We are well into the first round of the NBA playoffs and as I write this, Denver and Portland are all tied up 1-1. Like clockwork, as soon as the Nuggets lost the first game, the calls for Head Coach Michael Malone’s job picked up where they left off when the Nuggets were down 3-1 last year in the bubble to the Jazz. We all know how that turned out. Nonetheless, fans get stir crazy and impatient when there is even a hint of underachieving. Even for a team that has literally done nothing but improve and advance since Malone took over as head coach. The second that momentum shows even the slightest hint of pausing, the mob reacts in full force. It’s all simply, excuse my french, BS.
Denver was in an interesting place after ownership decided to move on from long time head coach and 2012/2013 coach of the year, George Karl. Getting into the playoffs was a norm for Karl’s Nuggets but he’d only found his way out of the first round once since taking over in 2005/2006. It was time to move on and find someone that could elevate a talented young team so Karl was fired. Enter Brian Shaw. That experiment was a complete failure and nearly set the Nuggets back to some very dark times, like pre-Melo dark times. Shaw won 36 games in his first season and just 30 the following. Nuggets GM, Tim Connelly had seen enough and the Nuggets were back on the coaching hunt.
Michael Malone was the head coach of the Sacramento Kings for a little over one season. He went 28-54 in year one and was right around .500 when the Kings front office, expressing very little patience, decided to move on just 24 games into the 2014/15 season. It’s worth noting that Kings star player at the time, DeMarcus Cousins, missed several games in the early portion of that season after being diagnosed with viral meningitis. He was out of Sacramento and in as Denver’s HC.
In his first year with Denver, the Nuggets went 33-49, improving on the last season under Shaw by 3 games. The following year saw an even bigger leap in wins with 40. The trend continued in 2017/18 when Denver won 46 games and missed making the playoffs by 1 game. They needed to win the final 7 contests to get in….they won 6, losing in OT to Minnesota. The Dam finally broke for Malone and company during his 4th season as they went 54-28, earned the #2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and beat the Spurs in round 1 (hadn’t gotten past the first round since the 2008/2009 season.) And of course, last year in the bubble, the Nuggets made it to the Western Conference Finals for only their 3rd time in franchise history.
How many head coaches have seen that kind of improvement each and every year?
I’ll admit, when Denver was down 3-1 to Utah in the first round of the bubble last year, I was worried. I wondered internally if Malone could get the best out of guys like Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. I dismissed that silly idea after taking into account the bubble year WAS and will ALWAYS have an * next to the champion (cough, Lakers, cough). So, whatever happened inside Walt Disney World needed to be taken with a grain of salt. Then, some Disney magic happened. The Nuggets came all the way back and won the series against Utah, 4-3. When they found themselves in the exact same spot, down 3-1 to the Clippers, they shocked the world yet again and advanced to the Western Conference Finals. It was miraculous. And to be fair, if I am going to put an * next to (cough, Lakers, cough) then I must also tag that strange little sign to what Denver did inside the bubble. Doesn’t make it any less special…but would they have made those epic comebacks if it were a regular year, normal playoff format? We will never know.
That all being said, questions need to be asked about Michael, don’t call him Mike, Malone. Why did Denver find themselves in two 3-1 holes in a row? Why do they constantly struggle in 3rd periods? Is that a coaching thing? Does Malone wait to long to call timeouts or make the proper adjustments? For example, just before Monday’s game 1, Malone kept talking about the need to play Shaquille Harrison at some point in this series. Nearly halftime, Shaq had yet to check into the game and Damian Lillard was turning into a one man comeback, striking fear into the hearts of Nuggets fans. Malone called Harrison’s number and had him stick to Lillard. It worked. Bleeding stopped and Denver, for one half, solved the puzzle that allowed them to contain the Blazers smoking hot superstar and win a HUGE game 2. Did he wait too long to make the adjustment? Would the matchup have worked so well if he threw Shaq in a minute earlier? Does it really matter? Denver found a way to win and now has a shot to reclaim control of this series when they go to Portland for Thursday’s game 3.
Even the greatest coaches are not perfect. Future Hall of Fame head coach, Bill Bilichick, is no stranger to critics. Many are second guessing how he handled the GOAT, Tom Brady, essentially forcing him into the arms of Tampa Bay and another Super Bowl victory.
Yes, Malone has some flaws but the positives outweigh the negatives by a ton. Look at this season, for example. Michael Porter Jr. looked lost during the first half of the season. Now he’s a household name. It seemed Malone’s and MPJ’s relationship was a bit rocky (refer to Porter’s COVID remarks in the bubble, the need to spread the ball out remarks in the bubble and all the games he missed early in the year due to COVID issues). Now, the two are like best buddies. Two Michael’s in a pod. MPJ is a candidate for most improved player of the year with a ton of potential still to be realized.
How about Nikola Jokic’s growth both physically and mentally as a player. Malone poked all the right buttons while refraining from forcing him to be someone he isn’t. He’s always wanted the Joker to take more shots and take over games but rather than demand a shot total over the years, he let Joker organically become a take over type guy and that’s what we are seeing during his MVP campaign.
Oh yea, and losing your second best player with 20 games left and not really missing a beat? When Jamal Murray went down, the championship window, at least for one season, slammed shut. However, when the Nuggets only lost 5 games since losing the Blue Arrow, we all became believers again.
The roster for the Nuggets truly believe in one another. They have fun but turn serious when the situation calls for it. Murray walking along the sidelines next to his head coach in game 1, cheering his teammates on and getting the crowd fired up is a direct result in the comfort a key player has with his head coach. Nikola Jokic is the most humble superstar I’ve ever seen or followed and Malone not only supports Joker’s personality, he fosters it. It’s a unique group of guys that have come a long way. Malone was one of the guys responsible for keeping the Nuggets from falling back to irrelevancy. He’s a top coach in the NBA. Will the time come to have the “hot seat” conversation? Sure, every coach, no matter who he is, will hear it. But we are nowhere close to that now, regardless of how this first series goes against Portland.
For now, enjoy having an elite coach that has developed something truly unique in the NBA. Enjoy the playoffs. There was a time, before Malone arrived in Denver, we all wondered when post season games would become the norm in the Mile High City. Now we expect nothing less.