Nuggets coach Michael Malone was convinced his team was going to send its first-round playoff series back to Denver.
A week after his team was eliminated 4-1 by the Warriors, Malone was bullish on his team’s competitive edge and still stewing on how a few adjustments might’ve prolonged the series.
“I really felt we were going to come home for a Game 6 here,” he said Wednesday at the start of his postseason news conference.
The seventh-year coach addressed player development, Nikola Jokic’s potentially imminent MVP award as well as roster decisions. The tenor, though, coming off a 48-win season and the Nuggets’ fourth consecutive trip to the postseason, was one of hunger.
“This might be the biggest offseason, at least for me, in my perspective, since I’ve been here,” Malone said. “… We have a window, and I think windows are only open so long. We have a 27-year-old phenom, who will hopefully soon be named a back-to-back MVP. We have to capitalize while we have a player, a special player in Nikola, and do everything we can as an organization — and I know we will — to put the best players around him.”
While the focus will, understandably, begin with the dual returns of Jamal Murray (ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (back surgery), Malone set a championship tone. The Nuggets can’t assume that those players’ returns will immediately elevate the roster into title contention. What the Nuggets need to hit on, and they can do so with the No. 21 overall draft pick and marginal free-agent acquisitions, are the fringe players surrounding Jokic. A backup center, for example, would help spell their franchise cornerstone, and a wing defender might help limit his vulnerability on defense.
As prolific as Murray and Porter should make Denver’s already potent offense, neither will offer the defensive resistance to elevate the No. 15 defense in the league from this past season. Both will be somewhat limited, however, after missing all or the vast majority of this past season.
“You can’t bleed at the rim the way we bled at the rim this year,” Malone said, citing his team’s league-worst protection inside.
Yes, Malone was referring to his team’s interior toughness, but he was also referring to limiting the driving lanes that were exposed against the Warriors. The Nuggets need to improve their on-ball defense, which will in turn limit Jokic’s exposure near the hoop.
Some improvement will need to come internally, as rookie Bones Hyland gets stronger, and some will need to be addressed via free agency. Veteran guard Austin Rivers can test the market, but he earned positive reviews from both Malone and Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth on Wednesday.
Some of the onus for Denver to make its title leap lies with Jokic himself. On the court, he’s incomparable. After becoming the first player in NBA history to record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a season, Malone joked he might as well ratchet those benchmarks even higher next season. Statistically, it’s difficult to imagine him contributing more than he already has.
Jokic’s goal, as it has been since he assumed the mantle as the face of the franchise several seasons ago, has been to hold his teammates to a championship standard. It’s one thing to do it himself by going hard in practice, lifting after games and competing every night. It’s another to get his teammates on the same track.
“If he was willing to be more vocal, in good times and more importantly in bad times, it would be a profound impact,” Malone said.
Malone served as an assistant coach in Cleveland and saw firsthand as LeBron James came into his own as a leader. He’s now blessed with another franchise-caliber talent, whose predisposition isn’t to raise his voice and get on his teammates. For the Nuggets to ascend, he’ll need to.
“I think he can be a great leader,” said Malone, who noted Jokic has already made huge strides in that department.
But for the Nuggets to reach their goal, and become a championship contender, they’re going to need to improve on the margins. They’ll need to get stouter defensively, make shrewd signings as the luxury tax looms and hope for the health that’s eluded them the past two seasons.
“We have to get better,” Malone said.