Michael Malone is undervaluing the importance of the No. 1 seed

Feb 26, 2024, 4:00 AM | Updated: 7:34 am

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Currently, the Denver Nuggets are the third-overall seed in the Western Conference. That’d give the defending champs homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but would likely force them to open round two, the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals on the road.

Normally, teams are vying for the best-possible seed in the postseason. They want to make their path to a championship as easy as possible, with home games being a big part of that equation.

But Michael Malone isn’t sweating his team’s current status. The Nuggets head coach isn’t going to do anything crazy during the final 25 games of the regular season in order to beat out the Clippers, Thunder and Timberwolves.

First of all, Malone isn’t wrong. If given the choice, it’s much more important to be healthy in the playoffs than to be the No. 1 overall seed.

Homecourt wouldn’t matter much if the Nuggets were without Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for any extended period of time in the postseason. Denver has arguably the best starting five in the NBA. Their bench, however, is shaky, which makes being healthy of the utmost importance.

But why can’t the Nuggets pursue both goals? Why can’t they chase the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, while also making sure they’re healthy and ready to go when the postseason tips off?

Right now, Denver is 1.5 games back in the West. They inched past the Clippers last night for that spot, with Los Angeles having two games in hand. The Nuggets trail the Thunder and Timberwolves by 1.5 games for the top seed.

In other words, they don’t have a lot of ground to make up. They don’t have to overextend themselves in order to pass L.A., OKC and Minnesota.

And recent evidence should tell them how important it is to have home-court advantage in the playoffs. Last year, the Nuggets enjoyed it in every round, rolling to a 16-4 record en route to their first-ever NBA championship.

Denver opened with a first-round matchup against Minnesota. They won two games at home to open the series, split in the Twin Cities and won in five games.

They played Phoenix in the next round, once again winning the first two games at home. After losing two on the round, however, they won a pivotal Game 5 at home before closing things out on the road in the next game.

The Lakers were the foe in the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets again jumped to a 2-0 lead at home. They rode that momentum to a four-game sweep of L.A.

And in the NBA Finals, Denver once again opened at home. They finally lost at Ball Arena, heading to Miami with the series tied at 1-1. They won both road games against the Heat and then closed things out at home in Game 5.

All told, the Nuggets were 9-1 at home and 6-3 on the road in the playoffs. They were tough to beat anywhere and everywhere.

But they had a distinct advantage in most of those games. Bolstered by a lead in the series, Denver was somewhat playing with house money when traveling. If they could get a split, as they did against Minnesota, they were still in great shape. And even if they lost two, like they did against Phoenix, they still had the most-crucial game of the series on their home floor.

The deck was almost always stacked in their favor. And when it wasn’t, which didn’t come until the NBA Finals, they were on the road against a No. 8 seed.

This allowed Malone to dictate every series. The Nuggets head coach never had to adjust. Throughout the 20-game playoff stretch, he went with the same starting lineup and virtually the same rotation. That’s a luxury.

If Denver was down 0-2 in a series, things would’ve been different. But opening at home every round helped them prevent that fate.

The Nuggets have seen this firsthand. In the two playoff appearances prior to the title run, Denver fell behind 0-2 to Phoenix and Golden State, respectively. They went 1-8 en route to being bounced by both the Suns and Warriors. They got behind the eight-ball and couldn’t get out.

This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t hard to figure out.

Do the Nuggets beat the Suns last year if the first two games of the series are in Phoenix? What about the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals? What if Milwaukee, Boston or Philadelphia don’t get upset in the East, forcing Denver to open the NBA Finals on the road?

No one knows for sure, but it’s not crazy to think that a parade wouldn’t have been going through the Mile High City last summer if those things had happened. They didn’t because Denver took care of business during the regular season.

They need to do the same thing this year.

Yes, it’s important to be healthy come playoff time. But it’s also important to have home-court advantage in as many rounds as possible.

The Nuggets have a championship banner as evidence of that fact. They should know this better than anyone.

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