Guess what, Mr. Spacely? Canning Malone was the best move the Nuggets never made.
Denver’s goner is now the fourth-longest tenured coach in the NBA. He’s got the Nuggets, America’s little franchise that couldn’t, into their first Finals. He’s soaring at altitude, four victories away from dancing on basketball’s highest summit.
“There aren’t a lot of Michael Malones,” former NBA coach and longtime ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo told me as the Heat practiced Wednesday at Ball Arena on the eve of Nuggets-Miami Game 1.
“But there are a number of coaches in this league that could’ve been a lot more successful if they had the kind of cooperation and support that the Denver administration and ownership has given Michael. And he deserves it, yes, without question. It’s a credit to him, but it’s equally a credit to the administration in Denver.”
Tip of the cap, Stan Kroenke. To you as well, Josh. They might be as stubborn as a pair of a Missouri mules when it comes to getting the Nuggs and Avs on TV, but their coaching decisions — Malone and Jared Bednar in Denver, Sean McVay with the Rams, Mikel Arteta with London’s massive Arsenal football club — keep striking gold.
“I feel really fortunate and blessed to be working in an organization run by Stan and Josh Kroenke,” Malone said earlier this week. “They gave me a chance eight years ago to lead this team, and the most important part of this last eight years is their ability to be patient and have a big-picture approach and let this thing grow into what it is today.”
As a rule, owners in the NBA, as in Arteta’s Premier League, don’t tend to dwell on any picture bigger than a framed cashier’s check. Patience? Patience is a virtue for suckers.
Former Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer lost the faith of his star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Ex-Toronto boss Nick Nurse lost the faith of team president Masai Ujiri. Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers and Phoenix’s Monty Williams lost too many playoff games. That’s three guys with NBA championship rings and another who got the Suns to the Finals two years ago, all put out of work over just the last 10 weeks.
Add it up, and only three coaches in the league have been at their current gigs longer than Malone’s eight years at the helm here: Semi-lovable crank Gregg Popovich in San Antonio (hired 1996); Steve Kerr with the Warriors (hired 2014) and the guy on the other bench for these Finals, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra (hired 2008).
Pretty good company, that.
“Sometimes change for change’s sake sets you back,” ex-NBA coach and ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy opined. “We all want to talk about emulating the Miami Heat or the San Antonio Spurs. And the one thing that those teams do that very few other teams want to do is have continuity at the coaching position.
“And what Denver has done so well besides build their talent up is provide continuity for that talent with Michael Malone. And I think that instills coaching confidence and allows you to be the best possible coach you can be. And Michael has hit it out of the park.”
Title-contending rosters are a billion-dollar Jenga tower, and Malone’s hands remained steady. No matter how much the table shook around him.
Because he’s made it clear he’d run through a brick wall for Nikola Jokic, Joker would probably run through two for him in return. He refused to rush Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. during their respective rehabs, even though their absences cost the franchise dearly each of the last two postseasons. He got veterans to buy in and taught kids to value unselfishness and defense. And shipped out the ones who didn’t.
For all the fair gripes about Malone’s in-game adjustments and lineup optimizations, it’s hard to imagine the Nuggets — these Nuggets — being here without him.
“It doesn’t matter what you know, it’s your ability to get it to your players and get your players to play for you,” Carlesimo said. “Michael does that as well as anybody in the league.”
And he’s done it for a while. Funny isn’t it? In the NBA, just like Jenga, sometimes the key block, the winning block, is the one you left well enough alone.