Michael Malone on coaching his daughter's team: "I knew I wasn't going to have an owner coming down, firing me because we weren't playing a certain style of play that he wanted."
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone joined The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio last Sunday to discuss the drafting of Emmanuel Mudiay, his dismissal in Sacramento and the coaching philosophy he will bring to Denver next season. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Chris Mannix: What was NBA draft night like for you?
Mike Malone: You know, it was a little different than I'm used to, largely because I'd only gotten the job about a week before the draft, so I really leaned on and trusted Tim Connelly, our general manager, and his outstanding staff. I thought they had the draft under control, and the first name that Tim mentioned to me when I got the job, regarding the draft, was Emmanuel Mudiay. And very rarely do you get the guy that you have rated No. 1, and we feel very, very fortunate to have Emmanuel in the Nuggets family.
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Chris Mannix: What’s a draft war room look like?
Mike Malone: Probably organized chaos. We have the front office in there, myself, Josh Kroenke, our owner, and everybody knew No. 1, 2 and 3, we knew who was going in the top 3. Maybe not the order, but we knew [Karl-Anthony] Towns, [D’Angelo] Russell, Jahlil Okafor. The draft was going to start with the fourth pick and the New York Knicks, and we were just hoping that a couple of guys would go. And when we heard [Kristaps] Porzingis going to New York, we knew right then that one of our guys was going to be there at No. 7. And, obviously, things kind of played out to our advantage to get our guy, but what I loved is Tim Connelly and Josh, Arturas Karnisovas, our assistant GM, they weren't just content with getting Emmanuel Mudiay. There was a lot of phone calls being made and trying to get created to see what else we could do on draft night to better our roster.
Chris Mannix: Mudiay didn't work out for you guys, right?
Mike Malone: He did not. I've only watched Emmanuel on film, and, obviously, I watched a bunch of film on him, but that was really it.
Chris Mannix: How nervous does it make you, as a coach, to take a guy that you haven't had, sort of, that firsthand look at? And beyond that, Mudiay, because of the injuries he had last year in China, not a whole lot of film on him from one year as well.
Mike Malone: You know, to be honest, this was my 15th year in the NBA, and you would be surprised how many teams draft players that they never have in for workouts. In my first year in Sacramento, we drafted Ben McLemore at No. 7, and we had no idea, we didn't feel he'd be there at No. 7, but he dropped. You know, obviously, not getting a chance to know Emmanuel and see him workout, yeah, you'd love to have that, but as we all know, a lot of mistakes are made on workouts. A guy comes in for a single workout before the draft, and he may have a great workout, and that moves him up. Or he could be at a very poor workout, and it moves him down. We like to go more on the body of work. And, again, Tim, his staff, went back, and they've been watching Emmanuel, you know, the Hoops Summit, high school and obviously watching some of the games that he did play in China. So, I wasn't nervous. Again, I trust our front office, and they were excited about him. And if you can get a guard that has the size and strength and physicality that Emmanuel has, his playmaking and vision, and obviously know that he has to become a better shooter, and we all know that, but we really feel that will get better with a lot of time and repetition.
Chris Mannix: The Lakers' decision surprise you?
Mike Malone: Not really. D'Angelo Russell is a great player, he's got a chance to be an impact player in L.A. Obviously, if they had gone with Okafor, that wouldn't have surprised anybody, either. But I think they feel that D'Angelo Russell has a chance to be an impact player right away, and I think they're trying put together a team that Kobe can be competitive in as he winds down his career.
Chris Mannix: I wondered this, and you're a good person to ask because you had an impact center in Sacramento in DeMarcus Cousins, but has the value of a great big man been diminished in some ways in today's NBA?
Mike Malone: Well, I think it's a great question. I look at the NBA today, and, obviously, I've been in it for 15, but I've been around it for so much longer because of my father. The two positions that I think are really kind of going the way of the dodo bird is that traditional point guard—there are very few of them left any more, you see so many more scoring guards, the Steph Curry’s, the Damian Lillard’s, the Russell Westbrook’s, all those guys, that's becoming the norm—and then to your point, the center, the dominant big man. When I was in Sacramento for a year-and-a-half, we were probably one of the few teams that really pounded the ball inside every night. I think we led the NBA in the amount of post-ups per game, which also allowed us to lead the NBA in free-throw attempts per game because we liked to play inside-out. But the league is going to such a three-point, crazy league, and everybody's taking 25 to 30-plus three-pointers a night. I think the big man is kind of losing his impact. But, if you can get a good one—like, I had a great one in DeMarcus Cousins—if you can have a player like that, you'd be foolish not to find a way to use him on offense and protect him on defense when teams do go small. And Steve Kerr made the adjustment to put [Andre] Iguodala in, took Andrew Bogut out, and they won a championship. So, Steve did what did what was best for his team and his roster, and that helped him. But you don't see many impact big men in the NBA right now.
Chris Mannix: Do you look at DeMarcus Cousins as a franchise player?
Mike Malone: I do. Obviously, DeMarcus and I are very close, and in the time that we were together, second team all-NBA, and I think he's just getting started. First-time All-Star, his best is yet to come. He's maturing, he's becoming a better leader. I just think he's a guy that, the one thing he hasn't done yet—and it's a legitimate concern for people who would argue my point—but he hasn't led his team to the playoffs. He hasn't put the team on the back and led them to the playoffs, but I feel that he is definitely the most talented and skilled big man in the NBA, and you can definitely build a franchise around him.
Chris Mannix: When you were let go in Sacramento, did you want to get back in right away or did you feel like, "Maybe I could take a break for a little while, do something else and then get back in down the line?"
Mike Malone: Well, I did take a break. I got fired so early, in December, so I was able to coach my daughter's fourth grade team. I was able to coach my other daughter's baseball team, so I took a break. And a lot of people asked me that. I had another year on my contract, but I have a passion for the game, I wanted to get back in. I did not want to sit out another year and just collect a paycheck, largely because, you know, I love my family, and the time I got to spend with them was great and very valuable, but I'm a coach, I'm a teacher, and I want to get back at it. I want to get back to that grind, and being with the team, and teaching, and working, and establishing an identity and getting things turned around in Denver. So, very thrilled for the opportunity that they've given me, and I know there's only 30 of those jobs in the world, and I don't take it lightly. So, Josh Kroenke and Tim Connelly felt strongly enough about me to give me that chance, and I'm going to do my best to make them proud.
Chris Mannix: What was your daughter's team's record?
Mike Malone: I'll tell you what, we led the fourth grade league in points per game allowed. So we were a full-string team. The only rule we had on defense was that if your girl didn't have the ball, you had to be in the paint. So our paint was tight, and we shrunk the floor, and we had a very good season. But, I kid you not, that was probably the most fun I've ever had coaching. And maybe it's because I knew I wasn't going to have an owner coming down, firing me because we weren't playing a certain style of play that he wanted. I was able to coach that team and have fun and teach, and I think the girls had fun as they learned. But it was a great experience and something that will definitely help me as a coach, because now I've learned to maybe relax a little bit and have fun with it.
Chris Mannix: Were you surprised when Sacramento fired you? Because you guys were having success when DeMarcus was healthy. Then he gets that illness and, predictably, the wheels kind of fall off the wagon a little bit.
Mike Malone: To be very honest, I know what the NBA is about, been around it through my father, and you know that if you're looking for a job that offers you security, this is not the job. So, I knew the rules coming in. But, with that being said, I definitely was surprised. We start out the year 5-1, then we go 9-6 right before DeMarcus gets viral meningitis, and we had played the toughest record in the NBA at that point. And then, I believe, we go 2-6, 2-7 with him sidelined, we're 11-13, and they fire me. So, it was surprising because we were finally a competitive team against some of the best teams in the NBA—went down and beat the Clippers in L.A., beat Chicago and San Antonio at home—we had a lot of good wins early on. But, you can't be completely surprised because you expect the unexpected in this business. I felt, walking away, I could hold my head very high because the job that my staff and I were doing. I think what happened after I was relieved only kind of validated the job that we were doing. And the season, unfortunately, really spiraled out-of-control for the Kings and all their great fans, and it's unfortunate.
Chris Mannix: You didn’t play fast in Sacramento. Will you in Denver?
Mike Malone: Definitely. It was something that, I think, you'd be foolish not to use the natural advantage you have in Denver, the Mile High City and the altitude and the effect that it has on visiting teams. And that's why I brought that up in my press conference a little over a week or two ago that I've coached in 106 games in Sacramento, and I played to the strength of my roster. Our two best players—DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay—can play fast but are better suited more for a deliberate half-court game. But it wasn't like we were walking it up and we were last in the league in pace, but my point to everybody is this: The last two years in Denver, they were top 5 in pace-of-play, and they didn't make the playoffs. So, really, pace is kind of overrated, in my opinion. I think what's a lot more important is making sure you play with efficiency, which we plan on doing. So, I want to get back to '08, '09 in Denver, they made it to the Western Conference finals. That was a team that defended at a high level—No. 8 in defensive efficiency, fourth in field goal percentage defense—and they got out and ran. Golden State this year, a perfect example. They defended at a high level, got out and ran and looked to attack and score quick, easy, high-percentage baskets before the defense can get set. And that's what I'd like to do. Our roster right now, drafting Emmanuel Mudiay, Ty Lawson, we have guards and bigs that can run the floor. So, I'm ready to really get up and down the floor, but not at the expense of defense or rebounding, and, obviously, making sure we do it in a very efficient manner.