Nuggets’ Michael Malone burns hot, from sidelines to pickleball courts

The pickleball courts of downtown Minneapolis were bustling on a Saturday afternoon three weeks ago.

Having seized Game 3 over the Timberwolves the night before, the Nuggets had a comfortable 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series. Tucked inside a Lifetime Fitness beneath the Target Center, there was an audible chatter coming from the far court. In fact, it was the only court of the three generating any noise whatsoever.

There, decked out in NBA-issued gear, was Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

The fiery, occasionally stubborn eighth-year veteran has survived the incessant churn of the NBA’s coaching carousel to become the fourth-longest tenured head coach in the league. He’s also got the Nuggets back in the Western Conference Finals for the second time in four seasons, where they’ll tip off against the Lakers in Game 1 on Tuesday night.

To those who’ve watched Denver’s rise, Malone’s searing intensity, whether stalking the sidelines or barking into an official’s ear, is an unmistakable attribute of this team. It’s as ever-present as Nikola Jokic’s wizardry or Jamal Murray’s sneer — even on the pickleball court.

It was hard to miss that Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis, where somewhere between his meticulous preparation for the Wolves and a healthy first-round lead, Malone allowed himself to decompress a bit.

“It is (a reprieve), but it’s not like it’s an outlet from being competitive,” said Nuggets assistant Ryan Bowen, who was his teammate that day. “It’s maybe an exercise outlet, but it’s not a mental letdown.”

“He’ll go at you”

Pickleball can be a game of deft and touch, agility and precision, wit and smarts. That’s not how Malone plays.

“Very aggressive player,” Bowen said. “He’ll go at you. Call them body shots. He’ll apologize right afterwards. That’s what’s funny when we play with our wives.”

Though Bowen maintained Malone has a finesse game, he failed to flash that trait in dismantling two younger Nuggets officials in Minnesota. It was all gas, no breaks.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Malone quipped after ripping a forehand that sent his opponents careening into no-man’s land, another point for Team Malone. Malone’s style is more hand-to-hand combat than tactical. Think John McEnroe over Roger Federer.

When one of his shots smacked an opponent in the face, knocking his glasses to the ground and dislodging a lens, he implored a bystander to take photos.

“I want this on the front page of The Denver Post tomorrow!” he said.

The scrappy Queens native has never lost his edge, and he doesn’t want to. He tried mountain biking but found that it didn’t satisfy his craving to compete. He reached the same conclusion with long-distance running. According to Bowen, even if it’s ping pong or cornhole, he’s hell-bent on winning.

Malone used to play pick-up basketball but found himself getting too worked up against his opponents.

“I stopped playing because, I mean, I was getting into it with GMs,” he said. “I would say, ‘On the court, you’re not the GM. … I don’t give a (bleep) who you are.’”

“I can guard”

When the NBA implemented a rule change that allowed coaches to wear zip-ups instead of more formal attire, Malone celebrated.

“That’s the best thing about not wearing suits anymore,” he said when asked about his engagement on the sidelines. “I can get in a stance. I can guard.”

Malone surmises his players laugh at his intensity on the sidelines but “appreciate it” nonetheless.

According to Aaron Gordon, no one wants to win more than Malone, and that attitude is pervasive.

“I love it,” Gordon said. “… It doesn’t matter if we’re up 30 or up three, he’s on us. I respect it, and I appreciate it.”

The Nuggets were up 23 points a few minutes into the third quarter of Game 6 against the Suns when they briefly took their foot off the gas. Malone, sensing a loss of focus, erupted into a timeout.

“I don’t know why you guys call them rage timeouts,” he joked at the end of Monday’s practice.

Ever since he was a kid at summer camp, Malone said he’s always been one who hates losing more than he enjoys winning. As a youth, he admitted that if he lost anything, tears would start rolling. Even though that’s true to his nature, Malone also knows that’s not adequate for someone in his position, someone who’s trying to lead Denver to its first-ever championship.

“In my eight years here, as you mature and you grow up — I’m still trying to grow up, I’m a Toys R’ Us kid at heart — trying to realize how do you handle failure and not let it overwhelm you and learn from failure because failure can be a great teacher if you’re willing to learn lessons from it,” he said.

“Happy Mother’s Day”

If you come at Malone, you better not miss. The fiesty blue-collar coach doesn’t do well with slights.

Back on the pickleball court before the conference finals started, Malone and a friend were facing off against their wives. When their spouses took the final games of the day, one of the women couldn’t help but bring it up at a high school graduation party later that night.

“Just like telling everybody,” Malone groused.

The same teams faced off again on Sunday afternoon.

“First game, 11-0,” said Malone, his voice and excitement rising. “And we beat them seven games to zero. A 7-0 (butt-kicking). Happy Mother’s Day.”

Malone stands alone

Michael Malone may still trail Doug Moe (432) and George Karl (423) in regular season wins as Nuggets head coach, but he’s now the franchise leader in both playoff wins (29) and playoff series wins (6) after taking down the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semifinals. Here’s a look at Malone’s eight-year run Denver:

SeasonWinsLossesWin%Playoff winsPlayoff lossesWin%

2015-163349.402Missed playoffs
2016-174042.488Missed playoffs
2017-184636.561Missed playoffs



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