Don’t mess with Michael Malone, partner.
Combative by nature, Malone walks into a gym with the make-it, take-it attitude of a hooper raised on New York City asphalt. But the Nuggets coach also understands some battles are won with hugs, and players won’t listen to the screaming if they don’t know you care about more than their assist-to-turnover ratio.
In addition to being the son of a coach kept humble by critiques in late-night texts after every game, Malone can also be a son of a gun when his team stops playing defense or a journalist makes the mistake of calling him Mike.
The guy who calls rage timeouts on the Denver bench is a 51-year-old former point guard with a bum knee who wants to be Gregg Popovich when he grows up.
And one more thing: Malone is nearly the perfect coach for these Nuggets, who will have to scrap their way out of a flyover NBA city and earn every ounce of respect, from foes and refs alike, in the quest for the first championship in franchise history.
If center and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is the face of the Nuggets, then Malone is clenched fist, itching for a fight.
Only Doug Moe and George Karl have won more games on the Denver bench than Malone, but those two great coaches never so doggedly chased and openly stated the one goal for these Nuggets should be the Larry O’Brien trophy.
As his team defied ticky-tack calls that glued Jokic to the bench and Malone pushed and prodded the Nuggets to not give up in the face of an 18-point road deficit at Indiana, the feisty coach paused a moment to jaw with an obnoxious Pacers fan screaming from near the Denver bench, before having the heckler removed from the arena.
“He was just a little too aggressive, in my face,” Malone said Wednesday after Denver’s 122-119 victory. “And I don’t react kindly to that, partner.”
Mess with Malone at your own peril, partner.
Now in his eighth season on the Nuggets bench, Malone finally has a team that not only reflects, but can amplify the ornery side of his personality, thanks to new general manager Calvin Booth adding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown to the roster.
“My brand … is never giving up,” said Caldwell-Pope, who has produced as many 3-point field goals (25) and steals (16) in the early going for the Nuggets as Will Barton and Monte Morris combined, suggesting Booth made a savvy deal by trading two players popular in Denver to Washington.
Malone is a purveyor of tough love, demanding defensive effort and rebounds from Michael Porter Jr., who could be satisfied with one of the sweetest jump shots on the planet. Malone, however, is not so old school as to demand hand-bounce passes, allowing Bones Hyland to get Bizzy as a flamboyant and creative point guard off the bench.
The Nuggets would not be anywhere near the championship conversation if Malone had not embraced the bold move of building this team around a skilled-but-soft big man taken in the second round of the 2014 draft, then helped Jokic grow into one of the five best players on the planet.
The real art of coaching isn’t found in the X’s and O’s, but in how Malone earns the trust of MPJ to accept those times when he cheers from the Denver bench while Brown’s shutdown defense closes out a tough victory during the fourth quarter.
A winning culture isn’t built in a day, and every great coach understands leadership is, first and foremost, a selfless and patient act of service. A long time ago, in conversations with John Wooden, the greatest basketball coach who ever lived told me his job was to teach during practice and employ players to find a way to win on game day.
So when Malone dubs Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray as “Peanut Butter and Jelly,” I hear a coach with the awareness that he might put the winning ingredients together, but if he has instilled the belief in players they can beat anyone, there’s no reason Jokic and these talented Nuggets can’t scratch and claw their way to the first championship in franchise history.
A feisty coach will be right there with them, fighting every inch of the way.
Don’t mess with Malone, partner.