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After a 62-day search that saw the Denver Nuggets interview a total of five candidates, the wait is finally over. The Nuggets have officially hired Mike Malone.
But why him?
Ever since the Nuggets season ended the Denver brain trust — which primarily includes president Josh Kroenke and general manager Tim Connelly — had stressed they want to return to the up-tempo style they had success with under George Karl, a sentiment that made sense as details regarding the Nuggets’ coaching search initially began to emerge where candidates like interim head coach Melvin Hunt and Mike D’Antoni were at the top of the Denver’s wish list.
Hunt, who led the Nuggets to a 11-13 record over the last two months of the season despite the benching of some of his starters, had Denver playing at a 99.5 possessions per game pace, the fifth fastest mark in the league over that span. Meanwhile, Mike D’Antoni, the grandfather of the pace-and-space offensive attack, also fit the bill as a logical candidate.
Despite receiving a second interview with Denver, Malone always felt like the odd man out. That notion became even more cemented after the Nuggets named former Kings general manger Pete D’Alessandro senior vice president of business and team operations. D’Alessandro, who was hired in Sacramento after Malone was already installed as head coach, was reportedly one of the leading voices that pushed for Malone’s firing just 24 games into last season. (D’Alessandro will reportedly not be working directly with Malone in Denver.)
And yet, Malone’s two interviews clearly made a lasting impression on the Nuggets front office, enough for Kroenke and Connelly to entrust him with a difficult and taxing rebuilding effort.
But again, why him? Why Mike Malone?
Malone doesn’t come from a free-flowing offensive school of thought like Hunt, nor is he the offensive philosopher that is D’Antoni.
According to NBA.com, in 2013-14 Malone took over a Kings team that a season earlier finished with the seventh quickest pace in the league (96.34 possessions per game) and in Malone’s first year in charge slid to 14th. Through 24 games in 2014-15 before Malone was terminated that number dropped to 95.7, which ranked Sacramento as the 18th quickest team in the league.
Malone’s time in Sacramento isn’t a large enough sample size to determine what philosophy he’ll ingrain on the Nuggets, but pace is something a coach can instill from day one and the results he put out are hardly the up-and-down style Kroenke and Connelly were determined to return to.
Additionally, Sacramento was a below-average to average offensive team under Malone. Though he inherited a Kings team that ranked 12th in offensive efficiency the year before he arrived, after his first season (which coincided with the departure of Tyreke Evans) that ranking dropped to 20th. The Kings also ranked as the 17th most efficient offense through the 24 games Malone coached last season.
Though on offense Malone might be average, on defense he’s impressive.
From 2005-10, Malone was an assistant and “defensive coordinator” in Cleveland, overseeing the development of a LeBron James-led Cavaliers squad that finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency three out of the five years he was there.
Next, Malone went to Golden State as an assistant and again coordinator under Mark Jackson where over the course of two years he helped improve their defense from 26th in 2012 (his first year there) to 13th in defensive rating in 2013. Many in Golden State still credit Malone with instilling the values that produced the No. 1 ranked defense this season.
What Malone likely sold the Nuggets front office on was not his history, but his vision for the Nuggets. Yet considering Denver is not anywhere close to contending and not even that close to mediocrity or contending for a playoff spot, in choosing Malone the Nuggets brain trust may have bought into a safe plan and process they haven’t before. Because when the Nuggets announced the Malone hiring Monday afternoon, I immediately thought back to a few weeks ago when the Orlando Magic introduced Scott Skiles as their next head coach…
Skiles, like Malone, is a hard nosed defensive-minded coach who preaches structure and discipline and will teach his players how to win in that manner. He is in many ways a steady hand and was brought in over flashier names because of the framework he will establish that will teach the Magic’s young players how to win in a conducive, professional manner in order to take that logical next step to the playoffs.
As ESPN’s Amin Elhassan explained in his piece about defensive-minded head coaches’ ceilings, in three years when the Magic are hopefully a six, seven or eight seed in the East he will most likely be ushered out the door for a more high-profile coach who can take Orlando to the next level.
Malone and Skiles are kindred basketball spirits in this sense. Because though Malone doesn’t have the resume of Skiles, he does preach a similar philosophy of structure and discipline on both ends of the court — two fundamental principles the Nuggets were bereft of last season. If I had to guess I think the Nuggets brass was attracted to that line of thinking and bought into Malone’s vision of a new culture and environment, one that can effectively instill professional qualities into many unprofessional players to help the Nuggets grow both on the court and as people and ultimately win basketball games along the way.
If everything goes right, in three or four years the Nuggets may be in a similar situation as Orlando: A fringe playoff team who is looking to take the next step. At that juncture Malone may be ushered out the door for a big-name coach who can take Denver deep into the postseason in an attempt to win a title.
But that is a long way into the future.
As of now Malone has the same level of initial job security and optimism from the front office that every new head coach deserves. He is not simply a place-holder name and if he has success in Denver and continues to improve every year he may see the rebuilding project through. After all, everyone from the players to the media to the fans in Sacramento seem to approve of this hire for the Nuggets.
So in the end, why Mike Malone?
Because he’s not Brian Shaw, that’s why. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Nuggets recently it’s that as soon as one coach gets fired the front office tends to run in the opposite direction. Shaw was a coach who lacked charisma, ignored defense and let his players disobey him. By all accounts Malone is the exact opposite.
It’s anyone’s guess whether the Nuggets will actually run as Kroenke and Connelly have been preaching over the last two and a half months since season’s end, but one thing’s for sure: The new Denver Nuggets will be disciplined, hard-working and for once, defensive minded.
For a Nuggets front office determined to create distance between themselves and Shaw, that appears to be good enough.