Michael Malone on Nuggets’ season, father’s feedback and dealing with COVID-19

Following a gratifying win or a frustrating loss, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone has completed a consistent ritual that  makes him feel either validated, reflective or questioned.

Malone will turn on his phone. He does not do so to scroll through the latest social media reactions on the Nuggets’ successes or shortcomings. Malone does so because he knows he will receive a lengthy text or phone call from his father, whom he considered “probably the No. 1 Denver Nuggets fan in the world” for reasons that go beyond parental support. His dad is former longtime NBA coach Brendan Malone, whom his son considered “a great resource” after having varying assistant coaching gigs for over 28 years.  

“There might be things I agree with, and sometimes things I don’t agree with. But it’s always great when somebody is giving you honest feedback,” Michael Malone told USA TODAY Sports. “You know it’s coming from a place of love because they want you to do as well as you can possibly do. I feel really lucky in that regard.”

Malone feels lucky for many reasons, some that pertain to basketball and some that pertain to more important matters.

The basketball?

Malone relished the Nuggets advancing to the Western Conference Finals in last season’s bubble after overcoming 3-1 series deficits both to the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers. Malone expressed confidence in this season’s Nuggets (24-16) which are seeded fifth in the Western Conference amid players missing a combined 93 games due to injuries, fielding 13 different starting lineups and having two postponed games because of COVID-19 protocols.

“I wouldn’t say this is exactly what we wanted. But I’m proud of where we are,” Malone said. “I’m proud of the fact that when things weren’t going our way, we never got down on ourselves.”

After some injuries and COVID-19 related issues derailed them earlier in the season, Michael Malone has the Nuggets back on track. (Photo: The Associated Press)

Malone said All-Star forward Nikola Jokic “gets my MVP vote” after averaging career-highs thus far in points (26.9), rebounds (11.1) and assists (8.6). Malone believes fifth-year guard Jamal Murray will become more consistent after having a breakout season in the bubble. And despite second-year forward Michael Porter Jr. missing eight consecutive games related to COVID-19 and fielding mixed reviews on his offensive and defensive consistency, Malone considered Porter “a big part of not only today, but our future.”

“I like where we’re at,” Malone said. “I like the direction that we’re heading. And most importantly, I like who we’re heading there with.”

The more important matters?

After experiencing headaches, a loss of smell and a fever shortly after the NBA suspended its season last year, Malone learned he had COVID-19 after tests revealed he developed antibodies before the team left for the NBA bubble. Though he reported that doctors said those antibodies remained when he took more tests before the NBA season began again in December, Malone said he has since felt fully healthy.

“I have not had any lingering side effects,” Malone said. “It was something where I felt really crappy for two weeks. Then I was better. But I haven’t had any COVID-related issues since that point.”

Malone spent the NBA All-Star break enjoying some family time with his wife (Jocelyn) and two daughters (Caitlin, Bridge). Malone also reported that both of his parents received the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday.

“I feel great that my parents got their second shot and are relatively healthy,” Malone said. “That’s been the hardest thing. I haven’t seen my parents in quite a long time.”

How Malone has managed this season

But what Malone has lacked in face time with his father, he has made up for with frequent texts and chats after each game.

“He’s constantly imploring, ‘Win or lose, stay in that foxhole with your players and be with your players,’” Malone said of his father.

Malone heard San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich give similar feedback after he landed his first-head coaching job in Sacramento eight years ago following varying assistant coaching roles in New York (2001-2005), Cleveland (2005-10), New Orleans (2010-11) and Golden State (2011-13). Then, Popovich pointed out the two’s emotional sides before stressing, “make sure that your players know that you love him.”

After lasting only one season in Sacramento, Malone took the Nuggets’ vacant head-coaching spot and has since steered them in the right direction. They improved their records in each of Malone’s first four seasons, landed two playoff berths and appeared in the Western Conference Finals for the fourth time in franchise history and the first time since 2009. Hence, Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth told USA TODAY Sports that “They respond well to him. Coach has a way and knows the right time on when to push buttons and when not to. He’s willing to get into guys and then challenge them when he has to.”

Consider Malone’s approach when the Nuggets faced 3-1 playoff series deficits against the Jazz and the Clippers. He has challenged players, yelled at them and criticized them, sure. But Malone said he also showered his players with positive reinforcement and stressed the need to focus on winning a quarter of each elimination game instead of worrying about the big-picture stakes. That approach coincided with the Nuggets featuring Jokic, Murray and a strong bench at their best.

“You can get so consumed with winning a game and you get blinders on and you forget about everything else around you with my impact on the players, coaches and staff,” Malone said. “I’m a guy that is going to set the temperature. I have to remind myself of that. Yes, there are times I have to get on players and our team and hold them accountable. That’s coaching. But I also have to put an arm around guys and make sure you know that I care about them.”

Malone has vowed to stick with that philosophy despite the Nuggets experiencing other issues this season.

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The Nuggets lost key rotation players in free agency Malone considered critical to last season's playoff run, including Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig. Though they retained some players (Paul Millsap, Monte Morris, Bol Bol), the Nuggets added seven new players via free agency(JaMychal Green, Isaiah Hartenstein, Facundo Campazzo), the NBA Draft (Zeke Nnaji; R.J. Hampton) and two-way contracts (Markus Howard, Greg Whittington).

Denver began the season only three months after losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games in the Western Conference Finals. Beyond their injury issues, the Nuggets also had four players out at varying times because of the league’s health and safety protocols. That included Porter Jr. staying sidelined for nearly three weeks.

In related news, the Nuggets lost four of their first five games. They also have shown a stark difference in their wins and losses in points scored (119.1, 110.6), rebounds (46.4, 40.6) and points allowed (104.5, 118.8). 

“The expectations on that group were somewhat unrealistic in light of all the changes that we had,” Malone said. “Everybody assumes, ‘We went to the Western Conference Finals. So we should be in the Finals and we win it this year.’ It doesn’t always work like that.”

Nonetheless, Denver has won seven of its last eight games. During that stretch, the Nuggets have led the NBA in 3-point shooting (41.4%), have ranked fourth in assists (27.6) and fared fifth in rebounding (46.6). That has also coincided with Jokic averaging 26.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 9.3 assists. Yet, the Nuggets also credited Malone’s presence.

“He does a great job of mixing in different lineups and finding guys that complement each other,” Murray said of Malone, “even when he has a limited time to do so.”

Part of the reason why that approach works points toward Malone’s insistence that the team’s success goes beyond Jokic, Murray and Porter Jr. So, Malone often spends his time behind the scenes talking with both his stars and his role players. 

“If you just spend time with your best players, you’re going to lose your locker room pretty quickly,” Malone said. “I’ve never lost our locker room. I think our guys understand who I am. I’m always asking our players, 'You have to come back a better player.' Well, my promise to them is I’m going to try to come back a better coach. It’s not just drawing up a play. It’s also, 'How do I handle adversity? How do I handle when things aren’t going well? What is my body language like? Am I negative all the time? Am I being with the guys, win or lose?' I’ve tried to grow just as I’ve asked all of my players to grow.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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