Kiszla: Why ornery Michael Malone will be coach to lead Nuggets to their first NBA championship

He’s the coach the Nuggets love to hate.

In the era when we all raise a glass to the positivity of coach Ted Lasso, Michael Malone tends to channel the irascible Roy Kent. The man Nuggets president of basketball ops Tim Connelly affectionately calls Mo can be a growling Grizzly, but much like our old friend Doug Moe, Malone is a Teddy Bear at heart.

When his team plays lousy defense, Malone crosses his arms tightly across his chest on the bench and looks to heaven with an eye-roll that can kill. In defeat, he’s unafraid to openly question the toughness and  competitive spirit of the Nuggets.

Malone can scowl like nobody this side of Gregg Popovich, the legendary San Antonio coach he respects as a mentor and adores like a kindred spirit. Long ago, Pop told Malone: “You got to be who you are.”

Old Pop in San Antonio is a fiery Serbian. Our ornery SOP (son of a Pop)  in Denver is a hot-headed Irishman. In our touchy-feely times, how does Malone get away with suggesting millionaire athletes are soft?

Malone explained it’s absolutely imperative “players know you care about them.” He added: “If there’s no relationship and you coach like that, they will tune you out in a hurry.”

His feisty attitude wouldn’t work if Malone hadn’t earned the full trust of center Nikola Jokic, who not only accepts the criticism but embraces the growly bear on the Denver bench.

“If the MVP can accept hard-coaching, I think other guys kind of fall in line,” Malone said.

These days, you can’t walk down the street of our dusty old cowtown without bumping into an MVP. The Joker holds court in Auraria as Kris Bryant moves into LoDo. DangeRuss brings the shine of a champion to the Broncos, while it feels like destiny Avs star Nathan MacKinnon will soon hoist a Stanley Cup.

At what feels like the dawn of a new golden age in Denver sports, know who has done great work in the shadows to make us feel like winners? Malone.

Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone ...
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone watches the action against the Phoenix Suns during the first quarter on Thursday, March 24, 2022.

During his seventh season on the job, the Nuggets have rewarded Malone with a contract extension.

But don’t even try to suggest that Malone nominate himself for consideration as NBA coach of the year, for his stubborn refusal to let the Nuggets surrender to the bad luck of injured stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

“I’m such a me guy,” joked Malone, declining to take credit.

But way back in September, on the eve of training camp, my colleague Mike Singer and I stood with Malone in a LoDo bar. He wanted to chat about Broncos football and juicy IPAs. Singer, however, insisted on asking Malone: Can you identify all the current NBA coaches that have lasted longer in this crazy business than you, Michael?

Without missing a beat, Malone ticked off the names: Popovich, Steve Kerr, Erik Spoelstra, Quin Snyder.

That’s all folks. The entire list. And his ability to survive qualifies Malone as among the elite coaches at basketball’s highest level.

After Boston closed out the first half of a recent game in Ball Arena on a 24-5 blitz, Malone benched Jokic and the team’s entire starting five to open the second half. The strategy didn’t work. The Nuggets lost in lopsided fashion. Snowflakes across town howled Malone is too tough and not respectful enough of professional athletes.

“I benched the MVP the other night to start the second half. Would I do that again? Probably not. But I did it,” said Malone. During a chat with his star center after the game, Jokic said: “Coach, you did the right thing. I thought you were going to send us home at halftime.”

This ain’t Denver’s year. The Suns are going to win it all. After the Nuggets got beat 140-130 Thursday night by Phoenix, the Nuggets were in a chippy mood. “I think there’s definitely some animosity,” admitted Malone, wryly noting, “You know me, I love it.”

That is Malone. He hates losing.

And that’s why Malone will be the coach when the Nuggets win their first NBA championship.

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