Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone just wrapped up his first year with the team in April, guiding Denver to a better record than most national pundits projected for the squad, and doing so with an oft-injured team, including missing some key contributors all along the way. After a summer filled with preparation for the 2016-2017 season, Denver Stiffs was able to catch the coach during some rare down time and chat about all things Nuggets. Today we share part one of a three-part series from that conversation... here's part two... and here's part three...
Denver Stiffs: Thanks for sitting down with Denver Stiffs, coach. You've now got a full campaign with the Denver Nuggets under your belt, and a few months since the season ended for some time to reflect. Looking back, what were the biggest triumphs or successes of the season for you and the team?
: Off the top of my head, two things jump out for me. When I got the job, our mission in year one was, first and foremost, to win games. But just as important was to change the culture and get us headed back in the right direction. I think that mission was accomplished in a big way, though I can only gauge that so much, as I wasn't here before.
The constant feedback I get; from the players who were here before, the front office, the organization, fans, the media, they all have said repeatedly it was a marked difference in the team this year, culturally. Yes, we made progress in wins and losses. But we also made progress in terms of chemistry, competitiveness, playing together, and playing the right way. All of that was really important for me, so I think that was the biggest triumph for me last year. Some people would say, "Hey, you guys were the only team that beat San Antonio and Golden State last year." And that to me is a part of that triumph. 82 games of changing a culture is something that needs to be worked on every single day.
I think the second biggest triumph or positive coming out from year one was the fact that every single one of our players improved as the year went on. People always talk about how you, as a team, get better. Most of those people will talk about the draft, free agency, and trades. We (the Nuggets) talk about a fourth avenue for improvement, and that's player development and internal improvement.
You look from our youth in Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, all the way through to our our veterans, they got better and better as the year went on, and I think that's really important. Now, we just had a draft where we got even younger than we were last year, which is hard to believe. Now we have to focus on the same things for Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and all of our new young guys. It's imperative that we create an environment and a program for those young men to get better. As long as we continue to improve within, that will only continue to accelerate the growth of our roster, and that will take us to the places where we want to go.
Stiffs: What about the biggest disappointments?
Malone: Easy. The biggest disappointment for me was the defense, to be honest. I'm called a defensive guy, but I'm a basketball guy. All too often in this business, people want to pigeonhole you into "you're a defensive guy, you're an offensive guy". I'm a basketball coach. So, being a basketball coach, I understand the importance of defense, and how it is paramount to us having success. Even more importantly, it leads to sustained success. Last year, the defense was not especially close to where it needs to be. That's just being totally honest, black and white.
First, I look at myself. I have to do a better job. I'm also hoping for something of a repeat of my first and second years in Sacramento. Starting my second year there, we were a much better defensive team than we were the year before. In retrospect, maybe it took a full year for our guys, some time away, another summer, and another training camp to really soak in what we were trying to teach. This team (the Nuggets) improved at defense as the season went on last year with a lot of moving parts. It was a testament to all these guys are trying to do and how they are trying to do it.
It's reflected in the numbers last season. You look at our defensive numbers, we were 27th in the NBA in three-point defense, right as the league is truly becoming a three-point league. We were getting murdered from the arc, and that really hurt us last year. We were also ranked in the 20's in most other defensive categories as well. For me, the defense just wasn't where it needed to be, and I'm really hoping that going into year two that our defense will be better.
The reality of improving our defense is this: we had a lot of needs last year, and we addressed shooting in our draft. Shooting was a very big weakness for us the last couple of years, even before I got here. We can also alleviate that offensive burden with our defense. If we have a better defense, it will allow us to get out and run more, and attack before opposing defenses get set. I think that helps us, as we have some players whose skillsets are better suited for playing an up tempo, open court style. If our defense improves, and our rebounding stays strong, as it was this last year, then hopefully we'll have some opportunities to get out and run and be effective in transition.
Stiffs: Aside from a lot of injuries, anything unexpected this season?
Malone: Yes, but more of a good surprise. Bottom line, if I sat here today and told you a year ago that I expected Nikola Jokic to be first-team All-Rookie (drops off laughing). Look, you go back to a year ago, we had just finished up Summer League in Vegas, Nikola and Emmanuel were rookies, Gary Harris was a second year player, Joffrey Lauvergne played, and not one person in the Nuggets organization said after Summer League, "Hey, Nikola Jokic is going to be a stud this year."
It's a good reminder, and we're very honest with ourselves, that we never think we have all the answers. The right pieces are in place. We work hard, we have a great group of people throughout the entire organization, and I think Tim and his staff in the front office do an amazing job, but Nikola Jokic having the year that he had was a surprise.
I laugh, and I have no problem making fun of myself, it literally took Nikola Jokic scoring 26 points and having 13 rebounds, whatever it was (Olson: 23 and 12, actually) at San Antonio for me to finally say, "Geez, I have to play this guy more!" He was a first team All-Rookie and third in Rookie of the Year voting, I believe. That was a big surprise. Not that we didn't think or know that he would be a good player, but it happened a lot sooner than anybody in the organization expected, even Nikola, if you asked him. Those are the kind of stories that are great and refreshing. It's a testament to him. After Summer League, he dedicated himself to losing weight and getting in better shape. He lost close to 30 pounds and worked and worked and worked... and you know, hard work pays off. So, that was an amazing surprise and story last year and I'm hoping we have more stories like that this year.
Stiffs: Jokic is a great story from last year's draft. You were much more involved this season in the draft process. That was impossible last year, as your hiring was announced just before the draft occurred. Tell us more about your role in the process this year, and what you've seen thus far.
Malone: You make a good point, I believe the date I got hired was June 16th last year, and Tim and his staff were already knee-deep in the draft process, targeting their guys and having workouts. I was just trying to learn from those guys, as they already had their picks targeted.
This year, when the season ended on April 13th, I knew that we were going to potentially have five picks, and so we as a coaching staff played films, and talked with Tim about what guys we felt we should be targeting. I went to the draft combine this year with our entire front office to watch and interview guys who went to the draft lottery.
At the end of the day, the draft is Tim Connelly and the entire front office's thing. For me, it was just an opportunity to let them know that I'm invested, I care, and I'm not just going to be that coach that says, "Hey, good luck with the draft, and see you later!"
I want to be in there with them and learning as much as I can. But make no mistake, every decision made is Tim Connelly's decision. When asked my opinion, I offer it, and I give them reasons why I may like or dislike a player. I think the communication and collaboration we have throughout the organization is fantastic, and to have an owner in Josh Kroenke, a GM in Tim Connelly and myself all be truly aligned, is really remarkable, and something that I really, really value.
Draft night is an amazing night. As for this year, it's not too often that you get guys that really excite you and that you targeted. I'm sure a lot of teams say this after the fact, but not too often that happens. You know, we had Jamal Murray ranked third on our board. And to get him at number seven, that's a big win. To get Juancho Hernangomez at 15, and to find out after the fact that if we didn't take him at 15, Boston was going to take him at 16 is a win. And to get Malik Beasley, who dropped a little bit, maybe, because of the injury that he had with his leg... to get him at 19, it was amazing.
I had so many people tell me what a great draft we had. Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas say the same thing. We laugh because we know that you don't grade a draft the day after, or even after Summer League. You grade a draft two or three years down the road. A perfect example of that is Gary Harris. If you would have graded Gary Harris' draft after his rookie year, it probably would have been a bad grade. Now all of a sudden, after Gary's second year, it sure looks like a plus grade. So, we also temper our excitement with these young players. But, back to this year... we are thrilled. We don't just draft talent, we draft character, and we draft guys that fit the culture we're trying to create here. Getting these guys is big.
Stiffs: That's great to hear. Adding more young talent shifts a data point from last year even further, though, and you said as much a few moments ago. You had one of the youngest teams in the NBA this past season, and you added a lot of young bodies in the draft, theoretically making you even younger this year. Where do you expect to see the greatest growth out of the team this next year?
Malone: I guess I'll go back to what my biggest disappointment was, and say that our greatest growth needs to be on the defensive end of the floor. Obviously, the player development we discussed is a constant that needs to continue. Just because all the young players improved last season doesn't mean that they're done growing. We need Emmanuel and Nikola to continue on the same path from the end of last season, and the same thing can be said for every other player on our roster. Our greatest growth needs to be on the defensive end of the floor.
Now, offensively we weren't where we needed to be last year, either. We averaged about 102 points per game last year, and we were not a great three-point shooting team, as we were 26th in the NBA. Now, if we just made one more three per game last year, our percentage would have gone from 33.8 to over 37 percent and more importantly, we would have gone from averaging 102 points per game to 105. So, just one shot per game really is impactful.
The same thing about small shifts can be said in terms of defense. If we could just get one more stop per half, two more stops per game next year - and when you think about it, that doesn't sound like a lot if we can be more focused and disciplined this season - with one extra stop per half, we go from being a team that allowed teams to shoot 46% against us from the field to getting below 44%, and now you're starting to look like a really good defensive team.
So, my hope is that our biggest growth this upcoming season will be a greater understanding of our defensive concepts, and greater discipline within the defensive game plan. Also, understanding the mechanics of guarding and who you're guarding. We use the acronym KYP - Know Your Personnel. As I'd said, if we had that growth on the defensive end of the floor, that is going to have a huge carryover to the offensive end and I think we'll be a much more competitive team.
33 wins is not where we need to be by any means, but when you look at how we played in our wins this last year, our defense is really good. We have to understand why you win or why you lose in the NBA, and for us that starts on the defensive end. If we can become a much better defensive team, that will help us out. Fact of the matter is, last year we were 16-30 against playoff teams, and 9-21 against Western Conference playoff teams. An improved defense will allow us to have much better records against the good teams in the West as we aspire to be a playoff team.
Stiffs: You'd mentioned earlier that the team was drafting for shooters in this year's draft. We're stressing defense here, and none of the players chosen were specifically known for their defensive play... How and when do you start stressing that aspect to these young players?
Malone: I would agree with that, obviously when we drafted Jamal, Juancho, Malik, even Petr Cornelie in the second round, the biggest area we addressed when drafting those guys was shooting, and their numbers prove it, they're all very good shooters. Defense is going to be the biggest challenge for these guys coming into the season. Can they understand our schemes, our concepts, and be physical in how they approach that side of the game.
For instance, take Jamal. If you watch film from Las Vegas, look at his games and his defensive progression. Offense was never a question. Mostly because offensively, he had one of the best freshman seasons in college history at Kentucky, and did a great job for us out in Summer League. You look at his numbers in Vegas: 20 points per game, five rebounds, and two-and-a-half assists. He actually didn't shoot the ball as well as he wanted to, but I'm not too concerned about that. He'll find his way there. But I thought defensively, he got better as the week went on. He was starting to really understand our concepts, our terminology, our philosophy. It's not going to happen overnight, just like it's not going to happen immediately for Juancho or Malik.
As a physical growth example, you look at Juancho, who's going to have to get stronger, like many frontcourt players who come into the league. Juancho is a stretch four that can play some three as well... but he's going to have to get stronger and become more physical. That said, he did a great job of rebounding the ball and shot 55% from the field in Vegas while averaging 10 points per game. He had a terrific Summer League.
Malik didn't get to play in Summer League, but with his size and his athleticism, I think he has the makings of a guy that can be a very good two-way player in the NBA, because he's smart and athletic enough that I think he'll pick things up very very quickly.
So, yes, they're all great shooters, which is really important to what we're trying to do. But to your point, the second biggest concern was adding guys we think can defend. And I think these guys have already bought in, and will all be able to grow into very good defenders in the NBA.
Stiffs: I like that idea, as you're known for that. I get your point that you're a basketball coach, first and foremost, but you are best known for your approach to the game on the defensive side. A big part of that success is getting an entire group of guys to all "buy in" on a concept, and execute that concept together. As simple as that sounds, many teams struggle to make that happen, including with players you've had success with in the past. What is it about your approach to players that has gotten several teams to "buy in" on defense?
Malone: Well, I appreciate that, as I obviously didn't do a good enough job this last year, but I always try. I get questions like this about DeMarcus Cousins a lot. My approach is really simple. I'm not a magician by any means. As you know, I grew up around a coach. I've been around the game my whole life. For me, I'm always going to be true to myself and who I am, and not be something I'm not.
I think the players respect the fact that I care about them as people, first and foremost. I work hard, and I'm competent, but I'm also honest and real. There's no B.S. to me. I'm not going to blow smoke at anybody. I'm going to tell you what it is, in black and white. Now, you may not like the message in the moment, but you can at least respect the fact that you're being communicated with and you're being told the truth. Forget about it even being an NBA locker room, I think everybody in all walks of life appreciates that.
In terms of getting guys to buy in, it's really simple for me. You can either embrace it, or resist it. So I when took over, I talked to our guys about that. New coach, new change, new system, new culture. I believe in discipline and I believe in accountability, which you know. Maybe a lot of people have a hard time with that, but I don't mind having a confrontation if a confrontation is needed. I'm not going to run from that, because I have to be who I am, and at the end of the day they'll allow me to be who I am because they know that I care about them.
We also spend a lot of time watching film, teaching, and correcting. I think film is a great teacher, and then it's just demanding the best from them. The repetition, critiquing, and demonstration. All the laws of learning that John Wooden talked about many, many years ago that my father passed along to me.
At the end of the day, it always comes down to relationships. When I was a young coach, I thought it was X's and O's, and that you had to have the best plays to win. What you eventually come to realize as you go on, especially as a head coach, is that you can have the best plays in the world, you can know more than most people about the game, but if you don't have relationships with your players, if you don't have that true buy-in, it doesn't matter all the plays or knowledge that you have. It will all fall on deaf ears.
I think that's something I learned as an assistant coach over many years, what was important. Now as a head coach I've really taken that to heart, making sure that I have relationships with our players. I'm not perfect by any means, and obviously there's always room to grow in any regard. I look forward to growing in that area as well.