It was only a fortnight ago that Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone told reporters after a big win over San Antonio that Nikola Jokic “should be in the MVP conversation. He is one of the best all-around players in the game — not young players, not big guys, not small guys; he is one of the best players in the NBA right now, and he’s proving it against the best teams and the best players every single night.”
Two weeks later, with a playoff spot on the line and his team trailing the lottery-bound Dallas Mavericks in what’s essentially a must-win game, Malone benched Jokic for the entire fourth quarter.
“Coach’s decision,” Malone told the media after a 118-107 loss that dropped his team into ninth place.
Malone never specifically called Jokic out during a five-minute postgame interview, but the Nuggets coach repeatedly questioned his team’s effort, specifically with respect to defending the 3-point line, where the Mavs made 15 of their 27 attempts — the biggest factor in a brutal loss for a playoff hopeful.
Malone made 3-point defense a point of emphasis both before the game and at halftime. With 3:41 left in the third quarter, Mavericks big man Nerlens Noel screened Nuggets guard Gary Harris. As Dallas rookie Dennis Smith Jr. came around the pick to drain a pull-up jumper, Jokic never budged. Malone immediately called a timeout and sent Mason Plumlee to the scorer’s table to sub for Jokic.
Jokic never returned. Neither did starting point guard Jamal Murray.
Smith’s 3-pointer completed a 17-3 run for the Mavericks midway through the third quarter that transformed a four-point deficit into a double-digit lead. As Denver trimmed the Dallas lead to five midway through the fourth, Malone stuck with reserves Trey Lyles and Malik Beasley instead.
“I think overall our effort was lacking, overall this was a bad game for us,” added Malone, “but there were certain individuals who I thought had good games. I think Trey Lyles had a good game. He was aggressive. He attacked. I thought Malik Beasley had a good game. He was aggressive. He defended.”
The loss briefly bumped the Nuggets out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference, before a Los Angeles Clippers loss to the New Orleans Pelicans moved them right back into the final playoff seed.
The Nuggets are even with the Clippers in the loss column and one game up on the 10th-place Utah Jazz. With 4.5 games separating eight teams in the crowded West playoff picture, no team can afford a loss to one of the league’s bottom feeders. That’s especially true for Denver, which hosts the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night and still has a seven-game road trip left on its schedule.
So, it has to be a concern for the Nuggets that their franchise player and coach didn’t see eye to eye on effort in a playoff race. The defense has been a concern for Denver all year and long before that, even predating Jokic’s emergence as a rookie sensation in 2015. The Serbian big man is no great defender, but his vast offensive skillset makes the Nuggets significantly better with him on the floor.
The push and pull of this player-coach relationship is nothing new. Malone went into much greater detail with ESPN’s Zach Lowe when he benched Jokic for a lack of defensive effort this past November:
“When s*** doesn’t go your way, sometimes you become a baby,” Malone told Jokic, via Lowe. “You take bad fouls. You take bad shots. Your body language does this and that. You think it’s just about you. But what do you think Jamal [Murray] is looking at? What do you think Gary Harris is looking at? All eyes are on you. If you do that stuff, it filters down. At the end of the day, Nikola knows I love him.”
Lowe’s piece laid out the problem with putting such a heavy burden on a 23-year-old Jokic’s shoulders, with relying on a cast of good-but-not-great players around him, and with incorporating a 33-year-old Paul Millsap into that mix. A wrist injury delayed that process by three months, and in the four games since MIllsap returned, Jokic’s offense has fallen from sensational to mere mortal levels.
The Nuggets can afford to live with Jokic’s porous defense so long as he keeps the offense operating at an elite level, but on nights like Wednesday when he scored just four points on nine shots, Malone is faced with a decision — ride with the franchise cornerstone or patch together a defense on the fly.
We know the choice Malone made against the Mavs, and it didn’t produce the results he intended. At least for now. Problem is, the Nuggets coach is running out of time to fix issues that have plagued them for years now, and missing the playoff by a single game for a second straight season won’t help.
Malone gave up hope on a player who might’ve made a difference in favor of sending a message in a game they desperately needed, and that brings us to another crossroads: Is Jokic the future superstar many imagine him to be? And is Malone the man to get him there? Teams generally come down on the side of a still-developing star, so Malone may have put more on the line than a playoff spot when he decided to bench Jokic. Malone sent his message. The question now is whether Jokic answers the call.
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