Lowe: The Nuggets have one big star … and a million questions

The last straw for Mike Malone, fiery head coach of a rising League Pass darling searching for the effortless offense that made fans swoon, came when Nikola Jokic lollygagged getting back on defense during practice last week.

“I jumped him,” Malone says. “I jumped him very vocally.” Jokic protested that perhaps Malone should yell at the person who turned the ball over.

“I don’t give a s— about the turnover,” Malone shot back. “Get your ass back on defense.” Jokic protested again — “I say what I think, like always,” he said with a chuckle — and Malone yanked him with one last zinger: “If you don’t want to play, get out.”

It was a small window into a franchise facing pressure again — pressure on Jokic to serve as centerpiece before he turns 23, and on a team that ranked an embarrassing 29th in points allowed per possession last season to get enough stops for its first playoff berth since 2013.

Last spring, Malone warned Jokic of the coming burden. He needed to get in better shape, and stay even-keeled. “When s— doesn’t go your way, sometimes you become a baby,” Malone told him. “You take bad fouls. You take bad shots. Your body language does this and that. You think it’s just about you. But what do you think Jamal [Murray] is looking at? What do you think Gary Harris is looking at? All eyes are on you. If you do that stuff, it filters down. At the end of the day, Nikola knows I love him.”

The team knows that is a lot to ask of a 22-year-old second-round pick who barely registered as a prospect until his late teens — a hangdog, deadpan comic and self-described ex-“fat point guard” the Nuggets didn’t even speak to before picking him 41st in 2014. This is a man who had to kick a Coca-Cola addiction measured in liters per day, who still wrestles his gigantic older brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja, in the home they share. (“I made Nemanja tap yesterday,” he says, refusing to show video proof.)

“It’s almost irresponsible of us to think he can carry the weight of our organization already,” says Tim Connelly, Denver’s president of basketball operations.

That’s one reason they signed Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million megadeal with a team option in Year 3 — that and Millsap’s ability to cinch up the defense. When the team gathered in a private room at the Boulder Cork for dinner the night before its first practice, Malone delivered his keynote message: “Our offense was great,” he told them. “Our defense was s—.” He launched a PowerPoint presentation filled with charts and graphs showing the varying ways in which the Nuggets’ defense failed — before anyone had even been served alcohol.

Things are a little better. The Nuggets rank 18th in points allowed per possession after scrapping their old defense for an aggressive scheme in which they swarm ball-handlers near the 3-point arc — a style Millsap played in Atlanta:

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