Tim Connelly walked away from Denver. Michael Malone is itching to beat his old basketball brother.


Until Tim Connelly scratched a seven-year itch and abruptly ended a beautiful relationship with Michael Malone to take the money in Minnesota, they were inseparable basketball brothers, a front-office exec and fiery coach joined at the hip in the quest to make the Nuggets a legit championship contender.

And now?

“I have no friends not on the Denver Nuggets,” Malone said Wednesday.

He was kidding. At least I think so. Yes, Malone threw down the gauntlet but punctuated his fighting words with a chuckle. There are no hard feelings between Connelly and Malone. Right?

OK, I will let the coach explain.

“Let’s be real … I wouldn’t be the head coach if it wasn’t for Tim Connelly … I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity,” said Malone, hired by Connelly in 2015 to put the broken pieces of the Nuggets together again, after his first shot at being an NBA coach ended 106 games into a stint with Sacramento.

Here’s what is no joke: When Connelly left Denver in late May to become the roster architect for a division rival, every game between the Nuggets and Timberwolves got a whole lot juicier.

“They are a division rival,” said Malone, before getting down to the real nitty-gritty.

“As much as we’re going to miss Tim and his family, it’s all about beating them. And being ahead of (the Timberwolves). Same thing for Utah, same thing for Portland, same thing for OKC. We want to get back to being a team that can win the division every year, and that will lead to even better things. We’ve hung a few division banners. Now we want to hang a much bigger and more important banner. We look forward to the games and the rivalry with the T-wolves.”

So am I the only one who finds it amusing that Denver and Minnesota will bump into each other in Las Vegas on Friday when the teams open play in the NBA’s summer league for young prospects?

Let the hoop hostilities begin.

Will a hockey fight break out between trash-talking Nuggets rookie Christian Braun and fellow Kansas Jayhawks alum David McCormack?

Or, after the game, will Connelly wrap his buddies from Denver in a bro hug and buy a round of tequila shots for them at The Chandelier bar in the Cosmopolitan on the Vegas strip?

Denver would not be anywhere near the championship conversation without the contributions of Connelly, who drafted center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray.

Malone, however, has discussed the next big step for the Nuggets with Calvin Booth, who has worked hard to make the team mentally tougher and defensively ornerier since taking over Connelly’s role in the front office.

“I don’t want to say: ‘One … two … three … championship!’ Don’t talk about it. Be about it,’” said Malone, a firm believer that a winning mindset must be more deeply ingrained than the words uttered when the Nuggets break the huddle.

“Everybody talks about it. But if you come late to practice or late to the plane, or you miss a weight-room session or miss a treatment session with the trainers, then you’re not being about it. Anybody can say the word championship, but not many are willing to do the right thing every day. That is the thing I’m going to challenge all our players this year: I don’t want to hear it. Show me. Every single day.”

Make no mistake. Watching coach Jared Bednar and the Avalanche bring home the Stanley Cup to Colorado has Malone fired up, more determined than ever to help the Nuggets ascend to the top of the NBA heap.

From drinking a cold one tossed at him by an adoring fan along the parade route to his emotional speech at the championship rally, Malone acknowledged: “Jared set the bar really high.”

“When we win. Fingers crossed, when we win it, I’m going to have to get my game on point,” said Malone, dreaming about a victory parade for the Nuggets, standing on a fire truck, with “fans throwing me IPAs.”


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