DENVER — Denver Nuggets’ head coach Michael Malone is 2-5 against his former employer in Sacramento and although storylines about Malone’s turbulent run with the Kings flow unchecked whenever the two teams match up, Malone is over the drama that surrounds both parties.
Malone, who was fired from the Kings shortly into his second season in Sacramento, amassed a 28-54 record during his first year and got out to a 9-6 start in his sophomore season before All-Star DeMarcus Cousins came down with a case of viral meningitis. Without Cousins, the Kings struggled, lost seven of their next nine and Malone was promptly relieved of his duties.
The firing sent shockwaves throughout the league and the dismissal was ridiculed by countless parties across the NBA. Malone had developed a rare rapport with his star big man that few, including his immediate successors Tyrone Corbin and George Karl, were able to.
Nearly three years have passed since the unexpected firing but there’s still obvious tension between Malone and the Sacramento organization. That was evident after Malone’s first win over the Kings in six tries since he was named the Nuggets’ head coach.
“I have 15 purple ties that will never be worn again,” Malone said after Denver’s March 6 win over Sacramento last season. “It’s my wife’s favorite color and her and my two girls will never wear purple again. But they got to understand if I’m in the coaching business long enough, at some point, we’re just going to be wearing black.”
Denver went 2-2 against Sacramento last year and although the foreseeable chatter around Malone’s history with the Kings will rise to the surface whenever the two teams square off, it’s not the same hot-button issue that it was a year ago.
Part of that has to do with the fact that Cousins is no longer in Sacramento. The three-time All-Star, who’s a fan of Denver’s head coach still to this day and publicly called his firing in 2014 “unexpected” and “emotional,” was shipped South to New Orleans around last year’s trade deadline. The other is that Malone was able to rack up two wins against the Kings last season — that monkey is now off his back.
“To finally get a win against your former team, it’s always nice to get that under your belt,” Malone said after Friday’s practice. “But that’s gone. I don’t think there are any players on their roster anymore that I coached. I think it’s a completely new team and I’m not worried about that whole drama storyline. I’m worried about us getting our first win of the season.”
Cousins, who spent the better part of his first seven professional seasons in Sacramento, now makes his home in the Bayou. Other Kings’ royalty like point guard Isaiah Thomas — a Malone favorite — has blown up since he left the organization and Rudy Gay is likely set to flourish this year in San Antonio. Shooting guard Ben McLemore, who was a rookie during Malone’s inaugural season with the Kings, is in Memphis, Patrick Patterson is set to play an integral role with the Thunder this year, Nik Stauskas, Derrick Williams, and point guard Darren Collison are long gone too.
“I was feeling a lot of pressure last year,” Malone joked. “It feels a lot different because DeMarcus is gone and that’s no disrespect to their current players.”
Malone will look to move to 3-5 against Sacramento with a win in Denver’s home opener Saturday. Standing in his way is fresh Kings’ roster lined with rookies and a few veterans.
George Hill will likely draw the start at point guard, but backing him up is No. 7 overall pick De’Aaron Fox, who posted an impressive 14-point, four-rebound, five-assist line in his Kings’ debut against Houston Wednesday night. Malone is a fan of the Kentucky product.
“I love him. Even watching him in college last year, going through the draft process and studying as many players as I could, I was a big fan of his,” Malone said of Fox. “I think he has very good size but what I think separates him and even watching him against Houston in their season opener, is he’s got an incredible motor, plays with great energy, and I think he’s just a relentless young man. I have a lot of respect for his game. I think he’s going to be a hell of a player in this league for a very long time.”
Fox, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield, Garrett Temple and the rest of the Sacramento contingent rolls into Pepsi Center Saturday night on the second-half of a back-to-back after playing in Dallas on Friday.
Don’t expect Malone to magically don a purple tie in Denver’s home opener, but you never know. The Nuggets’ coach has a flair for the unexpected.