Michael Malone Has Work Cut Out For Him With Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets made a curious decision when they hired Michael Malone to be their new head coach. Malone did a fine job in a bad situation in Sacramento and is by all accounts a very good coach, but seemed like an odd fit for the roster in place and for the style of play the Nuggets’ brass said they wanted to see the team execute.

In his first day on the job, however, Malone addressed the media and erased every doubt even the most skeptic could have about his hiring.

During his introductory press conference, Malone said all the right things. He made sure to mention early on that he played to his roster’s strength in Sacramento but wants the Nuggets to run, taking advantage of the altitude. He stressed defensive rebounding and effort. He talked up Kenneth Faried’s motor and heart. He made “efficiency” his mantra.

Obviously all press conferences are filled with buzzwords and good sentiments, but Malone sounded convinced and if his short stint in Sacramento is any indication, he could deliver on what he promised.

The Kings’ offense was built around DeMarcus Cousins, a post-oriented behemoth who has one of the highest usages in the league, and Isaiah Thomas, a half-court scorer with a tendency to over-dribble. He had to incorporate another ISO player in Rudy Gay mid-season. Even then his teams ranked around the middle of pack in pace. We are not talking about a Grizzlies-style slow team, but one that ran when it could and set up in the half court when it couldn’t, to utilize a deadly weapon in Cousins.

When Malone says he’s willing to push the pace, it sounds truthful. It’s especially encouraging to hear him emphasize what’s really needed to do it.

“All players in the NBA say they want to play fast,” Malone told reporters. “But are they willing to condition to themselves so they can run the whole 48 minutes? A lot of those guys aren’t willing to make that commitment.”

The Nuggets’ players were often questioned by former head coach Brian Shaw for their lack of effort, and while Malone said everyone was starting with a clean slate, he did reference the fact that Denver’s core needed to “recommit themselves to get back” to the playoffs after making the postseason as a third seed two years ago. Fortunately, Malone has a good track record when it comes to motivating players, as his bond with the temperamental DeMarcus Cousins shows.

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That’s where the good news ends, because the situation he’s entering is anything but stable. Even if he does play fast like the front office wants and extracts every ounce of talent from the roster, there will be some serious challenges for Malone in Denver. Offensively, the Nuggets will do well at home as long as they have competent players and run because of the altitude advantage. On defense, the players under contract could seriously struggle.

Malone willed one and a half months of good defensive play out of the Kings in his second year, but in his first season his team ranked 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency. Credit for Sacramento’s improvement on that area should certainly go to the coach, but Cousins becoming a better rim protector and showing better awareness in general surely helped. In Denver, the best interior defender might be Jusuf Nurkic. The rest of the big men rank from below average to dreadful.

That’s the other huge question mark not only for Malone but for the Nuggets: who will be there on opening night? Malone was forthright about how he understands that the roster will likely change from the day he took over to tip-off of the first regular season game he coaches, but the only two players that he mentioned — Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson — could be gone by then.

Lawson — who Malone said is a great transition player — has been the topic of several trade rumors and still has one year after next season left on his contract, which makes this offseason the perfect time to move him while he still has value. Faried disappointed after getting his extension and can’t offer rim protection or floor-spacing, a huge handicap in modern big men. He makes more sense on a contender looking for one final piece than as a cornerstone on a young team. Even veterans Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler could be on the move.

Malone was careful not to promise a trip to the playoffs. If he truly changes the culture in Denver and instills a defensive identity, he will more than earn his keep and could become the coach of the Nuggets long term. As auspicious as his hiring seemed on Tuesday, however, it doesn’t change the fact that there are no certainties with that roster, no way to predict whether the team can return to relevance soon or will have to undergo a full rebuild.

Giving Malone the job was a step in the right direction for a front office that hasn’t made many. Now the real work starts for everyone involved and it make take years before it bears fruit.

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