NUGGETS

Michael Malone acknowledges he ‘ran players into the ground’

May 24, 2024, 1:35 PM

DENVER—Michael Malone made a pretty big deal in the second half of prioritizing health in front of the top seed in the West, what the Denver Nuggets failed to figure for was fatigue.

A combination of factors from roster depth to injuries to too strong of a push are probably the reason the Nuggets season ended early. The squad had no gas left when they tried to close out Minnesota. They had nothing for the Timberwolves in the historic Game 6 blowout and were without punch in the second half a few nights later as Minny made the largest Game 7 comeback in NBA history.

There’s no doubt the Nuggets have their problems but are they so core to a team where it’s worth rearranging a recent champion? Or is it something as simple as Malone needing to sacrifice some regular-season success for postseason energy?

“How do we handle the conflict of the postseason push after the All-Star break? Well, on the one hand, we got the two seed. And on the other hand, I’m watching our players play in Game 7 in the second half. And our guys look dead tired, and I think you guys probably saw the same thing,” Malone said Thursday while seated next to other members of team brass at a season-closing press conference. “So did I run our players into the ground? I’m sure, I’m sure that’s definitely part of it. Much was asked of Jamal (Murray,) KCP (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope,) Michael (Porter Jr.,) Aaron (Gordon) and Nikola (Jokic) especially. And we were not afforded the opportunity like we were last year to rest players down the stretch. This was a different season. And that was the decision we made and we live with it.”

With the No. 1 seed and many games to play with, the Nuggets eventual championship season malaised to a regular season close at 12-11. A year later, Denver was fighting among four teams at times atop the West and the team sped to a 21-6 regular season finish. Nikola Jokic played 79 regular season games total in 2024 and didn’t rest at all in the final 10 games of the season. It’s in contrast to the  69 games he played the year before, sitting five of the Nuggets final 10 and playing just 25 minutes a night in two other late-season contests.

And it turns out the seeding didn’t matter all that much. The team had a late-season contest with Minnesota which wound up deciding home floor for that very series. It should’ve also given the Nuggets the top seed but they threw that away to the lousy Spurs. The No. 1 seed’s season ended in the first round and so too did Denver’s despite having that all-important home-court advantage in Game 7.

“I think it speaks to the parity in the NBA, I think it speaks to the quality of depth in the Western Conference, especially since we’re the only team to make the playoffs six years in a row. No one’s even close to that,” Malone said. “For the number one seed, the number two seed to be out watching the Western Conference Finals, I’m not watching it, but it speaks to the parity and the excellence across the board… all I can say on that front is I think the Western Conference is a deep conference and parody is alive and well.”

Malone did later mention that the team will think about handling three-time MVP Jokic differently in the future when it comes to load management. Jokic was one of the few Nuggets with life late in the second round. So it might not be him with a stamina/fatigue issue so much as it is the supporting cast to Jokic and Murray who scored just 21 points in that winner-take-all game.

Does that speak to a supporting cast that’s just not good enough or one that needs to be better managed? It’s a question the Nuggets will have to answer in the next 10 months before another playoff push in 2025.

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Michael Malone acknowledges he ‘ran players into the ground’