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"I don't want trust to be a hollow word": Why Michael Malone plans to expand his rotation

Christian Clark Avatar
January 2, 2018

Michael Malone knew his players were gassed Saturday night. He could see it when Will Barton sat down on the Pepsi Center hardwood during breaks in action, and he could tell whenever he watched Gary Harris launch jumpers.

“Gary Harris — he had a look on his face that looked so fatigued and tired,” Malone said. “Every time he shot the ball, I didn’t think it had any chance to go in. He was that fatigued down the stretch.”

The effects of a shortened rotation finally seemed to catch up with the Nuggets in their 107-102 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Three days after watching his team shoot 26.2 percent in the second half of a disappointing home loss, Malone told his team in a “State of the Union” address that he plans to scrap the “seven and a half man” rotation he’d been riding and lean on his bench more beginning Wednesday against the Phoenix Suns.

In Denver’s final six games of 2017, Malone relied heavily on seven players: Jamal Murray, Harris, Wilson Chandler, Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee in the starting lineup, and Barton, Trey Lyles and Torrey Craig off the bench. Kenneth Faried, Juancho Hernangomez and Emmanuel Mudiay were cut out of the rotation entirely. Malik Beasley’s minutes were slashed.

That approach paid off in wins over the Portland, Golden State and Utah. But it cost Denver in a winnable game against a Philadelphia team playing without Joel Embiid.

“My messages to the team was, ‘Listen, I think we’re missing shots because we’re tired, and I think we’re tired because I’m not trusting our bench at all,’ Malone said. “I’m playing our starting five. I’m playing Will Barton. I’m playing Trey Lyles. And I’m playing half of Torrey Craig. So I have to find ways to find our bench and play more guys, so I don’t run our players into the ground. It’s a long year. There’s a lot of basketball left.”

In Denver’s last five games, Harris is averaging 38.2 minutes. Harris shot 2-6 in the second half against Philadelphia. Afterward, he admitted fatigue was a factor.

“I think we all felt it last night,” Harris told BSN Denver. “It was just one of those games. You could tell from some of the guys. I’ve never seen Will that tired during a game. Trey was tired. Mason was tired. Everybody was just tired. We came out. We fought. That fourth quarter and end of the third, it’s just tough.”

Malone said he’d like to get Harris’ minutes down to about 34 per game, while adding that he’d like to keep Jokic in the 30-32 minutes per game range.

It’s unclear who Malone will call upon against the Suns. Craig, who logged six minutes against the 76ers, could be in line more minutes. Beasley carved out a spot in the rotation at the beginning of December but by the end of the month saw his role diminish. He’s another candidate for an increased role. Malone also has Faried, Mudiay, Hernangomez, Richard Jefferson and Darrell Arthur to plug in if he chooses.

Whoever Malone goes with, he hopes that his team can continue to defend at a high level. The Nuggets are allowing 102.8 points per 100 possessions in their last six games — the sixth-best mark in basketball during that stretch.

“Whoever we put in the game, I want them to understand first and foremost that defense is a priority,” Malone said.

In the end, Malone said, it comes down to trusting his reserves.

“I don’t want trust to be a hollow word. Yes, guys have to prove that they have earned that trust. But I have to trust in our players and our bench more. And when I do that, I think it’s going to help our bench and our players more.”


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