MERILATT MONDAY

It’s time to start asking hard questions about Michael Malone

May 20, 2024, 4:00 AM | Updated: 9:54 am

The question has to be asked. It might be uncomfortable. It might be unpopular. It might even seem a little “mean,” in a world where any kind of criticsm is seen as a harsh attack. But it needs to be asked.

Is Michael Malone the right head coach for the Nuggets?

Yes, he won a championship just last season. He took Denver to NBA heights they’ve never seen before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the right guy for the job.

Has he taken the franchise to a place where no other head coach has gotten them? Yep.

He’s also been blessed with more to work with than anyone else. Doug Moe and George Karl didn’t have an MVP on their roster. They certainly didn’t have a guy who has won three of them.

Nikola Jokic has won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in three of the last four seasons. The Nuggets have lost twice in the second round and once in the first round during those campaigns.

The first two exits can be explained away. The Malone apologists have the story down cold. Without Jamal Murray, Denver wasn’t going to beat the Suns in 2021 or the Warriors in ’22.

That’s true. But that’s missing the big picture.

It wasn’t just that the Nuggets lost those series. Without their second-best player, that was bound to happen. It was the way they fell that was disheartening.

Denver got swept by Phoenix, with Jokic getting booted in the decisive Game 4 at home when his frustration boiled over. And they lost in five to Golden State, once again putting up very little fight.

There were no adjustments. There were no grand moves. There were no slight tinkers.

The Nuggets showed up, got kicked in the stomach and went home in nine straight games. They lost eight of them.

Did they need to win those matchups? Nope. Did they need to put up a better fight. Yep.

That was alarming. Anyone who isn’t a cheerleader for the team can admit that fact.

But it was overlooked. And then last year, when Denver rolled to a title, everyone looked the other way.

Malone was impervious to criticism. He was the second coming of Phil Jackson. He was Red Auerbach without the cigar.

Until he wasn’t. On Sunday night, in Game 7, at Ball Arena, with the season on the line.

The Nuggets led 58-38 in the third quarter. They went on to blow the biggest Game 7 lead in NBA history.

It happened because Denver had no answers for what Minnesota threw at them. The Timberwolves took away the two-man game of Jokic and Jamal Murray, but the Nuggets kept going to it. Everyone else was a bystander.

No other Nuggets player scored in double digits. Murray had 35. Jokic had 34. The rest of the team combined for 21.

The coach will blame his players. He always does.

Malone accused the Nuggets of quitting in the middle of the Suns series. He threw his team under the bus when the Warriors were getting the gentlemen’s sweep. And now, he’s up to it again, making excuses.

“We played until June last year,” the head coach said after the Game 7 collapse. “We had to play main guys through Game 82 to secure (a high) seed. I think emotionally and physically, guys are gassed.”

But that’s not the whole story. That’s missing the boat.

The Nuggets weren’t gassed. They were confused and out of sorts.

Yes, Michael Porter Jr. didn’t shoot well. He was 3-for-12 on the night. But everyone else took a combined 16 shots.

Aaron Gordon had five. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope took seven. Reggie Jackson fired up one. And Christian Braun had three attempts.

Jokic took 28 shots. Murray had 27.

They had 55. Everyone else took 28.

Why? Because the Nuggets do what the Nuggets do. Their head coach rolls out the basketballs, plays the same lineup every game and runs the same offense every night.

The two-man game was working for a half. Denver was up 20 in the third quarter. The Timberwolves took it away and the Nuggets had no answer. They were a hapless team on offense, unable to get good looks and uncontested shots.

And nothing changed. As a 20-point lead evaporated, Malone stood on the sidelines, barked at officials, threw his hands up in the air and made no changes. None.

The loss is on him. Not Jokic. Not Murray. It’s on the head coach.

How does a team blow a 20-point, second-half lead at home? How do they take a 3-2 lead in the series, go on the road and lose by 45 points?

What coach survives those meltdowns? Where else would that be tolerated?

It will be in Denver. In part, that’s because Malone won a title. That earns a lot of grace. But the rest of the coach’s resume shouldn’t be ignored.

Outside of the bubble, Malone has lost three times in the second round and once in the first round. He’s lost two Game 7s at Ball Arena.

Malone beats lesser teams. He loses to better teams.

In the postseason, the Nuggets head coach has beaten a 7, 6, 2, 6, 8, 4, 7 and 8 seed. The two was the Clippers in the bubble, when Denver came back from a 3-1 deficit. In a normal playoff series, they’d have had to win two of those games in Los Angeles.

Malone has lost to a 3, 1, 2, 3 and 3. In other words, he can’t outcoach the opposition. He can win when he has the vastly superior team. He loses when it’s a semi-close matchup.

And that’s why the question needs to be asked. The Nuggets are on the verge of wasting Jokic’s prime.

Yes, they won a title with the best player in franchise history. But they haven’t been a perennial contender. And they should be.

Losing in the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals is one thing. Losing in the second round is another.

Could another coach get more out of a three-time MVP? That’s the question that needs to be asked. And answered.

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