On one of the final days of 2008, I talked with a discouraged and confused observer of the Broncos.
He couldn’t understand the collapse of his favorite team, which had lost three straight and tossed away a sure ride to the playoffs. They were a mystery to him.
I was talking to Mike Shanahan, coach of the Broncos. He would be fired two days after our conversation.
Mike Malone, coach of the Nuggets, is offering a superb imitation of the final days of Shanahan. The Nuggets languish in peril of missing the playoffs after losing four of six. The Nuggets must mount a courageous rally for their first ride to the playoffs since 2013.
I’m not optimistic. Neither, it appears, is Malone.
“Every damn play matters and right now we’re not playing like every play matters,” Malone moaned after a Tuesday loss at Toronto. “We’re playing like we have 30 games to go in the season, and I can’t explain that.”
A possible explanation for what you find inexplicable, Mike:
It’s your coaching.
It’s your job to bring urgency to the Nuggets. It’s your job to ensure the Nuggets understand “every damn play matters.” It’s your job to deliver this flawed but talented team to the playoffs.
Over the next seven games, Malone is coaching for his job, or at least he should be coaching for his job. When it comes to the Kroenkes, who run the Nuggets (as in running the franchise into the ground), never expect a rational response to reality.
Malone, for sure, has wrestled with serious challenges. Paul Millsap, the $30 million man, came home to Denver to elevate the Nuggets with his wisdom, stern defense and toughness. A wrist injury robbed Millsap of 44 games before he returned to the lineup Feb. 27. Center Nikola Jokic is supremely talented, but remains an immature 23-year-old still searching for greatness. At times, he seems more interested in emoting to refs than seizing rebounds. Gary Harris has missed the past six games with a knee injury.
But Jazz coach Quin Snyder faced even more daunting challenges. The Jazz lost Gordon Hayward, their centerpiece, and looked destined for a losing record. The Jazz, led by Nuggets castoff Donovan Mitchell, are currently in a playoff spot in the West. The Jazz overachieved.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets underachieved, especially when it mattered most. In a March 2 loss that could evict Malone from the Front Range, the Nuggets found a way to lose to Grizzlies, who had lost 19 straight games. The Nuggets blew a 19-point third-quarter lead against the Clippers. The unfocused Nuggets are wandering as the season rushes toward its conclusion.
The Nuggets won 40 games last season, and it was obvious to anyone paying attention this season was playoff or bust.
“You want that,” forward Wilson Chandler told me in September. “You want that drive to be a playoff team. You want that determination that anything else is failure.”
Well, everyone except Malone.
“I’m not going to say it’s a playoff or bust team,” Malone said that same September day.
I am going to say it’s a playoff or bust team, coach.
Rally your team - and, remember, it is your team – or you’ll deserve the same fate as Shanahan, the artist formerly known as The Mastermind.