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Paul Klee: NBA playoffs or not for Nuggets, firing Michael Malone would be risky

By: Paul Klee
April 3, 2018 Updated: April 4, 2018 at 7:48 am
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Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, left, is fouled by Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 3, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER — The irony in all of this is how the Nuggets are suddenly winning. They’re winning the same way George Karl was winning, by running teams out of the gym on 'O' and saying a sweet little prayer on 'D.'

Funny how that works. Since big-money forward Paul Millsap returned from injury and to the starting lineup a month ago, the high-flying, highly frustrating Nuggets own the best offensive rating in the NBA. Seriously, I looked it up. The Internet doesn’t lie, right?

So if the Nuggets miss the playoffs and you want to fire Michael Malone, that’s cool. But do you really want to go down that road without a map again, breaking up a winning program to throw an unknown against the wall and see if it sticks? I don't. The post-Karl Nuggets weren't fun at all. They were a mess.

“Somebody texted me, ‘You guys must be under a lot of pressure,’” Malone said before the Nuggets beat the Pacers 107-104 at Pepsi Center on Tuesday to keep their playoff hopes alive. “For me, not really.”

I don’t think Malone’s job is in danger after this season. I don’t think it should be, either. I put great value in the relationship he’s built with rising star Jamal Murray, who told me he wants to play for Malone for his entire career. (That’s probably an exaggeration, but the point is taken.) Murray has grown as close to Malone as fellow Kentucky product DeMarcus Cousins did in Sacramento, and that’s not for nothing. Then there’s the relationship Malone has nurtured with center Nikola Jokic, the centerpiece of a would-be revival, who hosted Malone on a trip to Serbia.

Those two guys are 21 and 23 years old, respectively, and coming to a payday pretty soon. Ticking off the cornerstones feels like a risky move, don't you think?

Anyway, the hope is that the Nuggets continue to hang on, continue to beat quality teams, and ultimately reach the postseason. It’s possible. They have four games left and must win all four to sleep well at night. Go 3-1 — with two wins vs. the Timberwolves — and that should do the trick, too.

"I told our team before the game we're in a great spot because we control our own destiny," Malone said after their third straight win.

The Nuggets host the Timberwolves on Thursday. It's the biggest game for the Nuggets since they moved on from Karl after the 2012-13 season.

"We've gotta win," Murray said.

While I wish Malone wouldn’t leave the arena with two timeouts in his coat pocket, the head coach isn't in the top five of what has the Nuggets on the playoff bubble yet again. In his time here they’ve improved from 33 wins to 40 wins to 43 wins (with four games left). More important, the three players they're building this thing around — Murray, Jokic and Gary Harris — have each gotten better, season to season, by leaps and bounds. Not one of them — all of them. 

Playoffs or not, what’s around Malone must improve. He needs more help on the bench. Just as the Nuggets had constructed a video-game offense last season, they let assistant coach and offensive coordinator Chris Finch walk to the Pelicans. Can’t let that happen. And Jokic, for all his brilliance on offense, must kick his dramatic tendencies. He doesn’t get the calls a star player of his caliber usually gets in the NBA. The refs don’t hate him, but it sure looks like they hate his theatrics. He’s still only 23 and will grow out of it. And the front office needs a defined hierarchy. It’s too smart of a group to make the kind of mistakes they made on draft night 2017. A building-wide ban of wheeling and dealing within the division would help as well. Handing Jusuf Nurkic to the Blazers and Donovan Mitchell to the Jazz very well could keep the Nuggets out of the postseason in consecutive years. 

But none of those are reasons to blow the whole thing up again, and that’s what a coaching change would do. If the Nuggets had stayed remotely healthy — Harris missed Tuesday's game with a bum knee and is out for 2-3 more games, Malone said — Malone’s job status never would have filled my inbox as a topic of conversation.

The projected starting lineup of Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap and Jokic has only 22 games together. I would like to see that quintet earn a two-week run in the playoffs, but if that doesn’t happen, I would like to see what it can do with a healthy season from Millsap.

"You finally see Paul and Nikola playing at an elite level," Malone said of the recent run.

You can bet Nuggets ownership doesn't want to make another coaching change.

“I’m not here to win awards,” team president Josh Kroenke said when he fired Karl, the NBA coach of the year at the time. “I’m here to win banners.”

The Nuggets haven’t made the playoffs since. The only banner that’s gone up is Fat Lever’s No. 12. Yes, it looks glorious, hanging up there alongside the U.S. and Canadian flags, but I doubt that’s what Kroenke had in mind.

The Nuggets can make this easier on everybody by sweeping the next four games and slipping through the backdoor into the playoffs. Then this silly, shortsighted conversation goes away, at least until next season. Missing the postseason would be a huge bummer and a failure. But throwing away a winning program for an unknown isn't the smart answer. Then or now.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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