DENVER — The bond between a coach and his point guard is among the most valuable relationships in sports. The point guard is often responsible for relaying plays from the sideline to his teammates on offense and dictating the pace at which his team plays.
That’s why a coach and his lead ball handler have to be in lockstep with one another at all times. On the surface, building that synergy between a 20-year-old second-year point guard and a coach in Michael Malone, who’s also considered young by NBA standards, seems like a tall task. Just 47 games into Murray’s first full year playing point guard at an NBA level and Malone’s fifth season at the helm of a franchise, the two have a rare chemistry and cohesion that sometimes takes years to build.
“I think the fact that Jamal and I have a very close relationship where we can talk, we can joke around, but when it’s time to get serious and it’s time for me to get on him and rip him, I can do that and he’s never going to take it personally,” Malone said.
“I was a point guard many years ago, and I was a coach’s son, and you always want to have that relationship because he is an extension of me. You want your point guard to be a guy that kind of knows what you’re thinking, what he wants from you and you can talk with him during the game, before the game, after the game, whenever it may be.”
Following practices and shootarounds, Malone is always in Murray’s ear. As teammates perform intricate and choreographed pregame handshake routines up and down the bench, Malone always delivers a simple message to his point guard before tip-off.
“I give him a hug and say ‘Listen, it starts with you. You’re the guy that initiates our pace, makes, misses, turnovers, put pressure on the defense. If nothing is there early, then get us into our offense,” Malone said.
Increasing the pace is the focus of Denver’s practices this week as the team tries to rediscover its offensive prowess from last season. That responsibility falls largely on Murray’s shoulders as the point guard. The Nuggets posted the NBA’s best offense over the second-half of last season behind Nikola Jokic while also playing at the league’s sixth-fastest pace—100.64 possessions per 48 minutes.
This season, the Nuggets’ pace has slipped to the league’s 14th-slowest at just 98.65 possessions per 48 minutes. Denver is still trotting out the 10th-best offense in the league this season, but over its last 15 games, the Nuggets are scoring just 104.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s good for the ninth-worst mark in the league over that span.
Earlier this week Malone was adamant that he’d start calling fewer plays and play at a faster pace going forward. The Nuggets played faster against the Trail Blazers on Monday, but still, Denver let Portland control the pace for most of the game.
“I think it’s the best decision coach has made with our offense through the season,” Murray said regarding Malone’s ploy to try and return Denver’s offense to last year’s form. “…We know each other so well. When we run so many plays, we get caught just running the play and forgetting the read but when we’re just playing off each other we make reads and communicate throughout the game, through each other. That also helps our chemistry and the way we play. I think it was a great change.”
Malone wouldn’t hand Murray the keys to Denver’s offense if he didn’t think he could handle the responsibilities that come with it. Denver’s coach is also harder on Murray than he is on his other players. He only uses that approach because Murray takes the constructive criticism in stride.
It’s also how Murray prefers to be coached.
“I like when I’m being pushed. I like when he demands stuff from me,” Murray said after Monday’s win where he scored a career-high 38 points. “It only makes me get better and play better. I don’t shy away from that.”
Murray and Malone are tied at the hip. The point guard gave the strongest endorsement yet of his coach on Monday when he said he hopes Malone is his coach for his entire career. After Wednesday’s practice Malone fired compliments back at his point guard in regards to the confidence he plays with at such a young age, the strong self-belief Murray carries himself with and how his parents deserve credit for raising their son the way they did.
Part of the recipe to build Denver’s offense back to the level it was at last season is to reestablish Jokic in the paint and play through their big man more. But Malone sees Murray’s role as the Nuggets’ offensive captain as instrumental to Denver’s rebirth as well.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a 20-year-old who’s in just his second professional season. But Murray wouldn’t have that weight placed on his shoulders if Malone didn’t sense that he could handle the task and criticism that comes with it.
“He’s mature in that way. I think some other guys would take it, ‘Coach is attacking me,’ I’m not attacking you. I’m holding you accountable because you need to be held accountable right now,” Malone said. “Jamal was a high recruit going to Kentucky. He was a high draft pick, but he’s got no ego. That’s what I love about him. He’s a worker. He’s a great kid, wants to get better and I think he has a chance to be a special player.”