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Malone's task: Make this building buzz again. —Courtesy of Shutterstock

The Nuggets’ New Coach Faces A Steep Climb

It's doubtful that even Mike Malone knows how his roster will look this fall. 

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First, the good news: Mike Malone, the newly hired coach of the Denver Nuggets, was voted the top assistant in the league by NBA general managers in 2012 after he helped instill a defensive mentality into a moribund Golden State Warriors franchise. The Warriors’ commitment to D complimented their already prolific offense, and this year the team’s balance and execution produced an NBA title.

Now, the bad news: Just about everything else.

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Maybe “bad” is too harsh, but “uninspiring” definitely fits. That’s because the Nuggets’ search for a head coach to replace Brian Shaw didn’t include anything resembling an A-list candidate. It didn’t include Alvin Gentry, the architect of Golden State’s championship offense, who took the top job in New Orleans. It didn’t include ex-Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, widely considered the best defensive mind in the game, who looks like he’d rather sit out a year. (Ditto Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks.) And it surely didn’t include any high-profile college coaches such as Fred Hoiberg, who replaced Thibodeau, or Billy Donovan, who replaced Brooks.

The Nuggets’ search apparently included last year’s interim coach, Melvin Hunt, and Mike D’Antoni, whose stock has blipped upward a bit because the Warriors and Spurs, last year’s champ, both deploy refined versions of D’Antoni’s high-octane, “seven seconds or less” offenses.

Nuggets’ president, Josh Kroenke, and GM Tim Connelly settled on Malone, who was fired by Sacramento in December after going 39–67 in just over one season. Given the Kings’ standing as one of the perennially mismanaged and sad-sack franchises in all of professional sports, we should cut Malone’s subpar record a certain amount of slack.

In announcing the Malone hire, Connelly called him one of the best basketball minds he’s been around. High praise indeed—until you consider that Connelly, 38, has only worked for a New Orleans franchise whose futility ran Chris Paul out of town and a Washington Wizards outfit that spent most of its time during Connelly’s scouting tenure trying unsuccessfully to rise above its laughingstock status.

To be fair, Kroenke and Connelly have made some solid moves. On draft night last year, they traded for promising big man Jusuf Nurkic and guard Gary Harris, who still has a ton of potential. And they also got two first-round draft picks from Cleveland for C Timofey Mozgov, who became expendable after Nurkic blossomed.

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But so much remains to be done. The draft is coming up next week, and the Nuggets have the seventh pick in it, along with several extremely tradeable veterans. (One comically ironic rumor has the Nuggets shipping Ty Lawson to the Kings, where he’d be reunited with fellow Denver refugee George Karl.) Given the team’s spotty draft history, its recent residence in the NBA purgatory of mediocrity, and its new coach, the time has never been more ripe for a top-to-bottom makeover.

The problem is, by moving from Karl to the old-school Shaw to Malone—who spent part of his introductory press conference deflecting concerns that his preferred style is too slow for the evolving up-tempo NBA game—the Nuggets appear to be heading in the opposite direction of the league’s prevailing, and winning, trends. Maybe these guys have a plan that will eventually turn the team around and give Nuggets’ fans their long-awaited championship celebration. At this point, we’d settle for being relevant again.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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