Denver’s Specious Goldmine?

Mike Malone has been the head coach of the Denver Nuggets as long as Nikola Jokic has been on the franchise. Malone’s tenure with the Sacramento Kings was cut short after an 11-13 start to the 2014-15 season; 39-67 overall after a little over a season with the team. Malone was the only coach in Sacramento that DeMarcus Cousins got along with1, and that same relationship is emerging with his new big man.

Jokic was tossed out of the game against the Lakers on 11/19/2017 in defense of his coach who was ejected shortly prior in a fiery rage with the refs. This same coach later benched2 Jokic in the fourth quarter of a game against the Mavericks on 3/6/2018, in the midst of a crucial stretch of the season that determined whether or not this team would make the playoffs. He never singled out Jokic, but questioned the team’s defensive effort after a pick-and-roll opened the Mavericks up for an open three. That benching came three days after he told the media that Jokic was still the focal point of the offense and that he should continue taking shots3, and a week prior to that he was telling the media how Jokic should be in MVP consideration4. Cousins has expressed his respect for Malone, and these coaching choices certainly show a fiery but fair approach that would implement discipline into a team on the rise, and that’s what he has here with the Nuggets5.

However, for the past two seasons, this team has been one game removed from the playoffs, with this previous season coming down to a win-or-go-home in Minnesota. This team isn’t bad enough to get high draft picks, but with an offensively potent center as deadly as Jokic, you idealistically want to contend for a championship. The jury is still out on if he can be the centerpiece of a championship-level team, but I do know this team won’t make the playoffs until they return to at least league average on defense, something they haven’t been since they last made the playoffs in 2012-13. They never improved upon their 21st ranked defensive rating in 2013-14, and instead have slid down as far as 29th.

Brian Shaw was brought in to improve a young squad and make their defense more cohesive, and then when he was let go, Mike Malone was brought in to do much of the same. It was a questionable decision to be sure, but the players on this team enjoy playing for him, something Shaw couldn’t say about his respective locker room6. He’s a success in that regard, as he’s commandeered this team towards the cusp of playoff basketball, but what will this team realistically be capable of in the postseason? Kudos must be given to Malone for incorporating creative sets to implement Jokic’s unique skill set into the offense; channeling most of the offense through him. The Nuggets played at a slightly below-average pace last season, good enough for 16th in the NBA; doing Jokic no favors in hiding his porous defense. The Nuggets as a franchise were supposed to head in a direction that would expand upon George Karl’s run-and-gun system from 2012-13, and have had a plethora of players in this time span whose skill sets would be complimented by such a loose, free-flowing system, especially Jokic, and yet, Malone has continued to stress half-court sets and giving full effort on defense.

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Obviously Malone wants his team to be better than awful on defense so he’s going to preach that aspect of the game, but once again, when you have a player like Jokic who’s capable of leading all centers in assists per game with 6.1, 15th overall, then you want to make your offense a little unpredictable and unique. His range extends all the way to the three-point line, opening the floor up for the Nuggets half-court offense, but due to his passing abilities, this team is able to make up plays on-the-fly. This results in some interesting fast break opportunities, as well spontaneous play-calling that results in easy shots for Jokic.

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Of course, due to his passing, it results in easy shots for his teammates as well. Jokic led the team in usage rate with 24.2% after Mudiay’s 24.8%, but he was traded at the trade deadline after playing 42 games. Will Barton, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris were second, third, and fourth on the team in assists per game with 4.1, 3.4, and 2.9 assists per game respectively. Mudiay came in fifth with 2.9 as well, but yet, Murray was third on the team in usage, while Barton and Harris were sixth and seventh, both with 20.7 percent. Once again, Mudiay led the team in usage, and after two-and-a-half injury-plagued seasons mired with poor shooting, it was time to move on and acquire some veteran shooting in Devin Harris.

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This game against the Pacers on 4/3/2018 would see the Nuggets snap the Pacers three-game winning-streak, mostly by playing primarily to Jokic’s strengths. His outside shooting is so lethal that when he connects on four of them as he did in this game, the opposing team is forced to pay extra attention to him, resulting in some easy looks for his teammates. His passing is contagious, as the seven assists he collected in the game would’ve easily reached double-digits had his teammates not made the extra pass, resulting in the team as a whole collecting 31 assists; keeping the offense running fluidly.

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His post presence is an underrated aspect of his game amongst fans, as it allows the Nuggets to play inside-out for stretches, and since the three-and-D wings and the guards on this team are all capable of stretching the floor, it creates an interminable amount of scoring chances for the Nuggets. When he has a mismatch and is able to post-up a guard, forcing a double-team, he’s able to quickly fling the ball to the open man for an easy assist. Against other bigs, he’s strong enough to back some down, but always crafty enough to keep his dribble alive, find the open man, or create his own scoring chance in a myriad of ways. Malone has successfully merged aspects of Jokic’s play style into the offense, but as noted by other casual observers7, it still hasn’t been an ideal fit.

Malone is a guy who likes to call plays in the half-court and work opposing teams down. Perhaps this style could have worked with Cousins, but until Jokic improves on the defensive side of the ball, he will continue to coach without having ever reached the postseason. The Nuggets played much faster while Millsap was injured, battling without Millsap for 44 games, only managing to pull off four 3-game winning-streaks, with one of them actually extending to a 4-game winning-streak. Once Millsap returned on 2/27/2018 against the Clippers, the Nuggets returned right back to their previous play style, with more play-calls for Millsap to get him the ball in the mid-range. Jokic is far too flat-footed to operate in a system like that consistently, so Malone will likely be forced to adapt and allow the Nuggets to play faster next season if they want to improve and make the playoffs.

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Is it fair to highlight how Curry easily neutralizes Jokic with a pick before making one of his signature layups? No, not really, but in order to win a championship, you have to beat the best, and right now, the Warriors are the best in basketball. No one is expecting anyone to dethrone the Warriors in this upcoming 2018-19 season, but Jokic was locked up to the tune of a five-year, $147,710,050 dollar contract this offseason. LeBron signed a similar contract for four years, so Denver has Jokic until he’s 28-years-old. This gives you a timetable to work with, but you won’t beat any great team playing defense as poorly as this Nuggets squad does.

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I mean, these are basic pick-and-rolls against Zaza Pachulia. Once again as I said in my article on the Trail Blazers8, Pachulia has the reputation of a clumsy oaf, and yet, here he is rolling freely to the basket while Jokic remains flat-footed. The Nuggets are lucky that Barton shot 9-for-17 from the field and 3-for-5 from behind-the-arc during this game for 25 points, or else the Nuggets would’ve likely lost this one. Their three-point shooting was better than the Warriors this night, connecting on 12 threes compared to the Warriors eight. It was interesting to see the Nuggets beat the Warriors at their own game essentially, something I don’t expect to the see in the postseason should these two teams ever actually meet come playoff time.

The Nuggets were fifth overall in assists per game as a unit, and they showcased it in this game as they matched the Warriors ball movement with both teams collecting 28 assists. Instead of getting the 30 points that Jokic poured in against the Pacers later in the season with an overall dominating offensive performance, Jokic and company had to chip in and work together to defeat the Warriors machine. Without Millsap, the Nuggets ran up-and-down the court, with Jokic picking up five assists since he was only able to shoot 7-for-16 from the field, but 2-for-3 from behind-the-arc, as well as nine rebounds. Harris and Barton both had four assists, and kept the ball moving into open threes for their team.

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It worked for them on 2/3/2018 against the defending champs, but on 3/27/2018 against the Raptors, their inability to defend the pick-and-roll and force them to respect their post defense cost them a chance to beat a team they realistically could have. Jonas Valanciunas is a decent-enough starting center, and he slips right by Jokic, fumbles the ball, and still finishes over the collapsing defense. Jokic will have to improve defensively, but perhaps if Malone allows them to push the pace next season, his deficiencies could be hidden better.

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Here’s C.J. Miles, a career fringe-starter who averages a career 9.8 points on 41.4% from the field. Jokic steps up to contest, and then freezes, backs up, and stares as Miles finishes strong at the rack. That’s unacceptable, especially when they lost this game by four points, 114-110. The Nuggets flat-out just need to get better at switching, but unfortunately, these players may simply just not be natural defenders.

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This simple dump-off bounce pass led to an easy dunk at a pivotal moment in the game, all because Jokic was laterally too slow to cover the ground, so both him and Murray went for the steal. The Nuggets were the worst team in opponents field goal percentage with a paltry 47.6%; diving into their opponents shooting percentages reveals a rather flimsy defensive scheme that ultimately failed them this season.

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It’s infuriating that a center with this lethal of an offensive repertoire is such a liability on defense, and just in case you stop and think that his 2.9 defensive win shares and 2.2 defensive box-plus minus somehow offset the images provided, I need you to question if Jokic is somehow a better defender than Millsap, who registered only 1.1 DWS and a 0.7 DBPM. Most of the Nuggets line-ups consisted of floor-spacing, lengthy wings and speedy guards, with Mason Plumlee and Trey Lyles being the only other bigs to receive consistent playing time, however limited their minutes may have been. Their switching scheme only works if the Nuggets have at least one big to make teams respect their paint, but when teams are scoring at a 41.2% clip from 3-10 feet from the basket against them, as well as allowing a league-high 19.1% of shot attempts allowed at that same distance, it shows a clear lack of disrespect for their defensive presence at or near the rim.

Not that it matters too much, because despite Millsap’s presence as the only reliable wing-forward hybrid, and his defensive chops gained after 12 seasons in the league, the Nuggets allowed teams to convert three’s on them at a 37.8% rate; highest in the league. Teams don’t even take a majority of their shot attempts against the Nuggets from behind-the-arc, only 33.2% of shot attempts against them are coming from three; 19th in the league. Injuries prevented Millsap from helping out earlier in the season and assisting in the team’s development, but his presence did raise the Nuggets defense up from 29th to 25th this past season, so if he remains healthy and this team continues to gel, perhaps they can build upon what they pieced together this season.

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Of course, signing Isaiah Thomas may continue to contribute to another problem with their offense that features their star center standing flat-footed at the three-point line for a good portion of the game. Murray and Harris are both 6’4″, and now with 6’6″ Barton replacing 6’8″ Wilson Chandler at the small forward position this upcoming 2018-19 season, the Nuggets will be an even more undersized, speedy team. The Nuggets were 16th in opponents blocks per game, so their guards weren’t being blocked at an absurd rate, but adding the 5’8″ point guard Thomas could lead to an increased amount of blocks, allowing teams to exploit the Nuggets Achilles Heel; fast break defense. It makes you wonder why Malone won’t just embrace the run-and-gun aura this team secretes.

I understand wanting to slow the pace down, add nuance to the offense, and make yourself more versatile and harder to defeat, but maybe Millsap’s 22% usage rate could be reduced by 2.5 percent next season? His long two’s were the lowest of his career at 4.8%, and that’s worthy of commemoration, but to continue increasing the effectiveness of the offense, it would be better if they almost entirely eliminated his attempts from long two, and draw up more plays that would allow Jokic to swing the ball out from the post and allow the wings and guards to facilitate the ball into an open three.

Of course, eliminating the mid-range aspect of Millsap’s game would be detrimental to the versatility of the offense, but Millsap has only continued to evolve and adapt his game to his environment, so we should safely assume he can continue to do the same in Denver. However, he will be turning 33 just three days after this upcoming season’s trade deadline, and he did take a sizable step back in efficiency and production as a piece in the Nuggets wheel this past season. Father time is undefeated, but Millsap does still have time left to contribute meaningful basketball to the NBA; all the more reason for him to take even more of smaller role in the offense going forward. They need another consistent defender on the perimeter who can space the floor on offense, just in case their opponent is able to start the break by getting a block or a timely steal, as the Nuggets were seventh in turnovers in 2017-18; giving up 15 per game. They’ll have to play smarter going forward, especially if Malone acquiesces to a more run-and-gun style of play with this team next season.

Where does that leave this team however? They won 46 games last season, and the West has only gotten tougher this season. This offseason saw management part ways with Chandler for non-basketball purposes in the form of a salary dump, and then they turned around and did the same with Darrell Arthur and Kenneth Faried to the Nets in return for Isaiah Whitehead, who was immediately waived. They also lost out on next year’s first-round draft pick, as well as a future second-round draft pick. To be fair, Michael Porter, Jr. slid down to them with the 14th pick in this year’s draft class, but he did fall down to the 14th pick for a reason. He just had his second back surgery this offseason around July 11th9, and is expected to play this upcoming season, but we can only guess as to what his health will be going forward.

The ideal scenario would be that Porter, Jr. makes a full recovery and grows into the high-scoring tall and lengthy starting wing that this team desperately needs to defend other small forwards and stretch-fours. That’s certainly a possibility, but we need to see him play first. Other than that, this team has simply rolled the dice on the same team as last season, with increased minutes going to players who didn’t see the court consistently throughout the season in Torrey Craig and Monte Morris. It’s comical however that they made these large salary dumps, only to turn around and re-sign Barton to a ridiculous four-year contract worth $53,000,000, as well as a fourth-year player option in 2021-22 that will pay him $14,669,642 at the age of 30-going-on-31. You’d think this franchise that routinely overpays role players wouldn’t continuously make that mistake, but you’d be wrong.

Last offseason, the Nuggets agreed to an four-year, $84,000,000 extension with Gary Harris, establishing him as the starting shooting guard going forward, who as of this writing, hasn’t earned his spot. He’s the best the Nuggets have, but he’s currently just a slightly above-average guard who can make cuts and take spot-up jumpers. His 24th birthday will be four days after the publication of this writing, and I know Nuggets fans are anticipating his breakout season10, so here’s me issuing a challenge for him to take his game to another level.

The Nuggets are sitting at 14th in cap space currently, as Millsap’s contract will have him earning $29,730,769 this upcoming season, and from what we’ve established about what he should actually be doing in this system, this makes him a gross overpay. Fortunately for the franchise, if he is injured again or just flat-out disappoints, his third-and-final year is a team option that would take $30,500,000 off the books. Murray and Lyles could potentially be off the books next season, but I don’t see this management not using their team option on Murray for the 2019-20 season, or why they wouldn’t extend Lyles for another season if they can. Once again, where does this leave the Nuggets? Battling for the eighth seed again? If Malone can begin his postseason coaching debut by edging out the Spurs by one game, earning his redemption, while simultaneously snapping Popovich’s legendary 21-season playoff streak, it’d be a worthy debut, and a successful season.

Editor’s Notes

  1. USA Today – 4/28/2016 – DeMarcus Cousins: Kings ‘would have been a playoff team’ with Michael Malone
  2. Yahoo! Sports – 3/7/2018 – The Nuggets benched Nikola Jokic, and the same old issues surface in Denver
  3. Denver Post – 3/3/2018 – Denver Nuggets briefs: Michael Malone assures “Nikola Jokic is still the focal point of our offense”
  4. YouTube – 2/24/2018 – Mike Malone on Jokic after his third straight triple double
  5. ESPN.com – 11/16/2017 – The Nuggets have one big star … and a million questions
  6. SB Nation – 3/3/2015 – Brian Shaw dug his own grave with the Nuggets
  7. The Ringer – 3/8/2018 – Mike Malone’s System, Not Paul Millsap, Is Holding Nikola Jokic Back
  8. Havarti – 9/3/2018 – Derailed Blazers
  9. NBA.com – 7/19/2018 – Denver Nuggets draftee Michael Porter Jr. had second back surgery last week
  10. SBNation – 8/30/2018 – One skill to improve: Gary Harris
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