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A repaired culture and strong bonds with Denver’s young stars: Why Michael Malone earned a contract extension

Harrison Wind Avatar
October 17, 2018

Michael Malone inherited a fractured Nuggets locker room in 2015. Denver had fired Brian Shaw three months prior to Malone’s arrival, and the Nuggets were looking for a culture-setter to lead Denver through what was set to be a difficult rebuild without a clear-cut franchise player.

In three seasons, Malone has done just that. He’s transformed the culture of the Nuggets’ organization into a self-motivated workplace where players who were drafted by Denver want to spend their careers and where free agents want to continue theirs. He’s improved the Nuggets’ win total, from 33 to 40 to 46, in each of his three seasons and has Denver on the doorstep of the playoffs. He’s forged strong relationships with the Nuggets’ young core that has Denver set up for future success.

On Wednesday, just hours before the Nuggets’ season opener against the Clippers, the Nuggets and Malone agreed to a contract extension. The deal will reportedly extend Malone’s contract through 2022.

“Looking around the league landscape as a whole, I think we have a pretty good situation,” Nuggets president Josh Kroenke said in an interview on Altitude Sports Radio shortly after the contract was announced. “We have a great young roster, and coach Malone and his staff are a big part of getting us to this point.”

Malone marches on into a pivotal fourth season at the Nuggets’ helm tied at the hip with his team and more importantly Denver’s young core.

He’s gone out of his way over the past few seasons to connect with franchise center Nikola Jokic, visiting him in Serbia over the summer and cultivating a strong relationship with the big man both on and off the court. This past offseason, Malone again journeyed to Serbia, riding one of Jokic’s horses for the first time and continuing to immerse himself in Jokic’s culture.

Don’t think that the numerous postgame press conferences over the last few seasons where Malone has smoothly transitioned from breaking down another spectacular offensive performance from his star center to talking in Serbian to Jokic’s fans watching back home hasn’t gone unnoticed by Jokic and his inner circle. It’s no surprise that Jokic wants to spend the rest of his career in Denver. Malone is a big reason why.

The rest of the Nuggets’ core of Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jamal Murray is also firmly in Malone’s corner. Harris and Barton both signed contracts to keep them in Denver for the foreseeable future over the past two years. Murray’s payday is not far behind. All three are products of Denver’s draft-and-develop program that Malone has overseen and played a role in.

Murray and Malone, who have bonded over time spent in Canada with one another during the summer, enjoy a special player-coach relationship.

“I came from Canada, a little town. My Dad coached me a lot harder than he has. He coached me a lot easier than coach Cal. Coach Malone is pretty easy on me, to be honest, compared to those two, but I can only ask for him to keep doing what he’s doing,” Murray told BSN Denver. “I like when I’m being pushed. I like when he demands stuff from me. It only makes me get better and play better. I don’t shy away from that.

“Players trust him. I go in there and he tells me to play with pace and set the tone, we need this, do that, and every time I do, it works out. I do what he says and I know I’ve got to be an extension of him. We have a great communication and a great connection. He’s my coach and I hope he’s always my coach.”

Malone’s reach goes outside of the Nuggets’ organization too. Around the league, he’s respected by players and coaches alike. Malone’s coached some of the league’s superstars, from LeBron James to Chris Paul, to Stephen Curry and DeMarcus Cousins, who all speak highly of him whenever given the platform.

Malone previously coached Nuggets point guard Isaiah Thomas in Sacramento. Their prior relationship helped convince Thomas to sign with Denver this summer.

“My biggest thing about making my decision coming here was Michael Malone,” Thomas said.

When Paul Millsap decided to sign with the Nuggets in 2017 Malone was also a key reason why. The two quickly bonded over discussions centered around an aggressive Nuggets defensive scheme during Denver’s free-agent pitch to Millsap in Atlanta.

Even without Millsap, Malone helped Denver reach 46 wins last season in a turbulent Western Conference where seeds 3-9 were separated by a mere three games. It’s easy to say Denver would have made the postseason last year with a healthy Millsap. If that scenario had played out it’s even easier to imagine Malone’s extension coming much sooner than it ultimately did.

Denver has built a rock-solid foundation with Jokic, Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Malone. While president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and general manager Arturas Karnisovas have been slotting the Nuggets’ pieces in place from above, Malone has been on ground zero every step of the way, curating Denver’s culture minute-by-minute.

Malone has accomplished most of the tasks that Denver laid out for him when he took the job in 2015. He transformed the Nuggets’ culture, developed Denver’s younger players into franchise cornerstones and put the franchise in a favorable position for years to come — all vital steps to getting the organization back on track.

With an extension in tow, Malone needs to help the Nuggets take their next step.

To the playoffs.

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