In a moment of reflection after Friday’s loss to Phoenix, Michael Malone realized he is calling more set plays than in his first two seasons as the Nuggets’ coach.
That’s an indicator of a Denver offense that has lost its way during a rough January, Malone said. To snap out of a 2-6 funk that has put the Nuggets (23-23) out of the Western Conference playoff picture, Malone said they must return to the up-tempo pace, free-flowing ball movement and, ultimately, lethal scoring that gave them one of the most exciting and productive offenses in the NBA last season.
“I want to get back to being a team that’s hard to guard … and kind of get back to the offensive identity that we had last year,” Malone said. “If you can do that while maintaining a solid defense, I think that’s our best bet of being a competitive basketball team.”
Over its past 11 games, Denver ranks 25th in the NBA in offensive efficiency (101.8 points per 100 possessions), 25th in field-goal percentage (.446) and 17th in pace (99.4 possessions per game). The first two stats are a sharp dip compared with the Nuggets’ season averages; they entered Sunday ranked 11th in the league in efficiency (106.4 points per 100 possessions) and 13th in field-goal percentage (.459).
The pace, meanwhile, has remained fairly consistent with its 98.7 possessions-per-game season average. And that element perhaps requires the trickiest balance. Going at a breakneck speed can cause turnovers, an issue all season for the Nuggets. They entered Sunday ranked 24th in the NBA in that category (15.7 per game) and 28th in opponent points off turnovers (19.4 per game).
But multiple times in Friday’s loss to Phoenix, Malone implored his team to push the ball after securing a defensive rebound. He wants the ball over the half-court line in three seconds, giving the Nuggets ample time to move it from side to side, for players to cut and for centerpiece Nikola Jokic to utilize his passing to generate easy layups and open 3-pointers.
“Those are all things that are easily fixable,” Malone said. “It just requires a little bit more energy and effort and discipline on a nightly basis.”
Malone believes his offense started to look like the Nuggets of last season in the eight games before Paul Millsap suffered a torn ligament in his left wrist in mid-November. Over that span, Denver averaged 112.4 points — including a season-high 146 in a win over New Orleans — and posted a 6-2 record.
Malone stressed that returning to last season’s offensive style doesn’t also mean a return to trying to simply outscore opponents, after Denver ranked near the bottom of the NBA in every major defensive category in 2016-17. This season, the Nuggets have improved marginally on defense, entering Sunday ranked 20th in the NBA in efficiency (106.6 points allowed per 100 possessions).
But Malone wants to stop calling so many sets. Because that means the Nuggets’ offense will have returned to form.
“Teams didn’t know what the (heck) we were doing last year,” Malone said. “We just played.”