Immediately after his Denver Nuggets squeaked out a thrilling home victory against the improved Detroit Pistons at Pepsi Center on Saturday night, the Nuggets young coach Michael Malone shared a brief embrace at half court with his father Brendan, an assistant for the Pistons and the very definition of an NBA lifer (Brendan Malone has been coaching as an assistant or head coach in the NBA since 1986). Even though the elder Malone was no doubt disappointed at his team's inability to best a Nuggets squad sans Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic, one has to believe that he was beaming with pride for what his son accomplished that evening ... and what his son has accomplished thus far in his first go-around as the Nuggets head coach.
44 games into his debut season as the Nuggets bench master, Michael Malone has completely changed the culture of the Denver Nuggets. Inheriting a team that had no problem laying down and dying in the face of adversity the prior two seasons - something that cost Malone's predecessor his job after 59 games last season - Malone's Nuggets compete nightly. Despite their 17-27 record and the inability to play a consistent rotation thanks to ongoing injuries to the aforementioned Faried and Nurkic in addition to Emmanuel Mudiay, Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler, Malone's Nuggets have become a tough out for NBA opponents.
Since shaking off a season-long eight game losing streak by winning at Toronto (the Eastern Conference's second-best team) in early December, the Nuggets have only lost by double digits three times: home against Orlando by 11 and back-to-back at San Antonio (by 15) and at Oklahoma City (by 10). And with the exception of that home loss to the Magic, the Nuggets didn't embarrass themselves against the mighty Spurs and Thunder. Perhaps most impressive was the Nuggets' 111-108 road loss at Golden State to the NBA Champion Warriors, followed up less than two weeks later by an exciting and gut-wrenching two-point victory over the Warriors at Pepsi Center. It might be fair to say that the Warriors would rather play LeBron James in Cleveland than have to face our Nuggets again this season.
While I don't know exactly how Malone has been able to change the culture of the Nuggets so quickly, I have a few theories. First, departed point guard Ty Lawson might just have been more toxic than any of us fans ever realized and for whatever reason, Malone's predecessor Brian Shaw was unable to connect with the troubled Lawson like his predecessor - George Karl - once did. Fortunately for Malone he never had to coach Lawson as Lawson was traded last summer in a classic addition-by-subtraction move for the Nuggets.
Second, the personalities and player substitutions on this Nuggets squad pale in comparison to what Malone had to deal with in Sacramento during his season-plus tenure as head coach of the Kings. Not only did Malone have to mesh big personality and score-first guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Derrick Williams and Isaiah Thomas, but Malone's 2013-14 Kings saw 23 players come and go on his roster. Not exactly a recipe for success. Malone's Nuggets, conversely, have essentially had the same roster participants all season long with the exception of the 15th slot being rotated between Erick Green, Kostas Papanikolaou and Sean Kilpatrick.
Third, the Nuggets bevy of injuries - to Chandler and Nurkic and at times to Mudiay, Nelson, Faried and even Danilo Gallinari - combined with their youth has given Malone rule over his team not typical in the NBA. If a player doesn't produce or buy into Malone's system, there's a seat on the bench ready for him and a backup player eagerly ready to play in his spot. So while the Nuggets may not stack up experience or talent-wise with the NBA's best, the team's collective effort meets and often exceeds the competition. Back to that Toronto game, as someone who witnessed it in person it was evident that our Nuggets simply out-competed the formidable Raptors that night to deliver the win.
And finally, perhaps the apple doesn't fall that far from the tree in the Malone family. Malone's father Brendan has long been one of the most respected coaches in the NBA family, having served as an assistant for Patrick Ewing's New York Knicks, Isiah Thomas's Detroit Pistons, James's Cavaliers and Dwight Howard's Magic among others. Point being, the elder Malone certainly understands how to deal with the NBA's biggest egos and challenges and one has to believe that the younger Malone has picked up a thing or two from dad over the years.
Which is why that half court embrace between the two Malones on Saturday night was so special to see. One generation's wisdom has been passed on to the next, and today our Nuggets are the beneficiaries of it.
REMINDER: STIFFS NIGHT OUT WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 3RD
Attendees can win Denver Stiffs T-shirts and Nuggets tickets and Jake's will be serving 50-cent wings for us all night long.
We hope to see you there!