KESSINGER: Michael Malone must evolve if the Denver Nuggets are going to take the next step

In hindsight, some of Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s decision making over the course of the 2016-17 season cost the Nuggets the playoffs. To turn into a contender, the Nuggets needs their coach to improve, or the Nuggets need to move on.

Michael Malone
Image Credit: Ryan Greene, 5280 Sports Network

DENVER— Of all of the improvements the Denver Nuggets need to make in the offseason, the biggest improvement needs to come from head coach Michael Malone. The Nuggets have the young talent and assets to develop into a threat in the Western Conference. The coach is one of the missing pieces.

After two seasons in Denver, we’ve seen Malone’s strengths. Malone has the desire to be a great coach. He understands the game of basketball. He understands how to put players in positions to succeed once they are on the floor. Malone has a staff that both develops young players and nurtures veterans like Jameer Nelson.

The breakdowns in Malone’s coaching kept the Nuggets out of the playoffs. He needs to acknowledge what he did wrong this season. At his closing press conference, he said he thought the Nuggets had a great season. That’s not good enough. He needs to take the blame for some of the Nuggets faults and then work furiously to improve.

The Nuggets need a coach willing to carry stress instead of putting it on the team. In his exit press conference, Nikola Jokic mentioned that the team felt too much pressure in the playoff run. That’s on Malone. Malone was blaming players for lack of effort down the stretch. That’s not how a coach breaks the tension in a locker room.

The Nuggets need to make a mental shift. They rely too much on energy level to create effort on the court. Instead they need a coach who can develop a routine that relies on grit. The Nuggets need to show up, no matter the opponent, schedule or gravity of a given night.

Malone needs to have difficult conversations with players, while also being fair to the locker room. When he was hired, people said that Malone was “player’s coach.” To me, that term means a coach great at communicating and connecting with players, but that didn’t appear to be true of Malone this year.

His relationship with Jusuf Nurkic led to friction on the team. After Nurkic was traded to Portland, it became clear that the players blamed Malone for the divide. The team sided with a player who left the building in the middle of the game instead of their coach.

If there was just one instance of a communication breakdown, then it could be dismissed. However, Wilson Chandler was so frustrated about the lack of communication he wanted to be traded.  Kenneth Faried discussed it concerning his position in the starting lineup. Young players were unsure what they needed to do to get minutes.

Malone must be able to talk to his players. He has to build relationships based on mutual respect. He must be able to show players that he sees their efforts, and reach an understanding, even on areas of disagreement.

Malone also needs to have a better grasp on his players’ assets. Jokic, the heir-apparent of the franchise, wasn’t a starter for the first 25 games of the season. The Nuggets would almost certainly be in the playoffs if Jokic had started from day one. The Nuggets had to change their whole offense to flow through Jokic during the season, all because Malone didn’t realize what he had.

With Jokic as the on-court leader, the Nuggets have another problem that Malone needs to fix—defensive schemes. Malone was supposed to be a defensive coach, but the Nuggets were second the worst team in defensive efficiency in the league. Malone has to figure out how to improve the Nuggets team defense.

Above all, the Nuggets need a coach who understands them. They need someone who is willing to stand in front of the team and lead them to the next level. That’s not Malone right now.

It’s going to take guidance from other coaches and perhaps even some communication training to develop into a more interpersonal coach. If Malone doesn’t take steps forward this offseason, the Nuggets will have to start over with a new coach. For now, Malone still has a chance to be a great coach on a great team. It starts with a difficult conversation he must have with himself.