It is legal in Colorado to smoke marijuana. But it’s strictly forbidden to applaud Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
The Nuggets beat Indiana 107-104 Tuesday, and their improbable playoff dream is alive. In the final week of the regular season, there’s no pressure on Denver. This is fun.
“We can’t play like it’s life and death, because we’re going to die a lot,” Malone said. “The way we play, how free we play, we’re going to turn the ball over at times, we’re young. I want our guys to play free, to enjoy and embrace the moment and what we’re involved in right now. I think a lot of other teams are playing tight. … Not us.”
That’s a coach of a team with no playoff pedigree, striking the perfect tone, in the spirit of Nuggets legend Doug Moe and his lovable no-hopers.
If I stand up and give kudos to Malone, will I get arrested?
Way back in November when forward Paul Millsap underwent wrist surgery that would require 44 games to heal, tears were shed for the $30 million man and dirt was thrown on Denver’s chances to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Yet everything and anything that has gone wrong in this season has been placed at the feet of Malone, whose biggest coaching sin is that his name isn’t George Karl.
OK, nobody confuses Malone for Gregg Popovich. His use (and misuse) of timeouts can be head-scratching. The coach’s playing rotation at times seems to be pulled out of his hat. The breakdown of his relationship with Jusuf Nurkic a year ago forced Denver to trade a talented young center. Despite Malone’s reputation as a defensive strategist, there are too many nights when the Nuggets can’t stop anybody from scoring.
But fire him? No, no, no. One thousand times no.
During the one-and-done era of college basketball, the primary job for an NBA coach is often to serve as a teacher. Are Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray better players than at the outset of this season? Without a doubt. So Malone and his staff deserve high marks for player development.
If your bottom-line judgment of a coach begins and ends with victories and defeats, then Denver’s 17-10 record since February 1 is testimony to Malone’s ability to keep the Nuggets hanging tough while Millsap rehabbed his wrist. What’s more, Malone has exhibited a stubborn refusal to surrender when starting guard Gary Harris went down with a knee injury during the most critical part of the regular season.
For as talented as Murray is, he is learning to play point guard in the NBA at age 21, against the likes of Russell Westbrook. If the Nuggets advance to the postseason with a 21-year-old point guard, Malone deserves more than applause. He should get a medal.
But almost every day, I hear another frustrated Denver fan venting on social media, demanding to know if I think Malone should be fired if the Nuggets fail to make the playoffs.
This is my blunt response:
What, are you high?
No foolin’. Until the Nuggets came back from an 18-point deficit Sunday in the fourth quarter to beat Milwaukee in a comeback that was three parts grit and one part luck, the chances of Denver making the playoffs were so slim it wasn’t worth talking about.
On the strength of Jokic’s 30 points to beat Indiana, the Nuggets have clawed within a half game of New Orleans for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. How good is Jokic? From Los Angeles to Milwaukee and New York, let’s keep the local bias out of it, and check the analytics. According to Real Plus-Minus, the top five players in the league this season are: 1) Chris Paul; 2) James Harden; 3) Steph Curry; 4) Jimmy Butler, and 5) Jokic.
“He’s Nikola Jokic. We’re Denver. So nobody’s going to talk about it,” Malone said.
With four games remaining on their schedule, the Nuggets have almost zero margin for error.
Playoffs? I’m saying there’s a chance.
Whether the Nuggets elbow their way into the Western Conference playoffs or fall short, there is serious work to do in the offseason. Team management must figure out a way to leverage the talent of Jokic and Murray into a team that can win 50 games in a season and not sweat a postseason invitation.
It will be a tricky proposition for front office executives Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas, who have demonstrated a keen eye for talent in the draft but not been so hot at making trades or negotiating contracts.
The Nuggets are a flawed team. Their coach, however, isn’t among the franchise’s top five problems.
Fire Malone if Denver fails to make the playoffs?
That’s nuts. Malone deserves kudos, not a pink slip.