The uncertainties for the Denver Nuggets were abound heading into this season. The most pressing questions revolve around how Denver’s abundance of young parts could fit together. Would blue chip sophomore prospects Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic keep improving? Could Jokic and fellow young big Jusuf Nurkic coexist in the frontcourt together? Would one of Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jamal Murray emerge as the best option at shooting guard? Should the Nuggets cash in on either Kenneth Faried or Danilo Gallinari to build even more around all those younger players?
But one question off the radar is essential for the future of this team: is their coach, Michael Malone, good at what he does?
Malone is viewed as something of a known commodity. He’s respected in the coaching community, credited as a defensive expert who helped construct the backbone of the early Warriors playoff teams as an assistant. The media finds him to be savvy about advanced statistics and complicated rotational choices, and praise his ability to convey that decision-making process to the press. He seems to have a relatively long leash with his front office, even doing a buddy buddy podcast interview with GM Tim Connelly for The Vertical.
This is all despise Malone’s career winning percentage of .385 over 192 games as a head coach. That’s worse than all other current coaches except Brett Brown (of “The Process”) and Earl Watson (38 games into his tenure for a very raw Phoenix team). Why is perception of him so positive?
Coaches are very rarely afforded sympathy, but working for the Sacramento Kings does strange things. Malone became one of the more sympathetic figures in the league when he got axed 24 games into Sacramento’s 2014-15 season. His Kings team had dropped from 9-6 to 11-13 once DeMarcus Cousins missed extended time with meningitis, and outrage over his dismissal was universal.
Getting fired by the dysfunctional Kings is a better career move than working for them. Everyone remembers the near-.500 stretch from that young season, but it’s not as top of mind that he went 28-54 in 2013-14, the exact same record Keith Smart got fired for the season before Malone took over.
A Pattern of Mediocrity
There’s still good will for Malone after one year at the helm in Denver. He went 33-49 in 2015-16, the exact Nuggets win total averaged from the two seasons prior (the Brian Shaw era). Shaw may never get another shot at the bench; his tenure is a good contrast in the expectations game that hasn’t befallen Malone. Denver’s 2015-16 was understood as a transition season — but people were disappointed when Shaw didn’t take the same basic group of players to the playoffs. Ty Lawson’s unexpected demise helped sink Shaw’s squad, and they’ve since added a lot more (raw) talent than Shaw had available to use.
His defensive reputation hasn’t really held up. As a head coach, he’s taken terrible defenses and made modest improvements, but come well short of transforming them into even average defensive teams. Last year, the Nuggets came in 24th in team defensive rating (106.4). They were 25th under Shaw/Melvin Hunt (105.5) the season before. In his full season in Sacramento, he steered the Kings to 23rd in team defense (106.3), up from 29th (108.6) under Keith Smart the year before.
In Malone’s Defense
Wins and losses aren’t the only measure of a coach, and Malone hasn’t enjoyed a particularly healthy or matured roster with either team he’s coached. The right mix of voices around the league seem to value him pretty highly, opinions that matter more than mine.
The early returns from this season are positive: the Nuggets have started the season 2-2 and rank eighth in team defensive efficiency (a solid 99.1 rating). If the Nuggets become the darkhorse playoff contender I think they could, Malone’s objective chops will finally have caught up with his perception.
The Problem of Patience
The catch 22 for coaching decisions like this is that stability and patience behind a coaching staff mark the best franchises (think Gregg Popovich, Brad Stevens), but resetting too late can jeopardize momentum heading into a roster’s peak years.
If Malone is a very good coach, giving him the freedom to build the systems and culture he wants for the long haul is more important than immediate gains in the win column. But if he’s below average as a coach, affording him years because of exceeding patience and low expectations will stifle that culture and shorten the window any future coaches the team would choose to take its roster to another level.
So Denver must find ways to evaluate its coach, even as it places reasonable ambitions on what a roster this young can accomplish. Wins might be gravy for this year’s Nuggets, but hovering near .500 and maintaining this leap into the top 10-15 defenses in the league should be doable for a coach with Malone’s cache. Player development is still the priority, but there’s no reason a good coach can’t get significant, objective improvement out of his team in year 2.