Can Mike Malone Revive the Denver Nuggets?

Mike Malone has said all the right things so far in Denver…but what else can he do to make the Nuggets competitive again?

Mike Malone’s hire in Denver generated a lot of buzz this off-season. And rightfully so. After getting canned early in his second year in Sacramento, despite getting off to a “better than expected start” and being the one coach that actually was a favorite of Boogie Cousins, the Kings fell apart without his leadership (though the jury is still out on George Karl), and people began to realize that maybe Malone was more successful to the Kings’ success than management initially thought or gave him credit for. (Sacramento Kings fans of course will be quick to point this out and on constant occasion).

Now, Malone will get a second chance, as he succeeds Brian Shaw, a once-heralded assistant whose initial head coaching job in Denver was an amazing thud. The Nuggets failed to make the playoffs in any of his two years at the helm, let alone have a winning record. And furthermore, the Nuggets were filled with internal turmoil, ranging from style of play to his inability to motivate his young players. Injuries certainly didn’t help his tenure, but this is the NBA, and this was a Nuggets team that won 57 games and earned a No. 3 seed in the West prior to his arrival. It’s not like he was leading the Philadelphia 76ers here where the cupboard was bare and there were zero expectations.

Malone definitely will be a breath of fresh air for an organization that has been a bit rudderless the past couple of years after the departure of Karl (who was let go) and Masai Ujiri, who is now the current General Manager of the Toronto Raptors (and doing wonders there). However, despite his strong work ethic, and ability to work with “volatile” personalities, he will have his work cut out for him in Denver. It is obvious that the Josh Kroenke and the Nuggets ownership group expect the Nuggets to be immediate contenders (at least for a playoff spot), or else they wouldn’t have parted ways with Shaw so quickly. Lucky for Nuggets fans, Malone has been on this boat before, and under much murkier and unpredictable management circumstances as well (I mean, who thought Malone would be fired after the start he had? Yes, they faded a bit when Boogie went down, but every Kings fan and media member has constantly said the timing of the move was ill-advised and ended up costing the Kings any chance of competitiveness). It probably goes without saying that Malone learned from his time in Sacramento, and will have the right plan going forward, especially when it comes to working with an overbearing and lofty-thinking management (not as bad as Vivek and Co., but Korenke isn’t Philly or Minnesota management here either).

Malone has said pretty much all the right things. He promises up-tempo basketball, which is not a surprise since the Nuggets circumstances (high elevation) and history (Westhead, Karl, etc.) has always favored that kind of play. However, he also plans to incorporate stronger defense in that mold of play, something that has not been seen quite often with the Run and Gun Nuggets teams (they always were offensively-focused squads). Furthermore, there also seems to be a plan in place for more structure and discipline, especially in-season, something that fell apart toward the end of Shaw’s tenure (the no shoot-around due to let guys party thing didn’t seem to go well, especially with players like Ty Lawson having DUI issues during the season). If any new coach won their introductory press conference and off-season, one would have to think the trophy would go to Malone.

But Malone also won his press conference in Sacramento, and though he showed signs of breakthrough, he still overall had a losing record in his short tenure there (he went 39-67 as head coach of the Kings). What will Malone need to do to truly be successful in Denver? What needs to fall in place?

Let’s take a look at a few things to pay attention as the Nuggets enter training camp and build up to the start of the 2015-2016 campaign.

Making Danilo Gallinari a Crucial Part of the Offense Again

Zach Lowe wrote a pretty good piece examining the importance of Danilo to the Nuggets’ chances this year and I couldn’t agree more. For someone that was in the Denver area during their solid 2012-2013 campaign, it was obvious that the Nuggets’ chances were sunk when Danilo tore his ACL and was lost for the playoffs and the 2013-2014 season. Gallinari was averaging 17.9 ppg, 1.16 PPP and a true shooting percentage of 56.1 percent on an increased usage rate of 21.3 percent (up .6 percent from the previous year). After being more hesitant the previous year from beyond the arc, the Italian sensation embraced the 3-pointer more (41.6 percent attempt rate, up from 39.3 percent in 2011-2012) and it payed off. He produced a 16.7 PER and accumulated 7.2 win shares, a career high at that point. After an up and down career in New York (who drafted him), it was nice to see Gallinari shining and being a crucial cog in the Nuggets’ offense and Karl’s system.

But, Gallo got hurt, the Nuggets got bounced in the first round, Karl was showed the door, Shaw came in…and you know the rest. When Gallinari did return, all was pretty much lost, as the Nuggets were a non-factor in the playoff race seemingly from January-on. But, as pointed out in Lowe’s piece, Gallo was one of the Nuggets best players after the All-Star break, as he averaged 18.6 ppg and 4.8 rpg on 31.2 mpg in 24 contests down the stretch. He also seemed to show signs of his old shooting prowess from 2012-2013, as he shot 40.3 percent beyond the arc on 31 more 3-pt attempts from the first half in the 24-game span, and averaged 1.19 PPP (a .16 point improvement from the first half). There were not a lot of bright spots for the Nuggets in the second-half with the firing of Shaw, the troubles of Lawson, and the mixed feelings for Kenneth Faried, whose legacy changes all the time it seems in Denver (more on this later). But Gallo’s return to form was a glimmer of hope for a fanbase that has been used to disappointment, especially as of late.

The big question now though is if the 24-game sample of Gallo will translate over a full year. Is he really back to that 2012-2013 form or better? Or was that post-All Star break performance a flash in the pan? One sign that he might be closer to the former was his recent performance this September in international play. Gallo was a force for an Italian squad that finished 6th in the recent Eurobasket, as he led the team in scoring with 17.9 ppg and also showed a boost in some other categories as he averaged 6.9 rpg and 2.8 apg during the 8-game span. Additionally, he also shot 56 percent from the field, including 40 percent from 3, thus demonstrating Gallo’s hot touch from the end of the year has carried over to FIBA play. Of course, FIBA numbers should always taken with a grain of salt, especially considering this was solely against European competition (i.e. no USA). But, if Gallo can be the lead dog on a team with NBA players such as Marco Belinelli, Andrea Bargnani and Gigi Datome, it makes you think he could also serve such a role on a Nuggets team that is going to be much younger than in years past.

Will Malone lean on Gallinari early, especially as youngsters such as rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and second-year center Jusuf Nurkic continue to grow into their games? It’ll be interesting to see, that’s for sure. Malone at the core is a defensive guy, and Gallinari has never proven to be better than an average defender (and that is saying it kindly). And Gallinari struggles with the more physical parts of the game, and though he showed more physicality in the Eurobasket than usual, he will struggle against bigger power forwards if Malone should go small and put him at the four. Gallinari has never had a rebounding percentage in the double digits, and even for a small-ball four that is not a promising sign, especially considering playing Gallinari at the four means benching Faried or Nurkic, who are solid rebounding bigs.

How Malone will utilize Gallo will be a strong indicator to the Nuggets’ success. Will Malone make him a focal point of the offense? Can he help him improve his defense? Can he motivate him to show that 24-game self over the full course of the season? If Malone can do that, the Nuggets could be getting better quicker than expected.

Reaching Kenneth Faried

The Nuggets need a focused and committed Faried in 2015-2106

Faried has been a hot and cold player for the Nuggets. He went under-drafted in the 2011 draft, going 22nd and being thought as a “good small-college player who would be exposed by bigger posts” in the NBA. Faried though has proven the critics wrong somewhat, as he has averaged nearly a double-double over his career so far (12.2 ppg and 8.7 rpg over  281 games). That is not bad for a guy many thought would be out of the league in a few years (as is typical for late-round picks).

But, while his hustle and fan-favorite style (gotta love the “Manimal” nickname) has boded well in his favor, his albatross contract and prickly personality has made him a pariah of sorts in the Nuggets locker room. This interesting quote below came out about Faried in this ESPN piece by Kevin Arnovitz last November:

“[Faried] is a helluva player and plays hard, but he isn’t well liked [in the organization],” a league source said. “That gets glossed over. He says crazy s—. He thinks he’s the guy, and other guys take exception to his contract.”

Not exactly glowing praise for a guy thought to be a key piece for the Nuggets going forward.

But, Malone has been in this boat before. Cousins was widely known as a volatile sort that many felt would be un-coachable when he came into the league, and early on in his career, he proved them right. He struggled to get along with Paul Westphal. (But then again, who doesn’t? Has any player of his ever come out and said “God, I loved playing for Paul Westphal! He was the best!” Phoenix, Seattle and Pepperdine players…you can email me anytime). He struggled with Kenny Natt and Keith Smart. For a while, it looked like Cousins was destined to being a great player on a bad team who just couldn’t get out of his own way, in the Rasheed Wallace or Zach Randolph mold (both whom I love by the way).

And then Malone came in. Malone got him to give more commitment to defense. He helped channel Cousins emotions a bit better. And let’s face it. Who knows if Boogie becomes a third-team All-NBA player and an All-Star if not for Malone’s tutelage. Time and time again when asked, Boogie always has good things to say about Malone, something not a lot of past or even present Kings coaches can boast.

The Faried situation is not easy, especially on a roster filled with young players and under-whelming veterans like JJ Hickson and Randy Foye. Faried will be relied upon for leadership in some way, and it makes you wonder when you see articles like the one from Arnovitz if Faried is up for the challenged considering his ego issues. However, this is not new turf for Malone, and it is a safe bet that Malone is banking on mending Faried’s image similar to how he mended Cousins’ in Sacramento for the benefit of Faried as well as the team in general. This team is not deep talent-wise and they need a focused Faried if they want an outside chance at a playoff berth.

Focus on youth, especially Mudiay and Nurkic

Lawson is now a Rocket, which means that the Nuggets’ future at the point is rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, whom the Nuggets got at No.7 in this recent draft. Considering that Mudiay was considered a No. 1 pick a year ago before he went back on his commitment to SMU and played in China instead, I think the Nuggets got a steal. Mudiay, a big point guard at 6-feet 5-inches, has all the intangibles that made Elfrid Payton such a hot commodity in the draft years ago, but has a bit more offensive upside than Payton. He average 18 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.9 apg in 12 games with the Guangdong Tigers last year, and he also showed some flashes of brilliance in Summer League as well. Also, in his prospect profile, Aran Smith of NBADraft.net said this about Mudiay:

“An elite level PG with the dynamic talent to be in the category of PGs such as Derrick Rose, John Wall and Damian Lillard. He has a terrific feel for the game, and will just need to learn to become more composed with his decision making and shot selection.”

You can see now why the last DUI was the final straw for Lawson in Denver. If Mudiay can develop as scouts project, they could have a franchise-cornerstone at point guard for years to come. It’ll be interesting to see if Malone will give the keys to the offense right away though, or if he will have incumbent backup Jameer Nelson take over the starting role to allow Mudiay to get more comfortable and keep too much pressure off of his young guard right away. That being said, Mudiay is the future, and Malone has leaned on his young guys before (he was liberal at times with giving Ray McCallum minutes at point in Sacramento), so it won’t be surprising if Mudiay becomes “the man” at point sooner rather than later in Denver.

Mudiay isn’t the only young budding star that Malone needs to pay attention to though. The “Bosnian Beast” Nurkic was a key reason the Nuggets decided to part ways with Timofey Mozgov, who ended up having a bit of a coming out party against the Warriors in the Finals. Nurkic gained mainstream popularity for his physical play and his fearlessness, as he seemed willing to stand up to any and everybody, including the volatile and intimidating Cousins. However, though Nurkic had a strong stretch December-February (hence, the Nuggets finding Mozgov expendable), he struggled through injuries, as he only played 26 games in the last 3 months and saw his minutes decline from 24.5 mpg in February to 17.2 mpg in March and 16.8 mpg in April. The decline in minutes also resulted in a decline in efficiency, as his offensive PPP went from 1.04 in February to 0.87 and 0.90 in March and April, respectively.

Whether the decline the past couple of months was due to injury or fatigue or the league scouting him better, Malone and the Nuggets will need some kind of progression from Nurkic in year 2. On the positive side, he is hell of a rebounder, as he led the team in rebounding rate at 18.7, which was 1.4 percent better than Faried, who is widely known for his rebounding (sometimes selfishly so…it has been said he goes after rebounds to pad his stats at times, especially on defense). Also, Nurkic was one of the Nuggets’ most effective defensive players last year, as he was second in defensive win shares at 1.8 and led the team in defensive box plus-minus by a considerable amount (his 3.1 was 2.2 better than the second-leading regular, Faried). At the very least, the “Bosnian Bear” will have a future as an animal on the glass and defensive end.

The main question concerning Nurkic will be how his offensive game progresses, and a lot of that will ride on Malone. Nurkic only posted a 14.8 PER and 48.3 true shooting percentage, both lackluster numbers for a post player (as evidenced by his negative-.02 offensive win shares). One area that needs considerable improvement or change his 3-10 feet game (i.e. the floater/short mid-range). Nurkic took 40.2 percent of his total shots from that range, and he only converted 31.2 percent of those shots. For a big guy that is six-feet, 11-inches and 280 pounds, he should be getting to the rack more, as he converted 58.2 percent of shots 0-3 feet (i.e. dunks/layups), but only got that shot 48 percent of the time. Maybe in time, Nurkic’s short range game will get better. But for now, the Nuggets and Malone need to make a concerned effort to get him touches in areas where he can finish at a high rate. If that happens, Nurkic will start to be known around the league for being one of the better big men in the game and not just one of the better trash talkers (though I’m not complaining about the latter).

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