We have officially hit the mid-point in this season. The Denver Nuggets are in the 11th spot in the West, but are only 2.5 games out of the 8th seed. Their success has had much to do with the high production from two of their best players, Will Barton and Danilo Gallinari.
But how does a team that played so poorly late last season look so much better this season? The reason for that is the way Coach Malone has been able to connect with his players.
Michael Malone is a player’s coach. His coaching philosophy stems off of having good relationships with his players. That was evident from the first practice he had with the Nuggets back in the summer:
His first Denver playbook after he was hired in June was not full of X’s and O’s. It was a manual on building relationships. So his first course of action upon taking over was meeting with as many players as he could get to, rather than doing it in phone conversations. He met with players in Denver. And in September he traveled to Italy to meet with Danilo Gallinari, who was playing with the Italian national team. Denver’s players wanted to know about the new system, their role in it, and how their new boss was going to run things.
Malone wanted to know about them, their lives, their likes and dislikes, their families and what in general makes them tick.
“There’s a saying that we use in the coaching profession: The players don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Malone said. “Maybe it’s a little bit corny, but it’s true.”
The willingness of Coach Malone to fly to another country just to be acquainted with Gallinari showed the players truly how much their coach cared. That goes a long way.
We have to keep in mind that this was a Nuggets team that was all out of whack. The players no longer respected or even listened to their coach Brian Shaw, and were even skipping practice. Yes, of course we all remember what happened in Denver late last season, but the point being made is that this was not a good situation for any coach. The Nuggets management needed to find the right coach that could bond with these players. Michael Malone was their choice, and it was the right one.
The Nuggets sit at 16 wins and 25 losses at the mid-point of the season. Sure, as a Nuggets fan that’s not a record you want to see, but it’s quite remarkable how much they’ve grown this season.
Denver came into the season with lots of questions.
Was Gallinari going to be traded? Could Emmanuel Mudiay lead this offense? Could all of the talent step up?
Now at this mid-point, we can answer these questions. First off, Danilo has been phenomenal. Michael Malone has even called him an all-star caliber small forward:
“He comes out and gets 28, five boards, 19 free throw attempts, making 17 — and the loose ball, some of the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
“And he’s been doing that every game now.He is to me, if we keep on winning and he keeps on playing at that level, he’s a guy that you should talk about making an all-star team. If he can continue to play at such a high level. He puts the time in, and the biggest thing is he’ll get there if we continue to win.”
And Malone is 100% right, there’s no disputing how good Gallinari has looked. He’s averaging right around 19 and 6 for the season, but this month, especially, he has been fantastic. Gallinari in the month of January has averaged just below 24 points per game. He’s getting to the line often, and hitting his free throws.
The next question surrounding Mudiay is one that we’ll need time to figure out. His numbers aren’t great, but the defense is there. The 1.44 assist to turnover ratio MUST improve, but he’s a rookie. We never assumed that Emmanuel Mudiay would come into the league with everything figured out.
Earlier in the season, if you remember, Byron Scott criticized Mudiay when saying that he “didn’t think he was a true point guard” and that he was “not a guy that made great decisions.” Michael Malone immediately defended his point guard by saying the following:
“Unlike some others, we feel he is a point guard that can make good decisions and we feel he’s going to showcase that throughout the season.”
Michael Malone has always been a coach to defend his players’ backs. Back in Sacramento, when Malone was head coach of the Kings, he was seen numerous times defending his players during games. That was one of the main reasons why the coach was able to get along so well with DeMarcus Cousins. The respect they gained for each other, helped the team find success. (Remember that with Cousins, the Kings were actually doing quite well.)
During this season, Mudiay and Malone both did get into it during a game, but they both understood that it was just part of the game:
“There is frustration on our end, having lost four games in a row now,” Malone said. “Just trying to find way to get a win. Winning is a great cure-all for anybody, like it was for (the Clippers) tonight, coming in having lost three in a row. So this is a very competitive game, guys are out there working hard trying to do their best, and sometimes emotions get involved. By no means is there an issue with Emmanuel or anybody else on this team. We are together, we are unified and we’re going to continue to fight to stay together to get this thing turned around.”[…] Said Mudiay: “It’s just both of us being competitors. It probably was my fault, I could have been doing a lot more. So I kind of put the blame on myself. I’ve got nothing against Coach, I respect him. He’s a great person, and I have all the respect in the world for him. Me and him are both competitive. We want to win. We hate losing. We’re on a four-game losing streak, something like that. It’s just us trying to win. At the same time, it’s over with. It’s on to the next game. It’s been like that my whole life. He’s just trying to challenge me, which I accept.”
Will Barton is coming off the bench, but still managing to get right around 30 minutes per game because he’s playing so well. Gary Harris, who was virtually nonexistent in Shaw’s system last year, is beginning to start and get serious minutes for Michael Malone. Harris went from starting 6 games last year, to all 35 of his games he’s been in this year.
While Nikola Jokic’s sample size has been small, Malone has steadily increased his minutes because of his terrific production. It’s been hard for the Nuggets to stay relevant, with the season ending injury to Wilson Chandler and the tough competition they face being in the Western Conference, but that hasn’t stopped the players from putting in the effort and fighting each night.
Lately, the Nuggets have been great. They have won 3 of their last 4, including one very impressive win over the Warriors.
Michael Malone has turned this team around and has made them look like a team that can compete for a championship within a couple seasons. The battle for the 8th seed seems to be a toss up between the Jazz, Kings, Trail Blazers, Nuggets, and Pelicans. If the Nuggets are going to be the team to secure that 8th seed, they’ll need great team chemistry and serious hustle each and every night.