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 the final installment of a three-part series from that conversation... here's part one... and here's part two...
Denver Stiffs: A consistent theme of growth throughout our chat here. We've talked a fair bit about the team being relatively young and growing. Similarly, as early as your introductory press conference, you've spoken about all of this being a growth and learning experience for you and the Nuggets organization as well. What did you learn as a coach last season, and where would you like to see yourself grow this next year?
Michael Malone: You know, I look back on this season, and even my year and a half in Sacramento. You always reflect on previous seasons. Where you started, where you've come, where you want to go, and how you're going to get there. I keep challenging our staff, as the game is always changing, and think it's really important as a coach to keep an open mind. I don't want to be that stubborn old mule that says, "Nope, this is how we always did it in Cleveland 10 years ago, so that's how we have to do it today. I want to challenge myself, I want to challenge our staff, to constantly look from within, see where the game is going, and see what areas we need to change in.
For example, I mentioned earlier that we were ranked 27th in three-point defense. Teams shot 37% from the three-point line against us. Every time I say that, I feel nauseous. It's always easy to say, "next year we'll be better". I don't subscribe to just that. For me, I want to know how are we going to be better? Why will we be better? And so, we've done projects as a staff. In mine, I took the top five teams in terms of three-point defense last year, and I watched the Spurs, Warriors, Pacers, Celtics, and Clippers. I wanted to look at how they guard the three. How do they guard pick-and-rolls up top? How do they build out from the post? Why are they so good at guarding the three, and why are we so bad?
Going in to the project, I had some early thoughts. I'm not foolish, having been around the game more than enough years. I know that if you're a bad defensive team in terms of guarding the three, a lot of it often has to do with your inability to guard the basketball continuously around the perimeter. That happens if you get easily beat off the dribble. Now, you're in constant rotation, everyone is helping, and now the drive-and-kick three gets open. But I wanted to dig deeper, and say ok, we have certain ideas and philosophies in terms of pick-and-roll defense, but how does Indiana do it? How does San Antonio do it? What does Boston do? What do the Clippers do? And the funny thing is: there's no right way or wrong way. There's not just one way.
The reason I say that is this: San Antonio guards the high pick and roll in a completely different way than Indiana. San Antonio keeps their big guy down the floor, close to the rim. Their philosophy is: we're going to give you the pull up two, which is the lowest percentage shot in the game, and we're going to keep everybody home to guard the shooters. So the three-point line is not open. Indiana, conversely, they have their bigs up the floor, at the point of the screen. They don't want that guard getting downhill and getting into the paint. It's not one way.
It's something my father and I talk a lot about, having to grow with the game. You go back to when the Pistons won back-to-back championships. They were maybe taking six or seven three-point shots a game. Think about that. That's the late eighties. Move to present day, teams are often taking thirty threes a game now. I remember one game last season, a team took forty threes against us in a game. So, I bring that up to say again, the game changes. The game evolves. You have to change with it. That's one way in which I'm constantly trying to learn, grow, and adapt. As the game changes, make sure we're changing, and just constantly challenge ourselves to say, ok, this is what we do... can we do it better? Can we do it differently? As I hire different coaches, and learn from different coaches, and have conversations with coaches throughout the league, you're always exchanging ideas. You're always talking to each other, and growing in that regard.
I think for me, the biggest area of growth I want to improve on I touched on earlier as well. I've always taken pride in terms of communicating and making sure the players and I are all understanding each other. I think there were times this year that I did not do a great job at that. Once last season ended, I started digging in with some of the players where I felt like I didn't communicate well enough with them consistently throughout the year. I want to do a better job of that. I want to make sure that no matter what's going on in the world, each and every one of our players knows what's expected and given, that I care about them, and that whether they're playing well or not playing well, whether they're in the rotation or out of the rotation, that I have their back. That's one thing I want to do a better job of this year. I don't think I did a great job with that.
The second thing is patience and consistency. I can be very hard on myself. After every loss, the first person I look at is me. Asking what could I have done differently, in terms of play calling, subs, game plan, whatever it might be. I always want to look at myself first and foremost. When I'm hard on myself, I can get a little low. I want to make sure that this year, win or lose, I don't get too low after losses. I want that because I'm the one to set the temperature every day for the team.
It's hard, as I'm so competitive, I hate to lose. I go into every single game, I don't care if we're playing the Warriors or whoever, I go into every single game really expecting to win. I don't care who we're playing, I don't care what the oddsmakers are saying. I expect to win every night we go out there. That's what we prepare for. And when we don't, I take it hard.
One thing I have to do a better job of is reminding myself: yes, it's a loss, it's a temporary setback, but don't let it affect you the next day. We always preach that to our players, right? "Next play mentality!" "Don't let the last play affect your next play!" I have to do the same thing, as I don't want to be a hypocrite. I want to hold myself to the same standards we hold our players to. So, I want to do a much better job of that, as well. Don't be too high, don't be too low. Just be the consistent guy every single day that players can lean on. If I can do that, I think we'll be better off for it.
Stiffs: Sometimes that clarity comes from just taking a bit of a break from the intense schedule and demands of your job. This offseason has already had a number of things for you to attend to with the team, in postseason assessments, the Draft Lottery, Draft, and Summer League. You'd mentioned going out to see family, but what else will you do to get away or take a break this offseason and recharge?
Malone: It's funny, Tim Connelly and I talk about this all the time. At some point, the NBA should have a moratorium where for two or three weeks, nothing can happen in the NBA. I think it would be healthy for everybody involved. Because people always say, "how was your offseason?" Not knowing that in today's NBA, there is no offseason. Maybe we don't play games this time of year, and so we're certainly not flying all over the country playing four games in five nights, but there is no offseason. Once the season ended, it was meeting with our staff, meeting with the front office, evaluating and analyzing our roster, evaluating our weaknesses and strengths, getting ready for the Draft, getting ready for Free Agency, and Summer League.
For me, August was always the one month where you would kind of get away, and recuperate. Get your body right, get your mind right for the upcoming season and the grind. So for me, obviously, going back to New York City to see my mother and father and spending some time with them and with my family; hopefully some of my brothers and sisters and their kids. That balance of family was always able to get me centered and get me right. I look forward to that. When I get back here, one of the few unfortunate things about Colorado is the schools start so damned early (laughs). My girls start school August 10th, and it's not like I'm going to go on vacation by myself.
This may sound corny or weird, but where we live in Highlands Ranch is a beautiful development with these great trails. I love getting out there on my mountain bike, running, or hiking, and just getting away. The natural beauty out here is something I'm not used to where I'm from. You look out your door, and you see the Rocky Mountains, and it's just amazing. Just finding time to get alone with myself and my thoughts and enjoy everything we have around here. Spend time with my family, be a father. Those are the kinds of things I enjoy because I know when September comes, that becomes less and less likely to happen. I think my down time will all be family time back East and family time here, and just getting away.
Another thing I love to do, and I'm not sure when I'll be able to do it, is to explore the region. When I was in California, I made sure we got to Half Moon Bay, Carmel, Monterey, Tahoe, and others, just exploring and getting to know the area. For me, I want to go see different things. Whether it's getting down to the Grand Canyon, or getting up to Mount Rushmore. I label things on the map, and whether it's in Wyoming or over in the National Parks and Utah... Arches, Moab, New Mexico... I'd love to a chance to get out and explore and see because it's just a beautiful part of the country. We've barely started as we've only been here for just over a year now. I want to really explore it and learn it and see it because it is a beautiful place. Another thing I love, and practice wherever I travel, is photography. It's something that I really do enjoy, taking my camera somewhere, taking pictures, putting a book together. One of my non-basketball hobbies. My hope is that we'll be here for a while, and that we'll get a chance to see all these things in due time.
Stiffs: Coach, thanks so much for this chat, you've been really generous with your time and some very insightful answers. Like us, I know you're always hoping to see more fans of the Nuggets every single year. A lot of current fans drop by the site, any parting words for Nuggets Nation?
Malone: Obviously, it's been an exciting summer. One thing I tell everybody, and I mean this sincerely, we're not where we want to be, but I do love the direction we're heading. We have a very talented front office, we have a great group of coaches, we have a great group of young players, and a healthy mix with our talented veterans. I really am excited with the direction we're headed. I truly hope our fans sense that same excitement.
Trust me, I get it, the fans want to be back in the playoffs. They had ten straight years of making the playoffs. Now they're stuck with three straight years of not being in the playoffs, and that's hard for them. It's hard for me as well. I miss being in the playoffs. To all the Nuggets fans out there, we appreciate you, and we are doing everything we can. We are working our asses off to get this thing turned around as quickly as possible. And our goal is not just to make the playoffs. That's one thing that is really important for me, and I say this all the time to the people in the organization. Everything we do has to have championship in mind. Josh Kroenke and the Kroenke family have won the Stanley Cup with an NHL Championship. They truly want an NBA Championship, and they're willing to do whatever it takes. So everything we do has championship in mind. It's not about just making the playoffs and being an eight-seed and losing in the first round. We have much bigger dreams, and we have much bigger aspirations. To all our loyal Nuggets fans, we are doing everything we can to get this team to be in a position to win a championship one day, and I look forward to that day. I dream about that day. I just want to thank all of our fans for all their patience and all their support.
Many thanks to head coach Michael Malone for taking so much time to chat with Denver Stiffs, and to Tim Gelt and the Denver Nuggets organization for the access.