He has faced intense scrutiny from fans about his schemes and rotations over his three-year run at the Nuggets’ helm. He has dealt with backlash from pundits regarding his failure to coach a league-average defense throughout his time in Denver. Those narratives may have clouded how some view Michael Malone the coach, but the outside noise is nonexistent inside the walls of the Nuggets’ locker room.
Denver’s season ended in dramatic fashion Wednesday night in Minnesota. The Nuggets fell in overtime to the Timberwolves 112-106. Minnesota clinched its first playoff berth in 14 seasons as Denver’s time without a postseason appearance stretched to five years — the last three of which came under Malone’s watch. He’ll return next year for a fourth season, Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said Friday.
There wasn’t anyone more beat up by the loss than Malone. Denver’s coach wears his emotions on his sleeve. It’s part of the reason why he has the support of his players and most importantly the Nuggets’ young core.
“Coach, he cares. I can honestly say he comes in here every day and tries to put us in the best position to win every game,” Gary Harris said. “I have a lot of respect for coach just because he helped me out, especially when he gave me a chance when a lot of people didn’t think I could play in this league. I have nothing but love for coach. He’s been great for us, and you can see that as we continue to improve.”
Malone inherited a Nuggets’ roster from Brian Shaw that went 30-52 in the 2013-14 season. In his first year on the job, Malone helped the Nuggets to a three-game improvement. In 2016, Denver’s record jumped to 40-42 and Denver missed the playoffs by one game.
The Nuggets increased their win total by six games this year and again finished one game out of the playoffs despite a late-season surge where Denver won six of its last seven games.
“I thought he was fantastic. Two years ago, we’re a 30 win team. Two years later, we’re a 46-win team. I thought over the last several weeks of the season, Mo (Malone) did just a brilliant job kind of using our roster, being creative, thinking outside the box,” Connelly said. “I can’t say enough about how proud I am of him and the staff. Faced the insurmountable odds after a rough start to the road trip when we lost in Memphis, a great double-overtime loss, great game but not a good loss obviously to Miami. We had every chance to lay down, and we did the opposite. So I think our coaching staff should be lauded for a fantastic job.”
Malone navigated an injury just 16 games into the regular-season to marquee free agent Paul Millsap that caused the four-time All-Star to miss the next 44 games. Millsap wasn’t close to 100 percent even when he returned for Denver’s last 22 games either. Regulars such as Nikola Jokic and Harris also missed time this season.
Malone’s record after three seasons with the Nuggets is 119-127.
In his first year as Denver’s starting point guard, Jamal Murray, who told BSN Denver earlier this season that he hopes Malone is his coach for the rest of his career, leaned on the Queens, New York, native for guidance and advice.
“He did a great job, just helping me, holding me more accountable,” Murray said. “I have my dad who holds me to a very high standard. I have coach Cal (John Calipari), who holds me to a very high standard, always picking on me, so coach is easy. I don’t think he realizes how hard he can get on me, and he can push me and demand stuff of me. He’s been my day one from the time I got here last year, and he’s helped me a whole lot. Our relationship is like the weather. I can ask him a question during the game, he can tell me what he’s thinking or where we’re trying to go. Hopefully, that continues. We’ve done a great job, and we’re only getting better.”
Nikola Jokic — the Nuggets’ third cornerstone — also gave Malone a glowing endorsement following his third season. Jokic enjoyed a career year in his third season as the captain of Denver’s high-flying offense. The 23-year-old averaged 18.5 points on 49.9 percent shooting across 75 games. Jokic also hit 39.6 percent of his threes, averaged 10.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game, which are all career highs.
Jokic is garnering consideration for a spot on an All-NBA team this year.
“How we’re improving, he’s improving with us. We make him better, he makes us better,” Jokic said about Malone. “Even the play calls, even the feeling for the game. That tech against Portland, just a great way to change the rhythm of the game. He feels the game, he knows when he needs to step up or call the timeout or whatever. I think he did a good job.”
With the support of Denver’s core three, who all enjoyed career years under their coach, Malone and the Nuggets are pushing full steam ahead into next season in search of something that has alluded Malone and the franchise for five years: a playoff appearance.