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Arm in arm

Mike Olson Avatar
April 28, 2023

“Thus, arm in arm with thee, I dare defy my century into the lists.”
– Friedrich Schiller

When Alex English came to the Denver Nuggets in 1979 as a part of a trade for George McGinnis, there were mixed reviews on the swap. McGinnis had been a long time star in the league, especially in Indiana who was thrilled to be getting him back, whereas English had only shown promise when given the odd chance with the Bucks and then Pacers.

The trade ended up being a real steal for the Nuggets, where English immediately added nearly six points a game for the Nuggets to the rest of that campaign. While McGinnis’ star was descending rapidly, English was a star on the rise. By the next season, the team’s strong abilities were clear, but that still wasn’t turning into wins. The organization thought maybe a different voice in charge might turn the tide, and made Doug Moe the head coach a little over a third into the season. Moe’s passion and straightforward words and approach turned out to be just the firebrand the team had needed. Between Doug and Alex, the leading scorer of the next decade, it was a marriage made in heaven.

For the next nine seasons, Moe and English (and Dan Issel and Fat Lever and dozens of others who came in and out of the picture along the way) stayed arm in arm to consecutive playoff appearances, the most memorable of which was probably the team’s 1984-85 run to the Western Conference Finals before losing in five game to the Lakers. And while early playoff exits were a critique of the Moe/English-led years, the pair were both able to aggregate a total of 24 wins between them, a record for a player and coach each for the franchise.

It made it somewhat poetic that when they left, both gents were gone from the team in the same offseason. It would be four years before the Nuggets even saw the postseason again, this time with Issel as their coach. That record – 24 playoff wins each – as a player for English, and as a coach for Moe, would stand for another 33 years. Actually, 35, since Moe and English didn’t add any wins in their last two postseason appearances together.

When Michael Malone joined the Denver Nuggets as their head coach, he’d had a similarly scant amount of head coaching experience as Moe. In another similarity to Moe, his soon-to-be-star was an even lesser-known quantity.

Nikola Jokic was stunning the coaches and his fellow Nuggets players on the practice court well before his talents were seen by the rest of us, but Malone saw many intangibles falling together for the team when his soft-spoken center steered the offense. Mike took the giant leap of faith that only years later feels like such a no-brainer, and handed the reins of the team over to Jokic. With the stellar assistance of players along the way like Jamal Murray, Michael Porter, Jr. and a host of others, Malone and Jokic have cleared one more bar in their quest to bring Nuggets fans the ultimate prize.

With their gentleman’s sweep of the Minnesota Timberwolves, both Malone and Jokic notched their 25th playoff wins as head coach and player, smashing the records of Moe and English in a few different ways. Consider the following:

  • Jokic and Malone caught that 25th win at the end of a successful series early in their fifth season
  • As noted above, English and Moe didn’t add a single playoff win to their tallies in their last two seasons with the club, but they still had nine to form that total
  • Those paces are even better reflected in their playoff winning clips (Moe/English – .393, Malone/Jokic – .472)
  • Each pairing has a Western Conference Finals appearance to point to, with Moe/English losing it to the Lakers in five, and Malone/Jokic losing it to the Lakers in six. (actually, the Melo WCF team also lost it to the Lakers in six. F–the Lakers.)
  • You’d have to assume Jokic and Malone will be adding a few more W’s into this stat before moving on from these Nuggets. Please let’s just go ahead and assume that.

There’s been something nearly bromantic about the fact that Jokic and Malone have been able to build this program together, not ignoring the incredible impacts and contributions of dozens of others along the way. But when we get miles and leagues away from this story down the road, and some other young Nuggets hotshot and his coach are being compared to this era, the faces that will be linked together in the successes will be (at least) those of Jokic and Malone. To paraphrase Schiller, when their era/century is compared to those others on the Denver Nuggets list, it may very well defy all the others with its sparkle and glow.

However this playoffs go, however the near-term future of Nuggets basketball goes, that future looks exceedingly bright with Malone and Jokic taking each advent of it together… much like English and Moe did, arm in arm.

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