“I think the reason we hit it off was because he realized from Day 1 (in Sacramento) that I was not going to be afraid to coach him,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone recalled to reporters late last week when asked about Cousins, Denver’s mercurial but talented veteran backup center. “(I) wasn’t going to coach around him.
“And the big reason for that was, one, I knew that was the only way that he was going to become the best player he could be … and just as if not more important, I knew I had 14 guys in that (Kings) locker room waiting to see: ‘How’s this guy going to coach Cousins? Is he going to be scared of him, is he going to coach around him?’ And I think the guys quickly realized that I wasn’t going to do that.”
Whatever you think of him as a tactician, few NBA coaches are as deft as Malone when it comes to navigating personalities in a locker room. Or when it comes to making all those disparate voices, young and old, Serbian and Canadian, sing out as one chorus.
You’ll always savor the Great Bubble Run, the Disney magic that broke through the storm clouds of 2020 like lightsabers, if only for a moment. You’ll always cherish watching this young roster gel, grow up and blossom together from 2016-18, seeing all those corners turned.
Yet these Nuggets, 36-25 to start the week, are on a pace to win 48 games in the regular season with nothing from a healing Jamal Murray and crumbs from Michael Porter Jr. Malone has steered better teams, sure. More talented and prettier ones, certainly. And yet, pound for pound, month to month, from managing Nikola Jokic and COVID-19 to the integration of Cousins, Bryn Forbes, Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji … this feels like the man’s best flat-out coaching job on Chopper Circle yet.
It deserves more love nationally, too, although don’t hold your breath. At least, not while J.B. Bickerstaff has gotten Cleveland off the mat and Taylor Jenkins has Memphis chasing a top-3 seed in a loaded Western Conference.
“I think we’ve been forced to try to be in search mode throughout the season,” Malone told reporters last week, “because of (injuries), because of COVID, because of guys being in and out of the lineup.”
They sure as heck found something. Even if it took a while.
Since Forbes was acquired from San Antonio, the Nuggets have gone 15-4. Second quarters have gone from the place where Denver leads go to die to something frenetic, physical and fun. Even minus two stars, two fantastic shooters in Murray and MPJ, the Nuggets can go 10 deep with anybody again.
As of Feb. 22, according to ManGamesLost.com, the Nuggets had suffered the fifth-most games lost by players due to injuries or health protocols, at 256. The four franchises who’d lost more manpower — Orlando, the Clippers, Miami and Indiana — sported a combined record of 107-140 (.433) as of late Monday afternoon. Only the Heat (40-21) had been winning at a better clip than what Malone has squeezed out of this season.
“So it’s easy to say we have to be more consistent,” Malone said. “But the group hasn’t been consistent. And that’s been a big part of it …But I think that (bench) group is forming an identity, forming a chemistry and gaining and creating some continuity. And that’s why they’re playing a little bit better.”
Guys are finding comfort amid the chaos, slotting neatly into roles again, the way all the Nuggets’ pieces seemed to fit together so seamlessly three winters ago. Heck, they’re even unbeaten in the 10 games in which Cousins — big, bad, mercurial Boogie — has seen the floor. From Bones to Boogie, they’re pulling on the same rope, proudly and fearlessly, the product of a soft, deft and clever touch, misfit toys with a mission.
Time will tell if this becomes Malone’s coaching masterpiece. But know this: It can already hang anywhere. And, more importantly, with anyone.