In 2015 I had a conversation with then Denver Nuggets General Manager Tim Connelly shortly after head coach Michael Malone was hired. I was skeptical of Malone based on his reputation as a slow it down defensive coach coming from the Sacramento Kings as head coach and his short stint as assistant under Mark Jackson in with the Golden State Warriors. I asked Connelly if Malone had the right approach for a ‘Denver Nuggets’ team?

Sep 28, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; General manager Tim Connelly (left) and head coach Michael Malone (right) answer questions during a press conference during the media day at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

In true Tim Connelly fashion, the reply was short and sweet. If he didn’t think Malone was the right guy he wouldn’t have hired him.


The Nuggets of September 2013 to March 2015 were fraught to say the least. Nuggets team Governor Josh Kroenke made the decision to fire George Karl after a 57 win season, the most in franchise history. Danilo Gallinari had torn his ACL and the Nuggets would be without him for the entirety of the following season. Ty Lawson played well that year but had personal issues that would plague him into the following year and would eventually lead to his departure in 2015.

Brian Shaw was hired only a week after Tim Connelly was, himself, hired by the Nuggets. The NBA Draft was conducted TWO DAYS after that. Shaw was/is a decent man but was plagued with the wrong attitude about the Nuggets (He told the media in his first press conference that he could show the team that won 57 games the previous year how to win and … needless to say that did not go over well in the locker room). A few days after the draft, Andre Iguodala fulfilled his destiny and joined his buddies in Golden State, who he’d spent the previous playoffs getting really close to.

Long story short, everything about the next few years were filled with enormously bad vibes, player blow ups at the coach on multiple occasions and led to Shaw’s eventual firing in March of 2015. An ignominious start to the Tim Connelly era in Denver. Not completely fair to Shaw who admittedly made many mistakes but was let down by many factors, some out of his control … however there was simply no choice but to fire him.

It was in the midst of these bad vibes and player discontent that Michael Malone stepped. It turns out that Connelly knew something about Malone because of his history with the coach (dating back to their time in New Orleans) that the rest of us weren’t privy to: Malone can shepherd along young players while simultaneously changing and reshaping team culture. After a first season that resulted in 33 wins, the rest of Malone’s tenure the team has never drifted below 40 wins and eventually reached the mountaintop in 2023.

Nov 24, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone hugs guard Jamal Murray (27) before the game against the Phoenix Suns at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

2013 seems like such a long time ago now. Let alone 2015 when Malone was hired. For those of us that remain from the “bad old years” of 2013-15 the transformation of this Nuggets team from the chaotic bad vibes of the Shaw years to now is night and day and quite remarkable. The Nuggets were on a bad track and Connelly, Arturas Karnisovas and Michael Malone steered the ship right.


The 2023-24 Nuggets are really unusual. As I’ve discussed in previous articles since returning to Denver Stiffs, I don’t think I can ever remember a championship team attempting to defend its title with such a high percentage of young players on the roster. In fact I can safely say that this is unprecedented in NBA history. You can attribute this phrase to me because I’ve been saying it since the offseason: Old rookies are still rookies.

There is a natural tension between youth and older vets. Teams that won championships are laden with veterans for a very good reason; youth development tends to come with massive mistakes, and it takes a long time to ‘get used’ to the NBA.

This has made Michael Malone’s job this season even more difficult on top of the already difficult job of trying to defend your title in a league where windows are really small. Calvin Booth and Tommy Balcetis (who was first interviewed by Nate Timmons for Denver Stiffs in 2013) have made the choice to go this direction. Counting on high-floor players to occupy roster spots that otherwise would have gone to vet minimum guys. In theory this approach is more cost effective, in practice it is far more difficult. It creates added stress to the vets on the roster to overproduce to maintain competitiveness and it puts stress on the youth to over perform relative to where they are in development.

Nov 17, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone talks to guard Jalen Pickett (24) before he goes into the game against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

This is the tightrope that Michael Malone must walk. In November the Nuggets extended the coach out another two seasons at a really high number. This likely was a reward for guiding the Nuggets to a championship last year on top of a somewhat obvious cheeky incentive to be ‘ok’ with the stresses and bumps along the way of guiding a youth laden defending champion. As of this writing the Nuggets sit at 18-10 and sort of ‘look’ weird. There an incongruity to the team this season that we just didn’t see last year. Jamal being injured for most of the beginning of this season has been culprit number one, but after that is the Nuggets being forced to play such youth.

Malone’s ability to develop youth and build culture, much like in 2015 are being put to the test this season in a way we have never seen for any previous championship winning coach. This is a damn hard job. Unlike 2019-20 when Michael Porter Junior was often buried behind veterans the Nuggets have little cover. Players like Peyton Watson, Julian Strawther, Christian Braun and four year vet Zeke Nnaji MUST play. How these players develop without sacrificing the concept of championship contention is one of the hardest jobs I’ve seen a front office place on a head coach.

Simply put, this is right up there with Malone’s most challenging coaching job. How he handles this season will undoubtedly dictate the future of the championship era of the Denver Nuggets.