Is this Michael Malone’s chance for Coach of the Year?

As the Denver Nuggets sit with a 9-9 record before tonight’s matchup with the defending champ Milwaukee Bucks, the challenge Coach Michael Malone faces is obvious.

His team will have to overcome supreme adversity, a heap of injuries that include its highest paid players, to come near expectations the Nuggets warranted going into the season.

Any hope to reach the game’s highest pinnacle–the NBA title–seems a longshot at best. Too bad, since less than two weeks ago, the Nuggets were riding a 5-game win streak. Their run included the win without Nikola Jokic due to suspension.

Then Zeke Nnaji didn’t play the next game. Then Bones Hyland and Jokic got hurt. Then, the news broke about the potential severity of Michael Porter Jr.’s back problem. Five straight losses. That’s quite a bit to digest in a two-week span.

As the cliche goes, with adversity comes opportunity. If you look at it one way, Coach Malone could be in the best position in years to become a candidate for Coach of the Year. To even make the playoffs seems like it could require his best work yet.

Coaches who win the Red Auerbach trophy usually have a compelling angle to go along with a very solid record. Quite often it’s a dramatic jump in victories or it’s their first year with a team.  For Malone it would be leading the team to a successful season in spite of the major injuries to Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

Having a big star on your team can work against a coach. For instance, Phil Jackson only won the award once in 1996 while coaching Michael Jordan. He never won it during his Shaq and Kobe era with the L.A. Lakers.

Yet it’s possible, as Mike Budenholzer won the coaching honor for the Milwaukee Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2018.

The improvement of Malone’s coaching record does correlate with the ascent of Jokic. Yet one must credit Malone for helping Big Honey’s gradual growth into an MVP.

Even with Jokic playing MVP caliber ball again this season, it will take a major coaching achievement to lead this team to where Nuggets fans would like to go in the 2021-2022 campaign.

In the Nuggets’ Tuesday night 119-100 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, Malone quickly pinpointed a major problem in the post-game presser, Mike Singer reported in the Denver Post.

“I thought the key to this game was the last three minutes or so of that second quarter,” Malone said. “They close on an 18-3 run. The most disappointing thing about that run by Portland was that everything that was working for us to that point – the ball movement, making the extra pass, executing – went out the window, and all the sudden we became a selfish basketball team.”

After Malone’s diagnosis, the question becomes how quickly he can help the Nuggets solve on-court problems like over-dribbling and turnovers. He’ll likely have to call more set plays, especially when Jokic isn’t on the court.

As for the big picture, Malone will need to stay positive in spite of the hardships. Tonight against the Bucks, we’ll see whether the Nuggets can start a turnaround as quickly as fans hope.