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DENVER – Groggy but hardly grumpy, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone and his six sleep-deprived assistant coaches form a semicircle around two televisions a recent Tuesday morning to assess the negatives, positives and inexplicables of a disappointing, close loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Before they begin a 45-minute film session to break down the breakdowns and devise a practice plan, Malone grabs his cellphone to read a quote from Kevin Durant describing how easy it was to get offensive rebounds against the Nuggets.
"Dice, stop it right here," Malone shouts to team video coordinator Daisuke "Dice" Yoshimoto. "Look at this right here ..."
Coaches shake their heads or bury them as they watch Nuggets players gaze in the air and not box out as Thunder backup big man Enes Kanter consistently beats them to the ball. "They kicked our ass on the glass," Malone says as most of the room nods in agreement.
Russell Westbrook later streaks down the lane untouched for a vicious dunk. Malone wonders aloud how, in a seven-point game with three minutes left, "the [expletive] paint is like the parting of the Red Sea. That is without fathom – unfathomable!"
Malone's mood brightens as more uplifting footage comes across the television – solid screens to set up open shots and crisp ball movement. But one particular sequence puts a smile on Malone's face, and he forces Yoshimoto to stop the video so that everyone notices what transpired: Sean Kilpatrick, a Nuggets player on a 10-day contract, rolls to the top of the circle and squares up to shoot.
"Look at our bench," Malone says. "Even before we know it’s in or out, everybody on the bench is up. They don’t know this [expletive] kid. He’s on a 10-day contract. But everybody is hoping that shot goes in."
Malone explains to his staff that a lively bench, in which teammates root for one another, is the best indicator of the locker room and culture of a team. The opposite is also the case, and that's not good. Malone asks to watch it again and shrugs while his assistants look on in silence.
"Maybe I'm corny," Malone says with a laugh. "I don't know."
Whether or not Malone was being corny, he is undeniably employed, something he couldn't say this time last year, when he was still recovering from his stunning dismissal as head coach of the Sacramento Kings. The firing continues to sting, so much so that Malone said he hasn't worn purple – his wife Jocelyn's favorite color – since Dec. 14, 2014. "A day that will live in infamy," Malone said with a laugh.
Malone was surprised when he received the call from then-general manager Pete D'Alessandro that night because the Kings, long a Western Conference doormat, were a respectable 11-13 and were missing their best player, DeMarcus Cousins, who was sidelined the previous nine games with viral meningitis.
The move was panned league wide – because Malone had been one of the first coaches to get the supposedly uncoachable Cousins to buy in – and looked even worse as the franchise stumbled to an embarrassing finish under Tyrone Corbin and then George Karl. Even D'Alessandro was later stripped of decision-making power as owner Vivek Ranadive brought in Vlade Divac as vice president of basketball operations.
"I'm definitely motivated. No one ever wants to get fired. I don't care what your job is. I don't care if you're working the graveyard shift at the junkyard," Malone said. "But the way it turned out in Sacramento was kind of a blessing. You couldn't have asked for a better script, the way their season turned out ... it became a nightmare. By the end of it, I became John Wooden."
Nuggets owner Josh Kroenke and general manager Tim Connelly hired Malone last June with the hope that he could help turn around a team that had significantly regressed the past two years. One Nuggets veteran player compared Malone's task to trying to place a collar on a dog that has been running wild.
Malone understands that his primary responsibility is establishing a competitive environment that is conducive to developing the Nuggets' stash of young talent, including promising rookies Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic. Winning isn't the ultimate objective this season, but an unusually weak bottom of the West has presented an unlikely carrot of playoff contention for a team with an 18-29 record.
The schedule has been brutal as Denver has already played Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City a combined 10 times, yet the Nuggets did claim a surprising victory over the league-leading Warriors on Jan. 13.
Malone was discouraged by his father, NBA lifer and current Detroit Pistons assistant Brendan Malone, from following his career path because of the instability of the profession.
"I told him, if you go into this, don't buy a house, buy a Winnebago because you're going to be traveling all over the place," said Brendan Malone, now in his 29th NBA season. "But he didn't listen to me, which is a good thing."
Michael Malone was once a ballboy at Syracuse and showed up for games when his father was an assistant with the Knicks just to take advantage of shooting baskets at Madison Square Garden. His love of the game could never be suppressed – not even when he started as a volunteer assistant at Oakland University in Michigan.
"I'm the one, of the six kids, that shared in the passion for basketball. Seeing the example he set for many years, and how hard he worked, if I wasn't coaching the game of basketball, I don't know what I'd be doing," said Malone, who contemplated working for the Secret Service before getting a call from Pete Gillen in 1995 to serve as an assistant at Providence. "I have no regrets in the path I've chosen."
Malone stayed up until 2 a.m. stewing over the Oklahoma City loss, questioning what he could've done better and watching film. He sent his two daughters, Caitlin and Bridget, off to school and was back in his office about five hours later devising a practice schedule that was divided in precise intervals, ranging from 15 to 30 minutes. Connelly has already told the fiery Malone to relax because the Nuggets are focused on the long game, measured by steady improvement – not wins and losses. But Malone still greets each defeat with the same misery and desire to correct past mistakes. "I'm a competitor," Malone said. "I know a lot of guys love to win. I hate to lose."
Denver has a worse record than this time last season, but veteran point guard Jameer Nelson has told Malone that the overall vibe of the team is "night and day" from last season. "It's funny because I told him in my eyes, I feel like the team is better," Nelson said. "Even though we're not winning like we want to win, the team is better. Some of the games we were involved in last year, we would've given up. We haven't given up any games this year. We've fought to the very end."
As players hit the court for practice, the level of engagement and enthusiasm seems to contradict their lot in the standings. They are structured but loose, energetic but focused, with all players going through skill work with director of player development Dee Brown. During a series of pick-and-roll drills, Darrell Arthur slapped a Kenneth Faried layup attempt so hard off the backboard that it didn't land until it nearly hit center court. Will Barton was so tickled that he fell to the floor, laughing and shouting, "Get that [expletive] outta here!"
Upset by his team's late-game execution against the Thunder, Malone spent the final 15 minutes of practice running sets for the closing seconds. Malone alternated drawing up plays for the blue team (starters) and the white team (reserves) and received the same dreadful results. Passes were stolen or thrown out of bounds. Shots went wayward. The two teams combined to make just three baskets, much to Malone's chagrin, but he waited until the drill was done to chastise his team, informing his players that they aren't that good. That – despite the breakout campaigns of Danilo Gallinari and Barton – they don't have a superstar who can compensate for their shortcomings.
"We don’t value the ball. We don’t value possessions. We don’t do the little things. We have to get a lot better if we’re going to win these close games," Malone yells at his players. "It’s not a [expletive] romper room."
Then, without hesitation, Malone says: "OK, bring it in. 'Together' on three. One, two, three ...
For men who spend most of their days in one building, it's important to have most amenities at their disposal. On the stroll to his office, Malone spots his top assistant, Ed Pinckney, who spent the previous five seasons working under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, emerging from a barber chair with a fresh haircut. A barber shows up regularly in the Nuggets’ newly refurbished locker room to make sure players and coaches remain looking sharp. "Needed one," Pinckney said as he rubbed his head. Assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. waited near the chair, next in line.
Malone grabs a seat in his office, which has photos of Nuggets Hall of Famers Alex English, Dan Issel and Dikembe Mutombo on the walls and a framed picture from Malone's introductory news conference on a shelf. On his desk rest the cards he used in practice and a thick scouting report on the Memphis Grizzlies that he planned to study thoroughly that evening. Because an important part of leadership is delegation, Malone assigns a different assistant to scout the upcoming opponent and devise a game plan. Unseld had Oklahoma City. Pinckney was responsible for Memphis.
"If I say, 'We have to trust each other,' and I don't trust my coaches, am I a hypocrite or what?" Malone said. "I'm going to give them a voice."
Turning the page on Oklahoma City, Malone and his staff spent game day watching film of Memphis, a team the Nuggets lost to earlier this month. The Grizzlies are a traditional inside-out power team, so much of the video session was centered around Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Using film from the Grizzlies' previous five games, the coaches recognized the danger of double-teaming Gasol because of his ability to pass the ball. They elect to play Gasol straight up with Jokic and put the more athletic Faried on Randolph. When Randolph has his back to the basket, they plan to double. When he's facing up, they don't want to give the lefty any space. As coaches admire Randolph's jab-step fadeaways, Malone shares a story from Jokic, the 7-footer from Serbia who struggled guarding Randolph in the previous game.
"He said, 'Coach, I've never seen anybody jab, jab, jab looking down and then raise up for a jumper,'" Malone says as his assistants chuckle. "I said, 'Let me introduce you to Zach Randolph.' "
Unseld noted that New Orleans had success leaning in on Randolph one-on-one because it had a luxury most teams don't with the long and rangy Anthony Davis on him.
"Are you saying [Davis] has an advantage over our guys?" Malone asks, smiling.
"I'm not implying anything," Unseld says, chuckling. "Just stating a fact."
Midway during the team session, head athletic trainer Dan Shimensky comes in with the disappointing news that Nelson – expected to return against Memphis – wasn't going to be able to participate in the morning shootaround because of continued soreness in his left wrist. Malone and his staff adjust the game plan to include a more enhanced role for backup Randy Foye under the assumption that Nelson can't play.
At the conclusion of the coaches’ film session, Malone notes that assistant Ryan Bowen might want to start looking over his shoulder. Bowen usually does the film edits on game days but had the flu two games earlier, leaving the responsibility to fellow assistant Micah Nori before a win against the Indiana Pacers. If the Nuggets lose to the Thunder and Grizzlies with Bowen back, Malone says Bowen "might get Wally Pipp'd."
"If you have thin skin, and you can’t take your balls being broke, you’re going to have a hard time working for me," Malone would later say.
The coaches gather their notes and get ready to go over the game plan during a film session with the players. During shootaround, Malone paces along center court while groups of players occupy both sides of the court, big men going over low-post defense and guards working on pick-and-roll coverage. Malone gets involved in drills with his big men, much to the delight of J.J. Hickson, who jokingly encouraged his teammates to take a free shot on their coach. Later, Malone huddled with veteran Mike Miller, a former Grizzly, to get some intel on Memphis.
From his 12 seasons as an assistant in New York, Cleveland, New Orleans and Golden State, to his season-plus leading Sacramento, Malone has always worked to establish solid relationships with his players. He connected with stars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Cousins, understanding that the responsibility of a coach goes beyond strategy and preparation.
"When you’re a coach, you wear so many hats. You have to be a coach, have to be a motivator, you have to be a psychologist, you have to find how to connect with these guys, you have to be an ear to listen to them, so there’s a lot of things you have to do," Malone said. "I never try to be any of these guys' boys. My job is to help them become the best player they can be."
Malone stays behind at the Pepsi Center rather than make an hour-long round trip home, wasting time that could otherwise be spent preparing for the game. He had arrived with a suit that he picked out the night before, admitting that he's "too anal, too much of an organized freak" to let his wife pick out his clothes. He also doesn't drink coffee, but he might shut his eyes for a few minutes in his office to make up for the lack of sleep.
The Nuggets’ coaches won't reconvene until 25 minutes before tipoff in the locker room, where Pinckney reminds them of the game plan on how to defend and attack the Grizzlies. After letting Pinckney speak for eight minutes, Malone comes in for some brief closing comments. "Let’s go out here and get this, men," Malone says before the players gather around him and shout, "Together!"
The game doesn't start out as expected as the grit-and-grind Grizzlies build an 18-point lead and shoot 80 percent from the floor in the first period. Focusing on Gasol and Randolph backfires as Memphis gets 33 of its first 43 points off perimeter jump shots. As games have gone most of the season, the Nuggets rally back to take the lead in the second half.
But Malone proves to be prophetic as the Nuggets' poor execution down the stretch allows the Grizzlies to escape with a 102-101 victory. Malone storms off the court, face beet red, after his team squandered a game they should've had. While speaking with reporters afterward, Malone used the Mike Tyson analogy about having a plan until getting hit in the mouth.
The next day at practice, the mood continues to be upbeat. Malone works his way around the floor, joking with Jokic, sprinting with Nelson and sharing funny stories with his coaches. He knows being negative all the time won't make the situation better, that he has to find balance with the overall goals.
"Kids are so different today. You have to build them up," said Malone, recalling a conversation he had with Gregg Popovich before taking over Sacramento. "Make sure they know that you love them, because if they don't think you love them and you do that [get overly critical and negative], you lose them like that. I think that goes a long way. Some players may think, I am just an asset. I am just a position. I am just a stat. Whereas if you want to get the most out of them, you have to get to know them."
Malone is grateful that Connelly - with whom he had previously worked in New Orleans - gave him another chance as a head coach so soon after his time in Sacramento. Malone’s father got one shot as head coach of the expansion Toronto Raptors and never received another full-time opportunity, only a short-lived interim gig replacing Paul Silas in Cleveland.
Oddly enough, D'Alessandro is also in the Nuggets’ organization, on the business side, but Malone said there is "not any angst or hate" between the two. Looking back, Malone said he wishes he had the same open communication with D'Alessandro and Ranadive that he currently shares with Connelly and Kroenke. But even then, he's not sure if he'd still be in Sacramento.
"That was a situation where I think no matter what happened, I was going to be fired," Malone said. "Your best player goes down, you're 11-13 and you're fired? Right now, [the Kings are] four games below .500 and everybody is going crazy. That's the owner, that's his prerogative."
Malone doesn't know how much time he'll have in Denver, but his hope is to guide the franchise back to the heights reached by the players on the wall in his office. As Malone was discussing the difficult ending in Sacramento – the painful phone call he made to his father, having to watch his daughters cry after telling them he was fired – Barton walked onto the practice court and overheard him.
"That was [expletive],” said Barton, a seldom-used player his first two seasons who has thrived under Malone this season.
"It's OK,” Malone said as he started heading out of the gym, "I'm in a better place."
"That's right," Barton said, "you're with the Thrill now."