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Michael Malone pulls no punches when assessing Nuggets' "slow, stagnant, predictable basketball"

Harrison Wind Avatar
November 15, 2018

Monte Morris was hopeful following the Nuggets’ 109-99 loss to the Rockets that a rare opportunity to practice amid a stretch in the schedule where Denver is playing 14 games in 27 days would be a good opportunity to get everyone back on the same page.

“It’s all about taking constructive criticism,” Morris said late Tuesday night. “We all make mistakes. How are we gonna bounce back from adversity is the big thing. If somebody gets on you, you’ve just got to man up, take it because that’s just going to make us all better. Going forward, I feel like that’s going to be the approach for us. Just people calling people out. If anything goes bad, you’ve got to take the criticism and move forward and win basketball games.”

That didn’t happen Wednesday, according to Michael Malone as Denver began to prepare for Thursday’s matchup against the Atlanta Hawks.

“We just don’t have that type of a team to be very honest with you, unfortunately,” Malone said when asked if players had challenged each other as Morris eluded to following the Nuggets’ fourth-straight loss. “I think that’s where you miss a healthy Isaiah (Thomas) and a healthy Will Barton because those guys definitely have that component to their personality. But the other guys, for as much as you want it and you hope that they do it, obviously it’s just not in their nature. They’re not very comfortable doing that. That’s why I’m a head coach. I’ve got to be that guy. We’ll continue to teach, hold guys accountable and try to get out of this bad stretch that we’re in.”

“A lot of people don’t like confrontation. Then you have people like myself who don’t mind it at all,” Malone added. “So it’s a part of it. And hopefully, some of our younger guys can get there because we need them to. Bottom line is when you have a very young team, you need some of our younger guys to develop off the court like they’ve developed on the court. We’ve seen tremendous growth on the court as individual players but off the court, how can we become better leaders? How can we become better teammates? And that’s going to be a big progression for us at some point hopefully.”

After jumping out to a 9-1 start and garnering national attention thanks in part to their third-ranked defense through 10 games, the Nuggets haven’t looked like the same team since. Dating back to Nov. 7 when Denver fell 89-87 to Memphis, the Nuggets are the second-worst defense in the league and are surrendering on average 114.6 points per 100 possessions, nearly 13 points per 100 possessions more than they gave up over their first 10 games.

There’s not one specific area on defense where the Nuggets are experiencing the most slippage. Denver is getting hit from all angles. Malone touched on the inability to guard 1-on-1, the blow-bys Denver is giving up, which he said are “at epic levels right now,” little pick-and-roll awareness and a lack of multiple efforts when mentioning specific areas where the Nuggets are getting hurt defensively.

“There was a great example last night. (James) Ennis drives the ball, Nikola (Jokic) traps, Paul (Millsap) sinks to a body, the kick to Chris Paul in the corner who hits a three, and Jamal (Murray) is the next guy, and he never moves,” Malone described. “Earlier in the year, we were getting that last close out, that last effort. We have to find a way to get back to that.”

“We’ve just got to get back to the basics,” said Morris. “Do the rotations, get back to the basic drills that got us going.”

Offensively, the Nuggets are scoring at the eighth-most efficient rate this season and are just one point per 100 possessions off their pace from last season, but are hardly in sync. Since his 48-point outburst last week against the Celtics, Murray is shooting under 40 percent from the field and just 2-14 from three. Gary Harris, who’s typically the model of consistency for the Nuggets, is shooting 18-54 (33.3 percent) from the field over his last four outings and is converting on less than 30 percent of his threes this season.

While Murray and Harris have struggled to find a steady rhythm, Morris has arguably been Denver’s most consistent backcourt player as of late. The Iowa State product is averaging 11.8 points on 52.6 percent shooting from the field and 38.5 percent from three, to go with 5.3 assists to just 0.5 turnovers per game over Denver’s current four-game skid as his minutes have continued to climb. Morris logged a season-high 31 minutes against Houston and was on the court in crunch time alongside both Murray and Harris, a lineup the Nuggets will likely continue to give heavy minutes to in an attempt to jumpstart its starting backcourt’s production.

More troubling than Murray and Harris’ offensive woes, however, is the slow pace which Denver is currently operating at. The Nuggets are playing at the fourth-slowest pace in the league this season and have slipped to the third-slowest over the four-game losing streak.

Fatigue could be playing a factor in Denver’s inability to push the tempo.

“We are playing very slow, stagnant, predictable basketball, and it doesn’t help when you’re taking the ball out of the net every time. So now you’re playing against a set defense, that’s definitely part of it,” said Malone. “But we have some guys that look like they are exhausted two minutes into a game. Two minutes. We have guys on their shorts. Dead tired. And that’s a little bit of a concern right there.

“But whether it’s the pace up and down, but also the pace at which we play half-court offense, we’re not running, we’re not cutting, we’re not getting the easy baskets. It feels like we’re working so hard for everything right now, and again a lot of that’s a product of our defense. When we got stops earlier we were getting out we were running we were scoring a lot easier baskets so they’re definitely connected. But I don’t like the pace we’re playing at. And I don’t like the fact that we’re walking the ball up the floor and were not generating those easy baskets we were so accustomed to getting in the past, and we have to find a way to get back to that because quite frankly that’s when we are at our best.”

Pace can be impacted by your matchup. Three of the Nuggets’ last four opponents — the Grizzlies, Nets and Rockets — play at the 22nd-, 29th and 30th-slowest pace in the league respectively. The Bucks, who beat Denver 121-1104 on Sunday, play at the league’s fifth-fastest pace.

The Nuggets’ next opponent, the Hawks, who come to Pepsi Center Thursday with a 3-11 record and losers of five in a row and in the middle of a tough west coast road trip, are playing at the second-fastest pace in the league this year. Atlanta is averaging 104.13 possessions per game, per NBA.com, nearly 10 more per game than Denver.

It’s a chance for the Nuggets to get back in the win column, something that’s desperately needed for a group whose spirits are down, are playing without two of its locker room leaders in Barton and Thomas and seem to be walking on eggshells around one another during their four-game slide.

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