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The Denver Nuggets could be on the verge of completing a lazy science experiment.
We tried theory A. It failed. Therefore theory A will fail forever.
That seems to be the thinking behind the Nuggets’ reluctance to fully embrace Melvin Hunt as new head coach of the Denver Nuggets: Because Brian Shaw was a first-time head coach and failed, Hunt will also fail because he too comes from the same of vein of uncertainty having never been a head coach in the NBA.
Sure, Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly has attached courteous adjectives like “great,” “outstanding” and “fantastic” to the job Hunt did as interim head coach for the last five weeks of the season. But in the NBA, just as in life, money talks. If the Nuggets truly think Hunt is outstanding (as they say they do), if they’re truly interested in getting back to fastbreak-style basketball (as they say they are) and if they’re truly committed to winning (as they say virtually every time they make a major franchise decision), then it’s time they put their money where their mouth is.
To be fair, the Nuggets are taking the correct stance in being patient with their head coaching search. (Patience was a calling card for former Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri and things worked out pretty well for him.) With half the teams in the NBA still playing organized basketball it’s far too early to scour the league for a possible head coach. If, for example, Tom Thibodeau was relieved of his coaching duties the Nuggets should do nothing short of stalk him until he agrees to make 1,000 Chopper Circle his new home.
But the Nuggets don’t really seem to be interested in defense. With names like Mike D’Antoni, Scott Brooks and Alvin Gentry floating around as candidates the Nuggets appear most attracted to, it’s clear Tim Connelly and the Kroenke family wish to return to a fastbreak identity (wasn’t that exactly what they were trying to escape by firing George Karl?) that’s been a hallmark of Nuggets basketball for generations. Again, it seems erroneous to assume that because Shaw failed at properly implementing a halfcourt offense that all coaches with such inclinations will fail as well, but hey, fast-paced basketball is fun and I guess after the misery that was Shaw’s tenure and his whack rhymes, fun is once again en vogue at the Can.
If the Nuggets truly want to move in the opposite direction from Shaw, if their goal is to find a coach who has a need for speed, a knack for charisma and a penchant for putting smiles on his players’ faces, they need look no further than the man right beneath their noses: Melvin Hunt.
Hunt is without question a George Karl protege. Throughout the month of March he led the Nuggets to an increase of 10 more points per game than the team scored in the previous month under Shaw. In April he increased that margin by an additional five points per game so that in the final two weeks of the season the Nuggets were scoring more points on a nightly basis than any team averaged in the NBA throughout the year. As a result Hunt compiled 10 wins in 23 games during this stretch (in comparison, Shaw compiled 20 wins in nearly 60 games the entire season) all while being forced to rest his three best players every few games and playing one of the NBA’s toughest schedules, seeing teams like the Spurs (twice), Rockets (twice), Clippers (twice), Warriors (twice), Hawks, Grizzlies, Blazers and Mavericks on a nightly basis.
With Hunt’s arrival as leader of the clubhouse also came an increase in accuracy. Under Shaw the Nuggets were shooting 40 percent from the field and 28 percent from the 3-point arc in the month of February. During the last two weeks of the season the Nuggets shot 44 percent from the field and 33 percent from 3-point territory all while making seven more 2-point baskets per game. In other words, the Nuggets were running, penetrating and as a result creating more open shots for teammates along the perimeter, a style of offense that would surely make George Karl blush robin’s-egg blue and golden yellow.
But of all the stats, trends and kind words that shed light on the type of coach and person Melvin Hunt is, none are more telling than those of his players. Danilo Gallinari, perhaps the player who benefited most from Hunt’s coaching presence, went from averaging 13 points per game in February to averaging 18 points per game in March, as well as 22 points, six rebounds and three assists per game in April. He also set a career high in scoring on two separate occasions, including a 47-point outburst against the Mavericks on April 10, and scored 20 points or more on seven different occasions. Under Shaw he scored 20 or more points only four times the entire season. Kenneth Faried, meanwhile, recently stated how Hunt “helped bring my smile back” after he went from averaging nine points per game in February to 19 points and 11 boards per game in April. He also nabbed 12 double-doubles in 21 games for Hunt as opposed to 13 all season for Shaw.
Where Hunt shines most is with his personality. He’s the most upbeat, forthcoming, selfless head coaching candidate the Nuggets have probably had in the Pepsi Center for years, maybe even decades. Players love him, fans love him, other coaches love him, and it’s easy to see why. The guy gushes with enthusiasm and personality. He loves being around people. And more than that, he loves teaching. In his own words Hunt is a “leader of men.” If there’s one unwavering characteristic a head coach must have, one undeniably valued trait you must possess to be successful in the NBA, it is to be a mentor, a general, a friend and a strategist all in one. Melvin Hunt is just that.
Unfortunately, Hunt is not the sexy pick. He’s the person you marry, not the person you wine-and-dine if it was your last night on earth. This is of course exactly the type of person the Nuggets need — the bride or groom — to bring stability and success to their franchise moving forward, however they seem (dismayingly) intrigued by the popular girl, the prom queen, Ms. America.
Let’s hope this is not the case.
Hunt is the type of person you grow old with. He’s been around basketball his whole life, in the NBA as a coach, scout and video coordinator for over 15 years. He’s traveled around the world and coached in the NBA Finals. He’s tutored all-time greats like LeBron James and perpetual head cases like J.R. Smith. He also has a Bachelor’s degree in business and a Master’s in education. So while the Nuggets may view his inexperience as a hindrance or possibly even a red flag, in reality there’s really nobody more qualified to coach this team than Melvin Hunt. He’s the perfect candidate for this young, inexperienced, semi-rebuilding squad. Sign him to a two-year deal and if for some reason he turns out to be fool’s gold, you lose nothing. It’s a low investment with a possible high return, a perfect situation, an ideal match.
So no matter how you view the Nuggets’ current head coaching situation, no matter what angle you take, whether you listen to what the Nuggets have been saying or whether you’ve been judging Hunt strictly on your own first-person account while watching games and interviews, I see no way he’s anything but the No. 1 option for the Nuggets moving forward. As I’ve alluded to above, it’s wise the Nuggets be patient with their search. They should take their time. They should wait for at least the playoffs to conclude in case a premier, defensive-minded head coach like Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel or Dave Joerger is unsuspectingly let go. The Nuggets should also do their due diligence in scavenging the collegiate ranks. Award-winning coaches like Tony Bennett, Sean Miller, Shaka Smart and Fred Hoiberg (whom the Nuggets are rumored to be interested in) are certainly all worthy of consideration. But as of now, and throughout this entire process, Melvin Hunt deserves to be No. 1 on the Nuggets’ list. If someone upends him in the interview process and blows the Nuggets away, so be it. But in the meantime, this should be Hunt’s job to lose.