Michael Malone is coaching for his job in the next four road games

Mar 15, 2023, 6:00 AM
Michael Malone...
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Nuggets losing streak has reached four games. And it’s getting progressively worst with each passing defeat.

On Tuesday, Denver fell 125-110 at Toronto. They trailed by as many as 22 points. They gave up 49 points in the first quarter.

That was a continuation of a host of dismal defensive efforts. The Nuggets gave up 122 points, including 37 in the third quarter, in a loss to the Nets. They gave up 128 total and 42 in the second quarter at the Spurs. And Denver surrendered 117 points, including 66 in the second half, to Chicago.

Oof. That’s not good.

It’s particularly alarming because the Nuggets have a defensive-minded head coach. That end of the court is supposed to be Michael Malone’s area of expertise.

At the end of last season, the coach spent his entire final press conference lamenting his team’s lack of perimeter defenders. The front office responded by getting him Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown. They also drafted Christian Braun.

New faces. Same lousy results.

Sticking to his script, Malone threw his team under the bus. He called them out in his postgame presser.

“I’m gonna find out a lot about the guys in that locker room,” Malone said. “I’m here. I’m gonna be here today, tomorrow and the day after. I ain’t going anywhere. And I’m gonna find some guys that are ready to fight with me.”

In other words, Malone is doing his job. He can’t the say the same for his players.

This is nothing new. The head coach accused his team of quitting when they lost game two of the Western Conference semifinals in 2021 at Phoenix.

The blame game is his norm. It’s what he does, ducking all responsibility.

For the most part, everyone has gone along with his act. They’ve provided nothing but excuses for Malone’s playoff failings.

Lose at home in Game 7 against the Trail Blazers in 2019? It’s a young team.

Get swept by the Suns in 2021? Jamal Murray was hurt.

Fall in five to the Warriors in the opening round last year? Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were out.

Malone is 21-27 overall in the postseason. That’s padded by a 9-10 record in the bubble. Outside of that run, which included two comebacks from 3-1 deficits that probably don’t happen if the Nuggets had to play actual road games, he’s 12-17 in the playoffs, losing more series than he’s won.

Nonetheless, Malone has escaped criticism. He’s been credited with taking over a team that went 33-49 in his first season at the helm in Denver, turning them into a perennial playoff team and the current No. 1 seed in the West.

There’s no doubt that he’s been the right coach to get the Nuggets from bad to good. There are serious questions, however, if he’s the one who can get them from good to great.

It’s highly likely that he’s Doug Collins or Mark Jackson. That would mean that Denver needs their version of Phil Jackson or Steve Kerr to get them over the hump.

Right now, it’s hard to envision Malone getting it done this season. With a healthy team, he’s guiding them off a cliff down the stretch.

At the moment, the Nuggets lead atop the conference has dwindled to 4.0 games. With four more games on their current road trip, that could disappear quickly.

Malone is trying to convince himself that everything is fine. He was desperately trying to sell that message after the loss to the Raptors.

“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for us,” Malone said. “I love the fact that we’re facing adversity.”

Sure, coach. Whatever you say.

The Nuggets are gripping. They’re reeling. They’re unraveling.

Who does Malone blame. That’s an easy answer.

“Right now, we’re just in chill mode,” the head coach explained. “You can’t be in chill mode with 13 games to go in the season. We have to find a way to get our swagger back and get back to playing Denver Nuggets basketball.”

This is just the latest example of Malone not be able to push the right buttons. He’s not getting through to his team.

But that’s not his only issue. The head coach’s inability to make adjustments, both in-game and in a series, is problematic.

This was evident during last year’s playoff loss to the Warriors. Yes, the Nuggets were outmanned. But Malone never tried anything. He refused to go big, trying to force Golden State out of their small lineup. Instead, he just watched his team get run out of the gym in five games.

Malone’s lack of people skills is also a huge issue. This became glaringly obvious in Sunday’s loss to the Nets, when he sat MPJ for 16:16 in the third and fourth quarter. He benched a player who had scored 23 points in 22 minutes up to that point.

Did he apologize? Did he admit brain lock?

Nope. He justified his indefensible decision.

Malone doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone. He makes that abundantly clear.

The head coach is an old-school, my-way-or-the-highway, do-what-I-tell-you kind of guy. Just ask Bones Hyland.

When the promising young player bristled at his lack of playing time, Malone didn’t try to reason with the kind. He didn’t explain the situation. He didn’t try to soothe a bruised ego.

Instead, Malone forced the Nuggets to trade away a player with tremendous upside. And he positioned Hyland as the bad guy in the process, letting the narrative that the guard was a locker room cancer become the story.

It was hogwash. Hyland was simply someone Malone couldn’t bully, so he wanted him gone.

This is why he gets sideways with Porter Jr. at times. It’s why he snaps at sideline reporters. It’s why he chucks his players under the bus.

Malone is always right. Everyone else is always wrong.

No one has wanted to admit this in recent years. Now, it’s becoming painfully obvious.

And it might derail the best chance the Nuggets have ever had to win an NBA title. The path to the Finals should go through Denver, unless Malone blows it.

That’s why the next four games are crucial. Denver has to get back on track against a bad Pistons team, a solid Knicks squad, the same Nets that beat them last weekend and a mediocre Wizards club.

Two wins is a must. Three would be ideal.

If that doesn’t happen Josh Kroenke and Calvin Booth need to make a hard decision. They need to part ways with a head coach that has clearly lost his team, at the worst possible time.

If the Nuggets return home on an eight-game losing streak or owners of a 1-7 record in their last eight games, it’s time to send Malone packing. It’s time to face the fact that he’s not the right guy.

Denver can’t afford to waste another year of Nikola Jokic’s prime. They can’t risk having nothing to show for three-consecutive MVP seasons.

Let David Adelman guide the Nuggets down the stretch and through the playoffs. He can be Steve Fisher taking over for Bill Frieder at Michigan in the 1989 NCAA Tournament. Fisher led the Wolverines to a national championship, turning his interim title into a permanent one.

“I’m here. I’m gonna be here today, tomorrow and the day after.”

Malone said that last night. His presence beyond that timeframe should be anything but secure.



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Michael Malone is coaching for his job in the next four road games