Why is Michael Malone the NBA’s Coach of the Year? Just ask the Nuggets’ two Founding Fathers
By Harrison Wind
Gary Harris was just 20-years-old but the 19th overall pick’s NBA career was already at a crossroads.
Harris was coming off a dreadful rookie season where the Michigan State product averaged 13.1 minutes across 55 games. His stat line, which read 3.4 points per game on 30.4 percent shooting from the field and 20.4 percent from three, was historic but for all the wrong reasons. In 2015, Harris became the only rookie and just the fifth player in Basketball Reference’s database to play at least 50 games, shoot under 35 percent from the field and 25 percent from three on at least one long-range attempt per game.
But that offseason the Nuggets got a makeover. In walked a new head coach by way of Sacramento who was willing to dismiss Harris’ forgettable rookie year and gave the Michigan State product a new lease on NBA life. Michael Malone committed to Harris that summer as his starting two-guard even with veterans like Randy Foye and Jameer Nelson on his roster. It’s a decision that three years later looks like a home run and one of the first examples of Malone forging a strong bond with his young roster upon arriving in Denver.
“He trusted me,” Harris said thinking back to the summer in between his rookie and sophomore seasons. “So I’ve trusted him since.”
Those genuine and authentic relationships with his players still exist today and have been front and center as Malone has guided the Nuggets from outside the playoffs to the crown of the Western Conference a year later where they’ve flip-flopped with the Warriors for the top seed all season long. Malone took the Nuggets from a 33-win team in his first year to one that has staying power atop the West and is armed with one of the best young cores in the league. Denver’s coach has navigated locker room unrest, trade demands, and gripes about playing time, yet the Nuggets have emerged from every one of those episodes a better and stronger team.
However, its been his work this season, as the Nuggets have surged up the West standings while enduring 274 games missed due to injury, a mark which for most of the season was tops in the league, that is Coach of the Year worthy.
The injuries hit the Nuggets early. Just two games into the season Will Barton landed awkwardly on a layup attempt in the third quarter of the Nuggets’ home opener against the Suns. Denver’s starting small forward missed the next three months. It was the start of an unforgiving regular season where the Nuggets were bitten by the injury bug from all angles. Denver soon found itself without three starters (Barton, Harris and Paul Millsap) for eight games in early December. Juancho Hernangomez and Trey Lyles, who are no longer in Malone’s rotation, averaged 33 and 22 minutes per game respectively over that stretch. Monte Morris averaged 28 per game. Torrey Craig averaged 30.
The Nuggets started Hernangomez and Craig for all eight of those games and still managed to go 5-3 with wins over Thunder, Raptors and Spurs.
Barton, who was re-upped to a lucrative four-year, $54 million contract last summer, has stayed healthy but hasn’t been his same pre-injury self since the fall. Harris has battled through a multitude of ailments since a sore hip initially shut the shooting guard down in December. Millsap and Jamal Murray both missed chunks of time over the last few months as well. The Nuggets’ vaunted starting five of Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Nikola Jokic didn’t play together for nearly four months, from the third game of the regular season when Barton went down through the end of February. Craig, the Nuggets’ ninth or 10th man for most of the season, has started 37 games this year.
“I definitely think he’s coach of the year,” said Will Barton, who calls himself and Harris, the only players on Denver’s roster who predate Malone, the Nuggets’ two Founding Fathers. “With so many guys who we relied on getting hurt, myself, Gary, Paul (Millsap) missing time, you’ve got to say he’s Coach of the Year, especially for a team that didn’t even make the playoffs last season.”
The Nuggets’ myriad of injuries would have sunk a lot of other West playoff teams but Denver persevered, relying at times on a defense that had maintained a bottom-10 status in the league three years running. Yet Malone found a way to get his roster, the same one that looked disinterested for most of the season on defense a year ago, to buy in on that end of the floor. The Nuggets returned 78 percent of their minutes from last year and brought the league’s second-youngest roster to training camp, but Denver has been the top fourth-quarter defense in the league for the entire season. On the year, the Nuggets rank 10th overall in defensive efficiency.
No one saw what the Nuggets have achieved over the course of the regular season coming on the hardwood, especially with no All-Star on their roster prior to this year. But off the court is perhaps where Malone has left his mark the most.
Last July, Malone was instrumental in bringing Isaiah Thomas to Denver, helping to broker a deal between the two sides at Summer League. Malone and Thomas struck up a genuine relationship in Sacramento during Malone’s first year in the head coach’s chair that stood the test of time and Thomas trusted Denver’s coach to oversee his long and grueling rehab process and then navigate how he’d eventually get reinserted into the Nuggets’ rotation when the time was right. That moment finally came on on Feb. 13, the day before the All-Star break, when Thomas logged 13 minutes in a 120-118 win over the Kings.
Thomas wasn’t long for Denver’s lineup. He was jettisoned from the rotation eight games later and his subpar play forced Malone to make one of the gutsier calls of his tenure when he sat Thomas down after the former MVP candidate had spent the previous seven months establishing himself as Denver’s locker room leader. It’s a decision that could have easily backfired if Malone hadn’t built up a certain level of belief with his roster
“He’s given guys a lot of confidence and he’s got a lot of trust in the players,” said Harris. “We’ve got a lot of trust in him.”
That trust was built up over time, ever since Malone arrived in Denver, began to rebuild the Nuggets’ crumbling culture and presented Harris with the keys to the starting two-guard spot despite a rocky rookie year. It’s the same line of thinking that Malone has followed with a number of first, second and third-year contributors this season like Monte Morris, who only logged 25 total minutes for the Nuggets during his rookie year but entered the season fully entrenched as Denver’s backup point guard. Morris took the job and never looked back.
Malone has also improved tactically as a coach this season. He’s intelligently relied on a nine and sometimes 10-man rotation for most of the year, rightfully placing loads of responsibility on his talented second unit’s shoulders. His rotations have been spot on too. Malone has unlocked lineup combinations that on paper are unorthodox but on the court have led to winning basketball, like the Jokic and Mason Plumlee frontcourt pairing that’s outscoring opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions. Malone’s also kept a level head this season, to the satisfaction of Denver’s two cofounders
“I think he’s grown a lot,” said Barton. “I think he knows how to keep his emotions more in check now. He never really gets too low anymore.”
“He’s become a better coach,” Harris added. “He’s put a lot of responsibility on us players and the culture he’s created here has been great. It’s a huge part of the success that we’ve had.”
Malone came to Denver with the goal of setting a new culture, one that fostered accountability, hard work and dedication. Eventually, it was supposed to translate into a playoff appearance. Four years later, with a youthful rotation which at times this season has included five first, second and third-year players, it finally did on the back of one of the best coaching performances in the league this season.
“Coach was fiery right from the beginning,” Barton said. “He wanted to break some of the old habits we had as a team that were bad. You could tell right from the beginning that he was serious about winning and serious about changing the culture.”