Malone’s high-wire act with bench will determine Nuggets fate

Apr 22, 2024, 4:00 AM

Michael Malone is walking a tightrope. And the hair-raising, razor-thin walk isn’t about to end any time soon.

A year ago, the Denver Nuggets head coach deftly utilized a short bench throughout the playoffs, riding an eight-man rotation to a 16-4 record in the postseason and the franchise’s first NBA title. This year, he’s going to have to do it again, but with even less resources.

During the Nuggets championship run, Malone relied heavily on his starting five. Arguably the best in the league, he played Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a ton of minutes. But he had a few reinforcements to use off the bench.

The “Crayola Crew” gave him some good minutes as reserves. Bruce Brown was fantastic throughout the postseason. Jeff Green provided some size when Jokic and Gordon were getting breathers. And Christian Braun emerged as a young “star” during the playoffs.

Two of those three players are no longer in Denver. Brown and Green left for bigger paychecks and larger roles elsewhere.

That leaves Malone with even less to work with this time around. And on Saturday, it became evident that the coach is going to have to be careful how he uses his bench.

In the first half of Game 1 against the Lakers, Malone used five backups for a combined 34:40 of playing time. Braun, Peyton Watson, Reggie Jackson, Justin Holiday and DeAndre Jordan were -11 as a group during that stretch. Not coincidentally, the Nuggets trailed by three points at the break.

In the second half, Malone took a different approach. He shorted his bench to four players, with Holiday not seeing the floor, and limited their minutes to 20:39. They were still not great, combining for a -1 in the final 24 minutes, but they didn’t kill Denver’s momentum. Not coincidentally, the Nuggets rolled after halftime, winning 114-103 to take a 1-0 lead in the first-round series.

All five starters played roughly 20 minutes after intermission. Malone sprinkled in some backups, providing short breathers, but they weren’t on the floor long. And that’s the recipe the head coach is going to have to use throughout the playoffs.

Maybe he’ll get a big game or two out of Braun; that happened last season. Perhaps Jackson gets on one night. There’s a chance Watson plays a big defensive role in some matchups. And there’s the necessary evil of Jordan having to be on the floor to provide a little size.

But for the most part, it’s going to be about limiting the damage. Denver’s reserves were -12 in Game 1. That’s an ugly number on any night; it’s really bad in an 11-point win.

The Nuggets starters are going to have to carry them. Everyone knows that fact. But to what degree will ultimately be the biggest question of the postseason.

Denver can’t expect Jokic, Murray, Porter, Gordon and KCP to play 40 minutes per game. On Saturday night, they didn’t have to. Not quite.

And that’s the high-wire act that Malone is going to have to walk throughout the playoffs. He doesn’t have a single bench player that is trustworthy every night. He doesn’t have Brown or Green like he did a year ago.

So he’s going to have to rely on a hodgepodge of youngsters and veterans without much tread left on the tires. He’s going to have to juggle some sketchy bench pieces, trying to piece together lineups that don’t put his team in too big of a hole while starters get some rest or deal with foul trouble.

Can he do it? Well, Game 1 certainly provided hope that he can.

Last year, Michael Malone had it somewhat easy in the playoffs. He trotted out the same eight-man rotation in every game, relying on his dazzling starting five and leaning on key bench players. This time around, he won’t have that luxury.

If the Nuggets are going to defend their title, they’re going to have to do it with a different mix every night. Their head coach is going to have to perform well in the NBA’s version of “Chopped,” putting together a great meal despite not knowing what the ingredients might be.

It’s a tall task. But it’s doable.

One down. Fifteen to go.

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Malone’s high-wire act with bench will determine Nuggets fate