There was a time when some wondered aloud if Michael Malone was the right man for the job. His understanding and deployment of his offense savant, Nikola Jokic, was in doubt. His reputation as a defensive minded coach seemed incongruent with the results on the floor. The Nuggets’ record was improving, but the playoffs remained out of reach.
That all feels so very long ago.
After the Denver Nuggets completed an unlikely comeback from an inexplicable deficit to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ development team on Wednesday night, a small group of reporters gathered and waited for Denver’s head coach to turn the corner and take his place along the backdrop that’s been plastered onto the hallway outside of the Nuggets’ locker room.
The media members who comprised this particular scrum might be dubbed “the regulars”. The ones who attend almost every practice and just about every game. The ones who have watched this young team evolve into a budding threat in the most competitive basketball conference in the world.
Between them, these regulars have seen Malone lay the foundation of a winning culture over the course of four years. Over that time, he’s undergone a certain transformation himself.
Malone owns these situations now—his wit finally matched by a win-loss record that gives him the command of a scrum we typically associate with the more reputable coaches in the league. He has placed himself firmly in the conversation for coach of the year and he may very well have placed himself near the top of another list.
How many coaches are more quotable than Denver’s own?
“Gregg Popovich has five rings,” Malone told those reporters on Wednesday night, who braced themselves for the inevitable punch line. “I’ve got a wedding ring.”
He’s mastered this. This ability to wash vulnerability and sincerity in razor-sharp wit. There are plenty of jokes in his scrums these days. Even some t-shirt worthy one-liners. But beyond the charm and seeming lack of inhibitions, in-between the laughter and the golden tweets, usually lies an important and calculated message.
There was an irony to the muted laughter on this occasion, as Malone was trying to remind us of what we all know.
The San Antonio Spurs are no joke.
“We need to be ready to go from the jump ball,” Malone told the media. “There will be ebbs and flows, they will go on runs, but the focus, the urgency, the discipline—it has to be there for 48 minutes for us to even have a chance.”
For all that this win brought Denver—a top-two seed out West, and a place on the friendlier side of the bracket—Malone knows all too well that there’s little to celebrate about a playoff matchup with the greatest coach of all-time and one of the winningest organizations in all of professional sports.
Malone has spent the better part of four years teaching his players these lessons the hard way. Instilling focus, urgency, and discipline into a platoon of talented youngsters who lacked the necessary experience to embrace them on their own. Now, with the playoffs around the corner, he can only hope that he’s done enough to prepare them for this uncharted territory.
What’s required of his team is about to change. What’s required of him is about to change.
I wouldn’t expect Malone or the front office that installed him to agree with this but I’m not convinced that when they hired him in 2015 they were asking him to win a championship. That’s always the goal, or so we’re told. But the reality is you can’t skip steps in this league, and step one was cleansing the air of the toxicity that permeated during the end of George Karl’s run and the brief reign of Brian Shaw. The Nuggets needed a basketball-lifer. They needed someone to inspire and connect with a young group of players—a veteran captain to help them navigate the turbulent waters of a rebuild.
When Malone was hired, he brought a defense-first reputation with him, a dynamic that clashed with the makeup of his new team. With Nikola Jokic at the center of it all, Tim Connelly and his staff had assembled a roster that resembled a sports car. Built for speed. It was an awkward fit then, to hand the keys of a Ferrari to a man who prefers his F-150.
For years it seemed a futile mission, to instill strong defensive principles in a team led by Jokic and Jamal Murray. It seemed at times that Malone’s commitment to teaching moments, and the formulation of healthy habits, came at the cost of a handful of wins. He placed the future over the present.
But it paid off.
With all 82 games of the 2018-19 season in the books, the Nuggets finish with an 11th best 109.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, per cleaning the glass. Of all the absurdity that lingers as this dust settles, that stat might be the hardest thing to come to terms with.
In year four of the Malone tenure, Denver’s locker room is full of players who have known Malone for most, if not all of their careers. It’s full of players who have gone to war for their coach and for each other at his behest. They’ve followed his path, they’ve trusted his guidance, and they’ve reaped what rewards regular season success has to offer.
There were no trade demands this season. There were no complaints over playing time, or the approach on the offensive end. There were no early exits from the arena. It was, largely, a drama free season—the manifestation of the seeds Malone has been planting since he got here.
“We had a lot of fun doing it,” Malone said, when asked to reflect on these 82 games. “We broke a lot of records, we improved in so many areas that we struggled with last year and the years prior. To be finishing up an 82 game grueling schedule, playing in the west, being the second youngest team, having a lot of injuries—being the two seed is a hell of an accomplishment. We feel good about that. But by no means are we satisfied. We remain hungry and we look forward to attacking these playoffs.”
On Saturday night, Malone’s players will get their first taste of playoff basketball. And it will be his first time on that stage as a head coach. From the moment that game tips off, everything will change for him.
Malone’s job is no longer about guiding a proper rebuild. It’s not about instilling defensive principles and grooming his guys for a competitive future. It’s about execution now. It’s about winning.
What he’s done to get his team to this point will be appreciated. But it will earn him no more goodwill going forward. The playoffs are a clean slate for everyone and now Malone must prove himself all over again.
With each corner turned, another lies ahead. Malone was the right man for the job. Now we’ll find out if he’s the right guy for the new one. The job of taking the Nuggets all the way to the top for the very first time.
“One of the greatest joys of the season,” Malone concluded. “One of the greatest stats that I take pride in, is that we are the only NBA team that’s improved four years in a row. That’s a hell of an accomplishment, and that’s not me. That’s everybody. Ownership, front office, players, staff.
If we continue to do that, then I look forward to bringing a title here.”