Previous playoff failures are the only red flags. The coach is also stubborn to a fault.

It’s led to previous tense relationships with young players, with Bones Hyland being the latest example. Instead of building the 22-year-old guard’s confidence, Malone likes to take the old-school approach of tearing down rookies and second-year players.

It’s created bad rotations, with his insistence of playing Jeff Green being the most-recent case. The veteran forward who is averaging more than 20 minutes per game since returning from injury, despite posting a zero or negative plus-minus in four of the last five games. Denver went 13-2 when Green was sidelined.

And it’s manifested in terrible in-game management, with blown leads and Sacramento, New Orleans and Philadelphia providing the most-recent examples. The Nuggets blew a 19-point lead against the Kings and lost, squandered a 19-point lead versus the Pelicans and held on for a one-point win, and then wasted a 15-point lead against the 76ers and lost. Malone was mostly an observer in all three games, failing to call timeouts to stop the bleeding, get stars back into the game earlier than planned or make any other adjustments on the fly.

Malone also has an inability to get his team to excel in their half-court offense. Their late-game plays are a prime example. The Nuggets either play pick-and-roll with Jokic and Murray or they watch as one player tries to make something happen on his own. That’s not going to work in the postseason, where the pace of games slows down and easy baskets in transition are hard to come by.

Can Malone overcome these obstacles? Of course he can. But if he doesn’t, the head coach needs to be held accountable.

There are reasons to question Malone’s ability to maximize the opportunity currently in front of the Nuggets. It’s time for him to provide an emphatic answer.

Denver needs to make a deep playoff run this season. If they don’t, someone needs to be held accountable.

Michael Malone is on the hot seat. It’s time for him to prove that he’s the coach to guide the Nuggets into uncharted waters.

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