Whether one approves or disapproves of the Denver Nuggets decision to make Michael Malone the 23rd (depending on how you count) head coach in the franchise's nearly 50-year history, we as fans must collectively agree to root for Coach Malone.
When Malone's name surfaced a few weeks ago as a head coaching candidate for Denver and soon thereafter Nuggets president / owner Josh Kroenke lured former Nuggets assistant general manager-turned-Sacramento Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro back to the organization in a senior executive role, the writing was on the wall for Malone to get the job over interim head coach Melvin Hunt and Mike D'Antoni, the presumed second and third choices during the Nuggets' seemingly endless coaching search and interview process. Malone was hired in 2013 by Kings owner Vivek Randive - the same summer that the Nuggets hired Brian Shaw to replace the legendary George Karl (the Nuggets' second-winningest coach in franchise history). And despite reports that Malone and D'Alessandro didn't see eye to eye on Malone's coaching style in Sacramento, I never bought into that narrative. Knowing nothing of D'Alessandro and Malone's relationship, it's hard to imagine two young, bright, New York-born basketball minds who are relatively the same age not getting along. Even D'Alessandro himself acknowledged to the Denver Post's Chris Dempsey that "... perception is not always reality ..." in regards to his and Malone's divorce in Sacramento (read: my former owner is crazy and made me do it).
Throw in Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly's previous relationship with Malone when Connelly assistant GM'd while Malone assistant coached in New Orleans - plus Connelly's own Eastern Seaboard sensibilities when it comes to basketball and life in general - and the Nuggets organization's reasoning behind the Malone hire, in hindsight, starts to make sense.
If there was any head-scratching over the Malone hire - and believe me, there has been ample - it's that given that the Nuggets went with the lesser experienced / younger (and, yes, cheaper) head coaching option, why not give Hunt the chance? While Hunt doesn't have Malone's 106 games of head coaching experience, his assistant coaching experience is on par and then some (Hunt and Malone were actually assistants together for Mike Brown's Cleveland Cavaliers for five seasons in the latter half of the 2000s, including the Cavaliers' 2007 NBA Finals run) and it's hard to argue with the job Hunt did for the Nuggets remaining 23 games in the wake of the Shaw fiasco and subsequent firing. Almost overnight Hunt resurrected the energy of the team, brought fun and fast basketball back onto the Pepsi Center floor and won nearly half of the games he coached despite having multiple key players rest at the insistence of upper management. If the Nuggets were going to sit out on hiring a heavyweight (read: really expensive) coaching personality a la D'Antoni, Alvin Gentry, Tom Thibodeau or Jeff Van Gundy, why not give Hunt the opportunity? But obviously that ship has long since sailed.
On a side note, Hunt is rumored to be joining Gentry's staff in New Orleans with the Pelicans. So it will be interesting to see who Malone keeps among the Nuggets current assistant coaching staff and who he brings on board to sit alongside him.
As far as Malone himself goes, his head coaching record to date is one of incompleteness. After over a decade serving as an assistant coach in New York, Cleveland, New Orleans and Golden State, Malone was hired to coach the Kings in 2013 soon after overseeing the upstart, 47-win Golden State Warriors' defense from the assistant coaching chair. But Malone - the son of 27 year NBA assistant coaching veteran Brendan Malone - had a rocky 2013-14 campaign in Sacramento. Not necessarily surprising given that that team had not made the playoffs for seven consecutive years before Malone arrived. But a season later, Malone gave the Kings new life as he guided them to an impressive 9-6 record through 15 games before Kings' star DeMarcus Cousins succumbed to viral meningitis that cost him multiple games. Malone's Kings finished 2-5 in games coached without Cousins before the Kings abruptly fired Malone after just 24 games and a respectable 11-13 record.
Why exactly Malone was fired so soon into a season that he had gotten off to a solid start still perplexes many, and I'm dying to know what the true story behind it all is. But regardless of the specific reason(s), gone was Malone, in (temporarily) was Tyrone Corbin and out went the Kings' 2014-15 season. And yet being so desperate to remain relevant in the NBA's brutal Western Conference in advance of a shiny new downtown Sacramento arena opening in 2017, the Kings hired none other than George Karl in March to salvage the Kings' remaining 30 games. Riddled with injuries, Karl's Kings won just 11 of their final 30 games and lost just enough games to land a slightly higher lottery pick than Denver got. Way to go, George!
So in a twist of irony, I suppose, in Denver Malone is basically replacing the guy who replaced Karl who in Sacramento just replaced the guy who replaced Malone. Got that?
Which brings me to why we must support Malone out of the gate. All that has happened in the past is just that: the past. Mike Malone has done nothing, thus far, to warrant us rooting against him. As I've written many times here and elsewhere at Denver Stiffs, in the NBA your success or failure as a team is ultimately predicated on the talent of one's players more than on the talents of one's coach. Because while both rookie head coaches Steve Kerr and David Blatt did a great job in guiding their teams to the NBA Finals this June, it's not an accident that they happened to possess the most talented rosters within their respective conferences. A great coach might be worth 7-10 more wins than a crappy coach (a crappy coach can cost a team 7-10 more losses), but even Kerr and Blatt would have difficulty getting the Nuggets roster as currently constructed anywhere near the Western Conference playoffs in 2016. The Nuggets do, after all, reside in a conference that includes the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers and the aforementioned Warriors. Make that world champion Warriors. Lest we forget that the Minnesota Timberwolves just got the first overall pick in next week's NBA Draft, the hated Los Angeles Lakers got the second overall pick (and will be getting Julius Randle and Kobe Bryant back from injuries) and the Nuggets of 2014-15 were already worse record-wise than both the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz. So with or without Malone, the Nuggets have an upward climb back into the playoffs that is much steeper than most fans and members of the organization probably want to admit.
Given all that, I'll repeat here what I've been saying lately on the radio: Malone and the Nuggets should play for 2017 and beyond and stop worrying about 2016. Trade their talented-yet-maddeningly inconsistent point guard Ty Lawson to Karl's Kings for the sixth overall pick and start the rebuilding process with back-to-back lottery picks and other young players who actually want to be in Denver under Malone's stewardship. In his interviews with the Denver media thus far this week, Malone has pledged to play fast - something Nuggets fans are anxious to see happen. And I for one don't see a problem with the Nuggets going "young and fun" with a fast-paced, hard-playing team that will lose a lot of games but be fun to watch in the process.
The rebuilding process should begin now. And now that Malone has been tapped to lead the way, let's agree to root for him until or unless he gives us a reason not to.