DENVER — Two months ago, Michael Malone was allegedly coaching for his job.
NBA Insider Zach Lowe shared on ESPN’s The Lowe Post podcast that “if [the Nuggets] lose in the first round, it’s going to be a catastrophe that I think will push some potential changes.”
Even the cuddly local media has been more than willing to entertain his demise – suggesting Malone may be Denver’s Mark Jackson, and they need to find their Steve Kerr.
Yet here Malone stands, leading the best Nuggets team in franchise history to their best season in franchise history.
Is Michael Malone the most underrated coach in Denver sports history?
I believe he deserves more than begrudging respect – more than a firm handshake and a pat on the back – for what he’s already accomplished.
But I’ll admit, this is a silly premise for an article.
How can we even quantify if someone is properly rated versus under-rated? And if we could quantify it, how would we apply that across sports and decades and people?
What I’d like to do here is lay out all the things that – I believe – make Michael Malone a championship-level head coach, then at the end of the article you can decide whether we properly appreciate the man who made famous “take that L on the way out.”
LOVE at the heart of everything
Let’s start with the most obvious trait and coincidentally my favorite: Michael Malone truly loves his team.
Pick a press conference, ask Malone about a player, and he’s 90-percent likely to tell you how much he loves something specific about that player.
What I mean to represent with that made-up stat was written all over his face during the on-court celebration of Denver’s first ever Western Conference Finals victory.
“The most satisfying part about the journey is who I’m on the journey with,” said Malone, teary-eyed and still a bit croaky from a bug that ran through the Ball Arena weeks before. “I have a tremendous coaching staff, tremendous front office, great ownership, and the 17 players behind me who came to work every day, checked their egos at the door for something much bigger than themselves. We have tremendous character and I love each and every one of our players.”
SUPPORT that fosters greatness
It’s easy to love when you’re winning and making history, but Malone loves unconditionally.
When Jamal Murray tore his ACL in April of 2021, the uncertainty that followed could have tanked his entire career. Questions about how long he’d be out – and if upon return he’d be a shadow of the player he was in the Orlando Bubble – were rightfully being asked.
The Nuggets faced an inflection point: commit to Murray and the current course this team was on or cut bait and move onto bigger and healthier fish.
“I remember being on the bus with him, going to the airport after he did the injury in Golden State,” Malone remarked after the Nuggets took a commanding 3-0 lead over the Lakers in Los Angeles.
“[Murray] had tears in his eyes. His first thought was ‘man, are you guys going to trade me? I’m damaged goods. Are you going to trade me now?’”
“I hugged him, I said ‘hell no, you’re ours. We love you. We’re going to help you get back, and you’re going to be a better player for it.’”
CONFIDENCE to construct a specific roster
“An average athlete lacking great speed and leaping ability, foot speed is a big liability. Needs to improve as a post player, gain strength, and develop a repertoire of back-to-the-basket moves.”
That was the book on Nikola Jokic heading into the 2014 NBA Draft, where the Nuggets picked him 41st overall during a now infamous Taco Bell commercial.
“Maybe that’s what pushed him forward,” quips Malone, mind clearly wrapped up in that beefy Quesarito. “They didn’t even have his pick on the draft.”
But whatever motivation drove Jokic from that day on, the act of giving him a shot to make it in the NBA is what created undying dedication in the Joker for his new boss.
Malone not only fosters trust, but he also has the confidence to identify people he wants to work with and the courage to go get them.
He stood up for Murray and Michael Porter Jr. as they battled through injuries. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was on his wish list for years. Heck, he even told Bruce Brown he could switch positions just to get him to Denver.
“First thing they said was you can come here and be a guard,” says Brown, remembering the pitch both Malone and GM Calvin Booth gave him during the off-season. “I wanted to get out of that ‘big man’ role and show what I can do. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear so it was a perfect fit.”
It’s too simplistic to say that this current Nuggets’ team was built by one person – Booth, former GM Tim Connelly and many others have their fingerprints all over this roster. But it was directed by Malone, and once in the building it’s his culture that brought everything together.
“In this business you have to bring in talented players, that’s a given,” says Malone. “But I think we’ve done a good job of identifying guys that will fit into this culture. Being selfless is a huge part of being a Denver Nugget.”
“What I also love about this franchise is that when guys don’t fit into this culture they’re not here anymore.”
Knowing what you don’t want in the locker room is sometimes as important as identifying what type of players you’re hoping to attract. Malone showed true conviction in trading former first round pick Bones Hyland in the middle of the season for two second round picks.
At the time the deal was widely panned as a poor haul for a talented player, but for Malone talent can only take you so far. Moving on from a first-round pick in less than three years takes support from the front office and guts – both of which Denver’s head coach seemingly has in spades.
SCHEME that puts players in position to dominate
If you listen to Malone talk hoops for any amount of time, you’re likely to hear him bring up his favorite word: defense.
Maybe that’s because he’s the 6-foot-2 son of a coach (more on that later), or maybe it’s because he’s an acolyte of the cliché “defense wins championships.”
Regardless, he builds his basketball schemes on a foundation of strong defense. From there – he wants his teams to run, create space, share the basketball, and feel empowered to take the open shot.
It helps having a selfless superstar like Jokic, but building a gameplan based on sharing doesn’t always work in the NBA.
What Malone has done is shown this group that by sharing, they all succeed.
“Everybody eats when we all play for each other,” says Murray. “We’ve been doing that for a while now. We’re in a great rhythm of playing unselfish basketball.”
Selfless basketball fosters an attack that’s nearly impossible to defend: some nights Murray will go off, while others KCP will be lethal from three, and then there’s Brown coming off the bench scoring twenty, and MPJ rocking the rim with aggressive drives, all the while Jokic lurks and creates and pulls strings like some sort of 7-foot puppet master and triple-doubles are his marionette.
Perhaps Michael Malone’s greatest accomplishment is succeeding with selfless basketball in a world where selfishness is at an all-time high.
HISTORY that informs decision-making
Michael Malone is a coach’s son, and he loves 1980’s basketball.
“Just being a young kid around that and seeing some of the greatest players to ever play the game, for me it was one of my favorite eras of the NBA,” says Malone.
His father Brendan worked as an assistant with the Knicks and Pistons during the decade of Duran Duran – and it was there that Malone’s coaching ethos was forged.
Through toughness, and elbows, and ‘Bad Boys,’ Malone grew up in the game – and even now on the sidelines in the Western Conference Finals you’ll see him crouch down into a defensive stance.
Ready to play suffocating defense, or administer a hard foul, whatever the situation dictates.
One of the most important thing’s Malone learned from his dad was an appreciation of NBA history, and history was on his mind after sweeping the Lakers.
“The history this franchise has had with the Lakers, it hasn’t been a history Nuggets fans are proud of,” says Malone. “To do it against that team in that building made it that much more special because of guys like Dan Issel, Doug Moe, great players and great people who have represented this franchise for so many years. This is for them … this was for all Nuggets. That’s what was really cool about it.”
This current Nuggets team still has history to write, but Malone’s blend of old-school philosophy with new-school heart is contributing to a record-breaking season in Denver.
DESIRE to do what’s right
“The message is pretty point blank,” says Michael Malone with a mask covering the bottom half of his face.
“We’re all hoping and asking and demanding justice in the killing of Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado.”
After nearly a month of being confined in the NBA’s return to play bubble, Malone and the Nuggets contemplated the uncomfortable question of whether they should be playing basketball at all during an inflection point of racial and social unrest across the country during a global pandemic.
The decision to play wasn’t totally in their control, but the chance to use their platform to speak about McClain’s murder at the hands of police was one the Nuggets embraced wholeheartedly.
They wore black t-shirts that read “JUSTICE FOR ELIJAH MCCLAIN” at every Zoom press availability – Malone spearheading the discussion around justice and change.
“This is Aurora, this is our backyard, these are the people that we represent on the court every night,” Malone told the Denver Post. “I just felt really strongly about trying to do something where we could honor Elijah McClain, his memory, his name, and his family.”
“I know we’ve been using our platform down here to try to bring about education … [but] we have not gotten that justice. That’s a shame. Hopefully that will change at some point.”
In case you’d forgotten, Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old black man who was severely injured by police officers in August of 2019. Paramedics then injected him with ketamine on the way to the hospital and McClain died after suffering cardiac arrest.
At the time, Malone and the Nuggets felt not enough was being done to hold accountable those that played a role in McClain’s death. Since then, three Aurora Police officers and two Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics were indicted on charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
When it matters off the court, it matters to Michael Malone.
Whether that means racial justice, mental health, or Nikola Jokic and his horses – Malone isn’t afraid to stand up and speak out for what’s right.
“It really means a lot that they would take the time out of their day to honor my son,” Lawayne Mosley, Elijah McClain’s father told the Denver Post. “He would’ve been thrilled. He would’ve been … Oh my goodness.”
NUMBERS that don’t lie
In March, Malone celebrated his 400th career victory as Denver downed Detroit 119-100. The Nuggets also clinched a playoff spot that night, you can probably guess which one he cared about more.
But the fact remains – Malone’s only the third coach to eclipse the 400-win mark in franchise history, the previous two being basketball legends George Karl and Doug Moe.
However, Malone’s overall winning percentage (.576, per basketball reference) is greater than that of Moe’s – and his playoff winning percentage (.524, per basketball reference) is better than any other coach in Nuggets’ history.
Since we’re comparing across sports – John Fox owns the Broncos highest win percentage (.719, per pro football reference), though he only coached in Denver for three years. Mike Shanahan’s win percentage (.616, per pro football reference) over his 13-year tenure leading the Broncos is more impressive to me, along with his two Super Bowl victories. But can Shanahan be considered “underrated” when he sits on the doorstep of the Hall of Fame (which is an abject travesty by the way, put the man in Canton) and a successful chain of steakhouses? That’s for you to decide.
For the Avalanche, Jared Bednar is positioned similarly to Malone. Third highest win percentage in franchise history (.592, per hockey reference) and the highest playoff win percentage (.614, per hockey reference) – but the major difference is Bednar is the overall leader in victories (333 total, per hockey reference). Marc Crawford and Bob Hartley are close, but for my money Bednar is the greatest Avalanche head coach of all time.
The Rockies don’t get a nominee.
My argument for Malone being Denver’s most under-rated coach in history simply blends his greatness both as a person and as a coach with the disrespect and disbelief he’s overcome at every turn. Winning the NBA Finals might tip the scales on celebrity, then perhaps I’ll be writing a column about why he’s simply the greatest coach in Denver sports history.
Until then, appreciate the fact that a good man is leading this team into the breach. A man you’d want to coach your kids, your brother or sister; hell, even I’d follow him.