How the Nuggets Ended Up on the Brink of Missing the Playoffs … and What’s Next
It wasn’t really one thing. It never is, of course. It’s always some combination of factors, some series of ways that fate intercedes and creates the outcome it does.
What happened to the Denver Nuggets? Well, it’s complicated.
The Nuggets currently sit two games out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race. In a normal situation, that’s nothing. The Nuggets are right there. However:
- The Clippers, who are in 10th and are tied in the loss column, have the tiebreaker over Denver. So even if a team slipped, Denver would have to outpace at least one team and the Clippers.
- They don’t own tiebreaker heads-up over Utah or San Antonio, and trail the Wolves 0-2 in that department, with Jimmy Butler likely to return from injury for the two remaining regular-season matchups.
- They kicked off a seven-game road trip by losing to the trying-as-hard-to-tank-as-a-team-can-without-making-it-fineably-obvious Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday. On this trip, four of their five remaining opponents are playoff teams. Did I mention they are 11-23 this season on the road?
The Nuggets’ margin for error to make the playoffs is effectively zero, and this is a team that has danced with error all season. But that only tells a part of the story of why the Nuggets are unlikely to make the playoffs.
I. The Win-Loss Profile: They don’t take care of business
Making the playoffs isn’t about talent or culture; those are hallmarks of title contenders. If you just want to handle an NBA regular season and make the postseason, you need to do two things: 1) win at home, and 2) beat the teams you should. This is how the Spurs, despite missing their franchise player the entire season, are still within range of home-court advantage in the first round. It’s how the Blazers are currently the 3-seed. They beat teams they should have, which is part of the reason why they recently rattled off a 13-game winning streak. That’s all it takes.
Denver’s 27-10 at home. On the surface, that’s taking care of business. But that’s not appreciably better than the other West playoff teams. Three of those losses were to Atlanta, Phoenix and the Joel Embiid-less Sixers, who had been 1-10 without Embiid coming into the game.
On the road, it’s even worse. The Nuggets are 7-8 away from home vs. teams under .500. Simply halving those losses puts Denver in fifth and competing for home-court in the first round.
This has been an ongoing issue for years in Denver, which is the weird part. Even when the Nuggets won 57 games in 2013, George Karl fumed about how his team wouldn’t show up some nights vs. bad teams. Brian Shaw’s teams were an overall disaster, but also habitually lost to subpar squads. And Michael Malone, who is known as a motivator, has been driven to the point of madness by his team’s unpredictable penchant for not being there mentally.
Either way, if you boiled it down to just “the games they failed to win,” it’s the ones vs. teams they absolutely should have beaten that killed them. In that regard, the Nuggets have no one to blame but themselves.
Sorting out that blame is where things get tough.
II. The Coaching Elephant in The Room: Malone’s complicated resume
Let me give you a 10,000-foot look at the situation involving Malone, and we’re going to do this in bullet form.
- Malone is a good coach. You can define this by process: He develops players, is obsessed with winning and demands accountability while holding himself to the same standard. You can define it by results: The Nuggets have gone from a team that was truly one of the biggest train wrecks in the NBA to a team that narrowly missed the playoffs last year, is now five games over .500 and just last week fell out of the eighth spot. They have improved every year under Malone. If you look at it from a player-development, cultural-shift or a wins-and-losses standpoint, Malone has made the Nuggets better. You can argue effectively whether he should remain coach of the team beyond this season (which we’ll get to), but it starts here: Malone has been a good coach and holds a tremendous amount of respect around the league.
- Malone messes up a lot of the details. His frustration and emotional volatility result in his being hamstrung when it comes to vital end-of-game timeouts after he blows through two in a quarter when the opponent gets a run-out basket after a turnover for the millionth time. His end of game side-out-of-bounds play sets are never going to win the love and affection of the Brad-Stevens-For-Almighty-Deity crowd. The deeper the team is, the more he struggles to balance rotations. He stubbornly sticks with his principles, the ideas that his father — a lifer coach — taught him, another lifer coach. He’ll ride lineups into the dirt, messing up rest patterns. He loves two-big lineups. A lot of the things he passionately believes in seem archaic.
- Yet Malone’s not at all archaic in his approach. He’s one of the most analytic-friendly coaches I’ve covered. When small-ball was the only way for Denver to win games the past two seasons, he embraced it. He’s obsessed with defense, but you cannot crush him for that and then say he can’t coach offense when Denver has been one of the better offensive units in the league the past two seasons.
- At the same time, he’s billed as a defensive coach, and the defense has been bad every year he’s been there. He’s not regarded as an offensive genius, but the Nuggets have slayed on that end, as said above. Yet, the team really took off offensively in February when Malone stopped calling so many plays and embraced more of a read-and-react approach with Nikola Jokic as its focal point.
- There is a legitimate argument to be made that he fundamentally misunderstands how to coach Jokic. This is a tough one, because Jokic literally became a star under Malone, so you can’t say he’s prevented the Serbian standout from becoming great. But as we’ll get into later, there’s a real argument that Malone continues to fail to understand the importance of running the entire offense through Jokic and can’t give up the control of the offense.
- Most coaches take losses hard. Not all, that’s a myth. There have been coaches who were just happy to be in their situation. (It’s often former players who hold that attitude for whatever reason.) Malone, however, takes defeats as hard as any coach I’ve ever seen, and he’s lost a lot during Denver’s rebuild with a bunch of 20-year-olds. It’s why the Nuggets’ constant effort issues push him so far. They drive him to places like “finishing games with bench units that are on their last legs and eventually give up the lead” and “benching Jokic in a must-win game vs. Dallas,” as he did two weeks ago. Malone’s struggle to handle his emotional investment in-game is always a razor-thin wire he’s walking.
If the Nuggets miss the playoffs, Malone will face a lot of local pressure calling for his firing. Those random nights where the game goes haywire and his decisions contribute to a loss make for an angry fan base. If Jokic has a night where he disappears, Malone gets tagged for not getting through to him. On nights where the entire team doesn’t bring effort vs. bad teams, Malone gets tagged for not drawing that effort.
Nuggets officials remain quiet on what missing the playoffs would mean, not wanting to distract from the team’s mission to reach the postseason this year. But Malone said recently that the expectation wasn’t playoffs-or-bust going into the season … and his Media Day comments back that up. He and President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly both said this season was more about improvement rather than expecting playoffs considering how tough the West is. There’s an internal expectation that the front office will have Malone’s back if the Nuggets come up short after Paul Millsap missed 44 games.
However, ownership is a different matter. Team President Josh Kroenke tends to be more progressive, and as a result, more balanced than his father, but make no mistake, Stan Kroenke’s shadow still looms heavily over the franchise, and ultimately, if the elder Kroenke decides this season was a disappointment, things could change in a hurry.
One more note on the idea of firing Malone after year-over-year improvement three seasons in a row. Many compare it to where Golden State was in 2014, having made the playoffs two years in a row, but needing a new coach to get over the hump. Malone even coached under Mark Jackson for one of those Golden State teams. However, if the Nuggets are going to make that move, they have to find someone who will actually make the team better. Not just Jokic. Not just the effort. They need someone who can continue to empower Gary Harris, get the most of Jokic while continuing to expand his game, keep Millsap healthy and engaged, develop Jamal Murray and balance the rest of the roster.
III. The Superstar Odd Couple: Jokic and Millsap haven’t meshed well enough (and Millsap was hurt for 44 games)
Jokic is expected to be the Nuggets’ star player. Being a star player in the NBA is about consistency. Have a bad game? Carry your team down the stretch. Someone vital for you is out of the lineup? Adjust. Them’s the breaks. You can drop Damian Lillard in Dallas, New York, Golden State, Miami, or Sacramento and guess what? He’s still Dame.
You drop Jokic into a two-big lineup that runs isolation sets with poor spacing, and the Hulk goes back to Bruce Banner.
Not helping matters? Millsap. The return of Millsap to the lineup has presented the same challenges the Nuggets faced to start the season, when Jokic would defer to Millsap and drift to the corner. They just don’t understand how to work together. And this is where the real quandary comes in.
The Nuggets are going to play with Jokic and Millsap together. That is not changing anytime soon. The Nuggets can play well with Jokic and Millsap together. We’ll get to those numbers soon. But for this to work, two things have to happen:
- The Nuggets, specifically Malone, have to stop worrying about getting his All-Star free agent touches
- Jokic has to stop deferring to the four-time All-Star
Millsap is the one guy who gets it. He’s done this. He was part of one of the most fluid and efficient offenses of the decade in 2014-15 with Atlanta. That team’s central quirk was that it didn’t run plays. It just made reads, and played together. Millsap said when he was coming back, his role in the Nuggets offense was to adjust and not mess with what was working.
He did mess with what was working, but Millsap is the one guy who’s not at fault. Malone took his hands off the offensive reins in late January with Millsap out and the Nuggets in a spiral, calling fewer plays. The result? Denver had the No. 2 offense in the league at 116.8 points per 100 possessions. It worked. “JokicBall,” they called it. Jokic put in a flawless month.
However, Millsap returned, and the offense fell apart. It’s recovered some in time, which is something Malone said would happen. Effectively, it takes a lot of time for Jokic to figure out how to operate comfortably next to a big such as Millsap. To his credit, Millsap has tried to get out of the way. But it’s a work in progress. Since Millsap’s return, the Nuggets have had a great offensive rating with him on the floor (111.9 points per 100 possessions) but a better one with him off the floor (113.6).
In order for the Nuggets to make the playoffs, they need to hit their ceiling. That means they need to be an average defensive team anchored by Millsap — who has been slow with his rotations and unable to challenge the way he did before his wrist injury — and a fluid, explosive offense.
Malone’s remedy for this seems to be to get Jokic touches in the post, to advocate for him to take a select number of shots. He mentioned after the loss to the Mavericks that he needed to get Jokic up to 18-22 shots per game. He later said it wasn’t just about scoring, that it’s about rebounds and assists:
“(I told him) ‘If we call a post-up play for you, I don’t want you thinking pass-first; I want you thinking score — attack. Now, when they double or bring the defense in, make the right play. Nikola doesn’t need to score 30 points a night for us right now, but he has to be more aggressive.”
Here’s what Millsap said about the way Jokic needs to be aggressive:
Here is what “Jokic playing more aggressive” means to Paul Millsap: pic.twitter.com/u21tfpZHxG
— T.J. McBride (@TJMcBrideNBA) March 9, 2018
It’s not about the number of shots. It’s about the way he’s involved and engaged. Some of that, flat out, has to be about Jokic calling his number. Against Cleveland on a back-to-back, Jokic started out slowly. During strong-side interactions with Millsap, Jokic would fade to the corner.
In the third quarter, that changed. He poured in 17 points along with 3 assists and the Nuggets got right back into the game. That they lost to LeBron James while he did LeBron James things was disappointing for their playoff positioning, but the way they lost wasn’t. Still, the issue was that Jokic was scoring in that game, as he finished with 36 points, but the offense still wasn’t really running the way that had made the Nuggets so explosive in February.
Millsap is a four-time All-Star, but not because of his production. It’s because — outside of Anthony Davis — he consistently has been the most versatile power forward in the league over the past five seasons. He’s a top-flight defender. He’s a brilliant passer. He sets great screens. He can score on put-backs, short shots, mid-range and has a little bit of a 3-pointer as well. He’s a beast who doesn’t need post-up touches. Millsap affects the game whether he “eats” or not.
He doesn’t need a requisite amount of touches. If Denver’s offense is at its best, it will find Millsap, who will make the right play, pass or score. We began to see that in the past few games, in which Denver hung with the Cavaliers, and beat the Lakers and Kings.
Jokic, on the other hand, needs to be used in a certain way. Maybe this takes away from his star power. Maybe this makes him a “system guy.” Maybe this casts real doubt on whether he can be the best player on a title-contending team, given that you’re just not always going to get to play the way you prefer with the types of players you prefer in the type of style you prefer. That’s just not how it goes, especially in the playoffs.
However, a balance has to be struck between what the Nuggets have to do long-term — and what they have to do to win right now — to survive the West’s brutal gauntlet, which is what makes them their best, and that’s JokicBall.
Malone has been a little all over the place when it comes to this issue. This is what he said about the need for him to start calling more plays with Millsap back:
“I think there will be times where — whether it is Nikola or Paul — that we have to call plays. It is great having the equal opportunity offense and everyone sharing in it — and our guys have done a really good job of that this whole season — but there are also times when you have to take the play calls back to the bench and make sure we are getting our best players the ball where they are most effective. That is sometimes hard to do when everything is on the fly.”
Now, here’s what he said before the Nuggets’ 125-116 win over the Lakers:
“When Paul and I talked prior to that Clipper game, he told me ‘Don’t worry about me, don’t worry about calling my number, we’re playing well, let’s just play.’ I think it really helps when you have a guy who is willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. We’re not saying ‘We’ve got to get Paul more touches.’ Paul’s going to get his touches, in the flow of the game, on offensive rebounds, early transition post-ups, and Nikola continues to be our central figure, and most of our offense runs through him.”
These quotes seem to contradict each another, but there’s a narrative strand through this that looks different under the hood than it does on the surface. A few points to explain:
- When the Nuggets are running without play calls, they resemble Millsap’s 2014-2015 Hawks, one of the best offenses we’ve seen in the past decade. Jokic is obviously most comfortable there. However, that offense struggled and ultimately got bludgeoned to death in the playoffs, where defenses always make adjustments. Malone clearly wants to avoid his concerns about that.
Additionally, Malone’s right about how Jokic can vanish from the offense, especially with Millsap back on the floor. In the first quarter against the Cavaliers, Jokic had four touches. The guards were freelancing and it meant that neither Millsap nor Jokic got the ball.
However, it’s the way that the calls need to go that seems to be an issue. When Jokic did get the ball in the post, he turned it over three times. Force-feeding the ball to Jokic in the post may not be the best way to make use of Denver’s slew of offensive weapons. Getting him the ball on the move, in-pick and-roll situations, results in stuff like this:
Jokic is still brilliant as a post-up weapon, but he’s turning the ball over on 13.4 percent of post-ups, which is the 15th-most among all players with at least 100 post-ups this season. As efficient as he is, Jokic clearly should operate there, but some of that is letting him dictate the terms as a read rather than as a play call. The Lakers — for some weird reason — just switched constantly in the first half on Denver, and Jokic made the read to go into the post.
Attacking mismatches will take Denver far, and that’s part of what Malone identified with Millsap. But they’re clearly trying to find a balance between the dominant force that Malone imagines his superstar to be and the right-brained Jokic, who thrives on creativity, energy and flow. Critics want Malone to capitulate, to give in to the offensive flow, let go of the reins and let the horses run wild. Malone wants to be sure his team can win tough games, exploit matchups and be physical.
In short, Malone’s approach will help the Nuggets succeed in the playoffs in a way the free-flow will not, as the Karl years showed. But you have to actually make the playoffs first, and read-and-react is the best way to get there. That’s what makes this so tricky and more complicated than most understand.
IV. The Roster Issues: Trying to find good enough
In short, the Nuggets’ bench has been a disaster. It’s been better since trading Emmanuel Mudiay to the Knicks, but not good enough to escape runs at the end of the third quarter that have doomed them several times.
Their second unit has struggled on both ends. It lacks the starters’ explosiveness, ranking 15th in offensive rating, and is 29th among all bench units in defensive rating. Mason Plumlee, who signed a three-year, $41 million extension with the Nuggets in the preseason, has shown he’s unable to anchor a defensive unit. That issue is exacerbated by the complete inability of any of Denver’s guards outside of Garry Harris to contain the ball. Whether it’s Murray, Will Barton or Devin Harris, teams are running layup lines, which forces over-corrections, which results in open 3-pointers.
The Nuggets’ starting unit of Murray-Harris-Wilson Chandler-Millsap-Jokic has a net rating of +10.1. That group beats the pants off teams. All the reserves have to do is play to a stalemate, but they can’t manage it, and that’s a big roster issue down the road for a team likely to be cap-strapped.
V. The West Has Just Gone Insane: No one loses
After all this, Denver is five games over .500. The Nuggets need to go just 4-7 the rest of the way to clear their preseason win total over/under, and just 3-8 the rest of the way to improve on last season’s record. They were in the top eight of the conference essentially all season up until 10 days ago.
Here’s a stat that sums up their situation:
In the past 15 games, eight Western Conference teams have a win percentage of .600 or better. All eight of those are teams in the Western Conference playoff race. The Nuggets were in seventh, two games back of the fourth spot when that stretch started. They went 9-6.
They fell out of the playoffs and are two games behind eighth-place Utah.
No one lost. No one dropped those random games against bad teams, except Denver. The Warriors suffered injuries, opening the door for teams such as Portland and Utah to beat them. The only teams that dropped were Minnesota and San Antonio, which not only had built the early season equity to survive that fall, but are two of the teams Denver can’t win tiebreakers over.
It’s been a perfect storm. Denver has done its part, including the losses to bad teams, particularly the crushing loss to the Clippers. You go back all the way to the start of the season, and if the Nuggets had held onto a double-digit lead on the road vs. Utah in the season opener, they’d be within a game of the Jazz and hold the tiebreaker over Quin Snyder’s club. They missed opportunities. But for a team whose starting guards are both under 23, the Nuggets have won more games and gotten themselves above .500.
It’s not enough in the West this year, because of how insanely good every team has been.
Maybe that means Denver should get a pass. Maybe that’s just what it takes, and with the expectations for this team, you have to judge the Nuggets the same. Maybe it was the Millsap injury. Maybe it was all the other small injuries along the way (although almost every team except Portland has had those).
Denver has just a 12% chance of making the playoffs per 538, and 15.2% via Basketball Reference. Those figures can swing wildly with a three-game winning streak or a small losing streak by any of the current Western Conference playoff teams, but the situation remains bleak.
For all the words written here, it’s hard to determine how much of the Nuggets’ predicament was their own fault, and how much was simply a confluence of factors. The Nuggets can still make the playoffs, but it will require so many things they have struggled with all season suddenly coming together.
It took a perfect storm to put the Nuggets in this spot. It’s going to take an equally perfect burst of sunshine to get them out of it.
Top photo: Mason Plumlee (24) and center Nikola Jokic (15); credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports