A funny thing has happened along the way in my basketball blogging journey since 2009. I've had the opportunity to connect with some truly remarkable people in Denver, and some of those amazing people are now spread out across the globe. When I think about Toronto, Masai Ujiri comes to mind. Sacramento? That's George Karl country now. A trip to Cleveland, Houston, Orlando, Detroit, or Los Angeles to see a game would mean getting to reconnect with Timofey Mozgov, Corey Brewer, Evan Fournier, Quincy Miller, or Jordan Hamilton, respectively. And now Dallas will become known as where Melvin Hunt hangs his hat with the Mavericks, and Rick Carlisle's staff.
Hunt understands the game of basketball, but he uses the game to get across larger life lessons. Yes, Hunt wants to win, to be a part of a championship organization, but he sees the bigger picture in his journey.
"The big thing for me is: the touching of lives," said Hunt in a phone interview from Dallas with Denver Stiffs. "That's the main reason why I got into coaching; because of the people in my past who touched and impacted my life. The basketball part is cool, but I always say that's the biggest camouflage I have, as a Christian. It's kind of a ministry for me because [basketball] is a great distraction, a great tool, but at the end of the day it is what allows me to reach and be a part of other people's lives."
Hunt being open about his Christian faith may cause people to react in different ways to his style, but his faith is a big part of who he is. Being the head coach of a basketball team is being the leader of a group. You have to know how to lead, and being a coach in the NBA, you also have to be able to understand how to work with diverse groups of personalities to conquer a singular goal. What was Hunt's vision for the Nuggets?
"The main thing for me was a collaboration, and an environment for communication, and us. 'Us,' that's a big deal for me because everywhere I've been where we've been successful, that was the mindset," said Hunt. "It never was 'us against them,' it was just us. That's why we all wear Nuggets shirts, because it's us. The collaborative thing was really big for me because I know that if the front office, the management, the coaching staff, and the players can all be rolling in the same direction, you can get the thing moving. That's what I was selling. Maybe it wasn't a matter of selling it, but that's what I was always about as an assistant coach, as a head coach. Trying to create, and help build an environment where everyone was in it together.
"One of the great things about me is that I'm a point guard," Hunt said. "I've always been a point guard, and point guards, in my opinion, they collect people, they gather the group, they never separate the group, and I felt like that was my vision for the Nuggets organization. That's my hope going forward for the Nuggets organization. My hope is that they can create that kind of environment, because it's just more fun. That was a big deal for me, a big big deal."
Things were a lot more fun under George Karl than they were under Brian Shaw. Yes, there were rough times with Karl, notably the playoff suspension of Kenyon Martin in the 2006 playoffs, or the agonizing six game series loss to the hated Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 Western Conference Finals. And that's what Hunt wanted to bring back to Denver: winning and having fun.
Hunt joined the team in 2010, in a sense he swapped places with former Nuggets assistant Jamahl Mosely - who left the team in 2010 to join the Cavaliers, as Hunt left Cleveland to join Denver (and the two will coach together under Carlisle in Dallas). And when Hunt came aboard, he was just in time for the Melodrama and the resulting trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks in 2011. After that, the Nuggets went through some fun years with Karl as the face of the franchise, and his merry band of misfit players wrecking havoc on a league that wasn't yet all the way on board with pace-and-space.
But under Karl, we saw some of the fun that Hunt is talking about. Like former assistant coach Chad Iske (a new assistant with Karl in Sacramento) pumping up the coaching staff before games in the players' lounge. And Karl chest bumping with coaches and trainers, as a pregame ritual before tipoff. A little bit of fun, like when Hunt was asked how his team would be under his leadership as interim coach, and he responded by joking they'd be, "Light skinned and chubby."
Nuggets Team President Josh Kroenke and General Manager Tim Connelly know Hunt well. Kroenke has worked with him for his duration with the Nuggets, and Connelly since arriving in Denver himself in 2013. There was a familiarity with Hunt and how he went about coaching, that he knows Josh and Tim saw while he was an assistant and interim head coach.
"My process was a little unique. Word on the street is that some of the other candidates interviewed multiple times, I interviewed once. You can interview Melvin Hunt all you want, but I had been there as long as I had been there, that that was kind of a formality," said Hunt. "Josh Kroenke, Tim Connelly, and Arturas [Karnisovas] ... if they're not aware of who I am as a person, after having been there five years, then an interview is not going to change one thing or another. For me, it was cool and it didn't bother me at all. I did the one interview, and everything I got back, I did really well. I think it was just more of, perhaps, them just wanting to start fresh and go in a whole different direction."
Fans were in support of Melvin, too. The polls we ran here on Denver Stiffs were overwhelmingly in favor of Hunt, throughout the coaching search. The Twitterverse badgered Nuggets reporters, columnists, and bloggers about when he was going to be hired; Facebook commenters, as well.
"It was incredible, the amount of support that I got for all kinds of reasons," reflected Hunt. "I think people reconnected back to the Nuggets through our team [post Brian Shaw]. We had such a struggle, and I think people reconnected to them. Everywhere I went from King Soopers, to the barber shop, to my kids games, to the rec center ... I'm telling you, I worked out with a hoodie on, because I like to sweat, but it also gave me an opportunity to kind of disappear. The people in Denver were great."
But it wasn't just Nuggets fans showing their support for Melvin, he even felt the love his, now former, players had and will have for him.
"That just shows me that the blueprint is right, that I'm trying to follow," explained Hunt. "The NBA is a business, and typically business just continues; coach gets fired, coach moves on, players continue and they move on, and it's no big deal. I talked to Danilo [on June 21st], he called me when I was on my way to the airport, talked to me for 15 minutes. He's excited about my opportunity, but disappointed about me not being his coach. I got Father's Day check ins from Wilson Chandler, Erick Green, Jamaal Franklin, and Al Harrington.
"Kenneth Faried, having coached him his entire pro career, I knew we had a bond, but ... There were times when I was probably harder on him than anybody in the Nuggets organization, I know it. I said some things to him that I know challenged him early on in his pro career, even this past year," said Hunt. "I can say with great confidence that Kenneth Faried loves him some Melvin Hunt, and it's mutual. He's been amazing. Wilson Chandler and I were supposed to go to church [on Father's Day], but I had to get on a plane. For all those guys to be in my corner really meant a lot to me. Ty Lawson hit me up, and was kind of in contact with me throughout the process, but he was in my corner. Again, for some of those guys, there were times when I know they weren't pleased with me, I know they weren't, but they always respected me, and they always knew I had their best interests in mind.
"Here's a great example; Juka's minutes, after I took over as head coach, his minutes went down. They went down five or six minutes a game, because I was coaching him. When he repeated the same mistakes, just like you do with your son or daughter, I had to correct the behavior and not reinforce that it's okay to do that behavior, and he totally understood it," said Hunt. "Time got away from me [with traveling to Dallas], but he was trying to take me to dinner because he wanted to spend more time with me.
"It's a long answer, and I can go on-and-on with those guys," Hunt said. "All those guys, they showed they believed in me. I think they believed in me in two ways: as their coach, but more than that - I think they believed in me as their leader. They trusted me as their leader. Who knows, the NBA is a small community, maybe one day when I'm a head coach, maybe I'll teach some of those guys again. I know they trust me, I know they believe in the way I go about my business. That's really rewarding."
While fans and members of the Nuggets current roster may have backed Hunt, he was unable to win over the front office. As Hunt mentioned previously, he believes the team was in search of a fresh voice, and perhaps Hunt's familiarity with the roster wound up not being the built in advantage that most saw.
"I have incredible respect for Mike Malone. We worked five years together [in Cleveland], he's my friend, and I know he's a really good coach. But I can tell you this with great confidence, I do think that with that Nuggets job, that I was the best candidate for that particular job," said Hunt. "Now, if you take Michael and I and put us up in an interview process for, I don't know, Portland or Washington or something like that, he may end up being a better candidate for other situations. It's just a matter of what do you want in your coach? I felt like it was kind of unfair for other candidates, because I had home-court advantage in a lot of ways. I wasn't playing on a mutual court. All-in-all, Josh and Tim felt good about their process, and hey - it is what it is and my time is coming."
With the NBA draft right around the corner, the Nuggets have made no secret they intend to be very aggressive come June 25th. If the Nuggets felt that Melvin was good for a roster that might be drastically changing, then one could see why he may have not been given the head coaching job. But Hunt maintains that he can bend his coaching around any roster.
"We never talked about who was going to be on the roster," said Hunt of the Nuggets interview process. "I think that's the great thing about me, if I can give myself a little credit, I feel like I can coach anyone whether it's a marquee star, I've coached a ton of those: from LeBron, to Hakeem, to Kobe, and all those guys. Or whether it was a congruent group where everybody's kind of the same - we went through that and all points between [in Denver]. That wasn't even a concern of mine, and I don't think it was a concern of theirs, as far as: would I be able to coach certain guys. If you asked Tim Connelly today, 'Do you think Melvin Hunt can coach...' He's probably cut you off and say, 'Period. Yes, he can coach.' I think he would say that. So, no that never came up, at all."
"Style of play came up, and again the beautiful thing for me is, I didn't have to speak hypothetically," Hunt said. "We spoke of the actual. This is how I will coach. I think I heard Malone say one time: You coach to your roster. If you're a good coach, that's what you do. I've said that a billion times, I cringe sometimes when I hear people say, 'Oh, this guy is a fast-break coach.' or 'This guy is a defensive coach.' or 'This guy is an X-and-O coach.' Well, the reality of it is when you're a coach, one of your skills has to be the ability to adapt, and adapt quickly. If you give me the Golden State Warriors, if you give me that squad, I'm going to adjust and play a style that's conducive to those guys. With that being said, if you give me a low post killer like Al Jefferson, and great shooting around him, you're going to see a different brand of basketball. I think the style of play, the roster and all that ... as a coach one of the best things we have to do is evaluate. Once you evaluate what you have, then you figure out how you want to play and how you want to coach them."
The big buzzword going around the NBA at the moment is position-less basketball. The Golden State Warriors are the poster-team for the phrase, as head coach Steve Kerr's major NBA Finals adjustment was changing his starting lineup, and benching his center, Andrew Bogut, in favor of 6'7" Andre Iguodala. The move made 6'7" Draymond Green the team's "center," but they were basically position-less with their front-court. Hunt is also a fan of position-less hoops, but knows forming that kind of team is easier said than done.
"I'm a basketball coach, I do both offense and defense, but one of the things that I'm very aware of is the defensive side. And position-less basketball, I've said it and I've said it in Denver, it starts with your defense," explained Hunt. "When you have a group of guys that can switch, that can all defend the post, that are pretty good on the perimeter defensively, it's going to make your offense so much better. Because now, when Draymond Green is defending a guy in the post, and he finds a way to get a stop and a rebound, now he's pushing the basketball, and now those great shooters are free without the ball to get open shots.
"When Steph is up top defending the point, and they try to switch him off, and he's a little bit smaller, but he's able to hold a guy off when the shot goes up," continued Hunt. "Now Klay gets the rebound, you got both of them running, and Iguodala's running a lane. So, position-less basketball, to me, starts on the defensive end and it grows into your offense.
"I'm dating myself, but my freshman year [at Baylor] we played in the Maui Classic against a great Illinois team," recalled Hunt. "That was my first game, I was a 17 year-old freshman man, there were some movies I couldn't even rent at 17, but I'm over there playing ball against Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, you know they had a team of like-sized guys. They could all dribble, pass, shoot, and post. To me, they were the first college team that I was around that was a position-less basketball team.
"For me, that is the dream team for me to coach," said Hunt. "When I get my head coaching job one day, if I can get a team of guys that are skilled, and can all dribble, pass, shoot, and defend multiple positions it just opens up your options, it opens up your playbook. You can have 10 plays, but if you got guys that can play multiple positions and do multiple things, it makes for a tough game to scout against. If you can get it, it's great to have."
It would also be great to have staying in Denver, but he chose to move on, and is now a member of Rick Carlisle's staff in Dallas. When Malone's name started floating around the Nuggets job, people began wondering if, in a perfect world, Hunt might get the job and Malone might join his staff. After Malone was hired, people still wondered if Hunt would stick around and join his staff.
"Well, there's a different dynamic when you look at it from coach Malone's perspective, as well as mine," explained Hunt. "If Malone and I would have gone through the process, and I would have got the job, I did have Malone as the guy that I would have chased. Notice I said 'chase,' he was going to be one of the most sought after guys in the NBA, and I was going to chase him. I already told the organization, when I went though my process, that he was a guy that I wanted to try to get. It wouldn't have been easy because he's well sought after. But I would have wanted to go after him.
"But the different dynamic is, it's different when we both interview for the job, and if I get the job - he didn't coach the team," continued Hunt. "So, that's a different dynamic when you flipped it. When Malone gets the job, yes it can work, it can happen, but you can't have the old girlfriend sleeping in the guest-home because as soon as it goes bad, you're at least going to have the conversations, or the looks, or the second-guessing - it's human nature. With Malone and I, because we're really good friends, I could just see it being uncomfortable and awkward for our players, for him, and for myself. Do I think it could have worked? Of course I do. He's such a good man, and I think our personalities - we would have made it work. But why have to make something work, when you don't necessarily have to? It just worked out best that I go ahead and move on. When President Barak Obama came in and took over, he didn't keep the Bush Administration, he had to get his own guys.
"But Malone and I, we almost ended up working together in Sacramento. There's a true connection between he and I," said Hunt. "It's funny, a cat from New York, straight East Coast, Queens, and all the boroughs ... he's that dude. And then you got this country dude from the South. It's funny how, over time, we really connected, and had a great appreciation for each other."
Malone and Hunt will be on opposing sidelines when they face off during the 2015-16 campaign. It didn't take Melvin long to find a new job, either. He started getting contacted for jobs just minutes after finding out he wasn't getting the Nuggets gig.
The New Orleans Pelicans, and new head coach Alvin Gentry wanted Melvin to join their staff. The interest was there from the Louisiana native. Hunt recognizes the budding talent of Anthony Davis, is friends with GM Dell Demps, and has a younger brother that lives right down the road in Baton Rouge.
"The confidence that Alvin Gentry had in me to be able to be on the staff, and help him run his offense ... this is a big deal," said Hunt. "There are not a lot of times that head coaches like to give up their offense, to an assistant. For him to have the confidence in me, and some of the things that he said, I took them as incredible endorsements. Some of the things he said really made me feel validated as a coach. New Orleans was a legitimate, and very good opportunity.
"Then when you talk about Dallas. Rick Carlisle is the President of the Coach's Association," explained Hunt. "He's a coach among coaches. He and I have developed a relationship over the years, we've gone down the road a little bit as far as interest in one another, and the dude is a champion, as well. He's bigger than just coaching in basketball, he's part of the administration in basketball for all the coaches. He helps manage us. When you're coaching under him, you're grinning every day. I've already spoken to my family a little bit about it, I'm just ready to sacrifice, kind of get under his wing, and glean as much as I can, selfishly, as a coach in my position. I'm looking forward to growing under him, and giving my contributions because I do see myself as a head coach.
"Rick was one of the first guys, a while ago, to say, 'Melvin, you're a head coach, I view you as a head coach.' You're not getting that from the bottle of the barrel, a guy that's hanging on," said Hunt. "You're talking about a veteran coach, who's very well respected. For me to hear that from him, again you're talking about validation. At the end of the day, this situation is going to be incredible."
And Hunt has connections in Dallas too, as his older brother is a resident. But leaving Denver hasn't proven easy for Melvin as he's transitioning to Dallas, as we speak. Being a part of the community here for five years, and having his children grow up here during formative years of their lives, have ingrained them to more than just the Nuggets.
"I'm already missing people," said Hunt. "Obviously people from the Nuggets organization, but I'm also missing the families that were part of my son's AAU team: Billups Elite. I'm missing those people already. My daughter's volleyball team, Front Range, I'm missing being around those people because it was bigger than just going to tournaments and traveling together. I didn't know anyone in Colorado [when I came to Denver], but now I've got so many friends and family right there that I'm going to miss, I'm going to truly miss. That's the big thing that I'm thinking about.
"I must admit that I'm going to miss our guys, the players," said Hunt. "I think about Juka, once I coach guys, it gets so much bigger than just basketball. Timofey Mozgov and I, we texted each other before and after every game in the Finals. We texted each other all throughout the playoffs, we had a running connection all throughout the playoffs. Just because I'm on a different team, doesn't mean I don't care for him, and doesn't mean he doesn't care for me.
"I'm going to miss Juka and seeing his development first hand. Gary Harris, Erick Green, I'm going to miss seeing those guys turn into what we all know and believe that they can be," reflected Hunt. "And then the guys, you know the Tys, the Kenneths, J.J., you know it's a small league, but I'm already missing those guys. We had so much fun, we enjoyed each other, we went through so many emotions together. That's a big thing for me. There is nothing like driving into work and you glance off to your left and you see those big pretty snowy mountains. Yeah, I'll miss that view and all of that, but there are some things here in Texas that I'm excited to do, to get back in my life. Having to gone to school here, and living here for a little while, there are some things that I'm excited about with getting back here."
Hunt already has his competitive juices flowing, too. It's fun to win, but there might even be a little extra incentive when you're facing a former team.
"That's always a blast. As coaches we always say, 'I love beating my former team.' It's nothing personal, it just feels good when you can beat them," said Hunt. "We beat Cleveland this year, we should have swept them, but we beat Cleveland in Cleveland ... oh my gosh, that was such a great accomplishment for me, that meant so much to me. It went a long way. You always want to come back and perform well against your old teams. We played Sacramento, that wasn't my old team, but that was my old coach going up against George Karl. We want to show him, 'Hey coach, we've been working! We've been getting better.' That's a fun deal."
And how about when the Mavericks come to Denver?
"So, of course to come back when we get a chance to go against the Nugs... I definitely want to win," said Hunt. "And of course, with my boy Mike Malone down there coaching, we've secretly talked about manning our own teams over the years, and meeting up against each other. I'm not quite there yet, but it will still be fun going against him."
A big thank you to Melvin Hunt for taking the time to chat, even though he was amid his travel to Dallas. I've made no secret that I wanted Hunt to get the job in Denver, I was rooting for him. That said, we can be excited about Malone, and still root for Hunt's success in Dallas. And we can root for Melvin to get a head coaching job one day soon, that he deserves, so that he can come back with his team and face Malone and make both their head coaching dreams a reality.