Michael Malone has become one of the most likable NBA figures in a matter of seven days. His Nuggets won their first championship, and the man once fired by the lowly Kings was behind Denver’s franchise resurrection.
Malone received redemption with the Nuggets’ dominant win over the Heat in the Finals, as he galvanized a bunch of players many considered not good enough to win it all. The Nuggets, without the injured Jamal Murray, were thumped last year by the eventual champion Warriors in the first round. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic was heavily criticized for his inability to push the team to success. Malone was considered a good coach with a fiery style, but not astute enough to turn the Nuggets into real contenders.
Even this season, while the Nuggets spent most the year with the best record in the Western Conference, they received little respect. The Suns, when healthy, should beat the Nuggets. The Lakers, with an engaged LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are better than the Nuggets. The Grizzlies are good enough to knock off the Nuggets. Those were the predictions before the playoffs.
“Pat Riley said something many years ago. I used to have it up on my board when I was a head coach in Sacramento, and it talked about the evolution in this game and how you go from a nobody to an upstart, and you go from an upstart to a winner, and a winner to a contender, and a contender to a champion, and the last step after a champion is to be a dynasty,” Malone said after the clinching Game 5 against the Heat. “So, we’re not satisfied. We accomplished something this franchise has never done before, but we have a lot of young, talented players in that locker room, and I think we just showed through 16 playoff wins what we’re capable of on the biggest stage in the world.”
Malone, the 51-year-old son of former NBA coach Brendan Malone, was a longtime assistant before getting his first shot with the Kings, and then he was removed after 106 games, despite a close relationship with franchise center DeMarcus Cousins.
“These moments are surreal,” Malone said. “I got in the league 22, 23 years ago, and I dreamed of becoming a head coach, not knowing if I’d ever be given that opportunity. It doesn’t come easy, and my father was a head coach once, and he’s the best coach I know.
“To get to this point, to win a championship is just, as you reflect upon all the people who helped you get here. This is like a many, many years-long process, and you don’t do it by yourself.”
Malone could receive the most credit for helping Jokic blossom into the best player in the world, with Malone being his biggest defender.
“I seen a picture of Jok and [Joel] Embiid running for MVP, and Jok keeps running,” Malone said. “I think that just speaks so much to what his mind-set is. I got mad at him today in the game because he kept passing the ball. I hit him in the pocket, he has a floater and he’d pass it. Out of bounds, turnover. I’m like, ‘Bro, just shoot it.’
“But that’s just part of him. That’s just his game. That’s what makes us so good is, even if he’s open and guys are late, you still have to guard him and guard everybody else. We’re just an all-around team. You’ve got to guard every single person on the court, whether they can shoot or not, finish or not. Everybody is a threat. We play so unselfish giving each other spacing, giving each other different looks, knowing that the ball has energy and it will find you when the time is right.”
Jokic and Murray were paired as basically teenagers. It took seven years, but the plan of them becoming the league’s most productive 1-2 punch finally came to fruition, with Malone’s tutelage.
“I came here when I was 20. Jamal came here when he was 21? Or 20?” Jokic said. “Yes, the core, but if you want to be a success, you need a couple years. You need to be bad, then you need to be good, then when you’re good you need to fail, and then when you fail, you’re going to figure it out. I think experience is something that is not what happened to you. It’s what you’re going to do with what happened to you.
“Yes, Jamal was injured. Yes, we lose the first round or second round in the playoffs, I don’t even remember. Who remembers? But there is a process that you need to — there is steps that you need to fill, and there is no shortcuts. It’s a journey, and I’m glad that I’m part of the journey.”
HEART AND SOUL
Green finallyhas his day
The overshadowed story line of the Nuggets’ title run was the first NBA championship for 36-year-old Jeff Green, who came back from heart surgery during his time with the Celtics more than a decade ago. Green turned himself into a useful veteran reserve, still possessing above-average athleticism.
“I’ve just been coming in, doing my work, coming in every day, preparing myself to go to battle for my teammates,” he said. “I’ve been blessed enough to have this opportunity to play 16 years, 15 years. I can’t take no credit for that. I’m just out here doing my job on this side and trying to prepare myself each night to be there for my team.”
Green said learning from Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen during his time in Boston was invaluable.
“When I got there, Doc [Rivers] wanted to put me at [small forward] to back up Paul,” Green said. “And it made it grow as a player, understand the game, being well rounded. And a winning culture. That brotherhood that was there in Boston, that’s something that grows on you. It allows you to understand what it takes to get to this point, and in OKC we were very, very young. We went out there and we played hard. We were trying to form our identity.
“But in Boston, the identity was already formed, and I had to go there and learn that culture very fast. And it helped me in a lot of ways understanding team aspects of what it would take to reach this point.”
Heat keep it all in perspective
The Heat were disappointed after losing the NBA Finals to the Nuggets, but they fully realize they lost to a better team.
After stunning the Celtics, including winning Game 7 at TD Garden, the Heat came up well short against the Nuggets, losing in five. The players who flourished against the Celtics plateaued, and standout Jimmy Butler had a subpar Finals.
The Heat knew they would need to be impeccable to win the series, but they still knocked off the Bucks, Knicks, and Celtics, all higher-seeded teams. What’s more, after losing their first play-in game to the Hawks, the Heat trailed the Bulls with six minutes left in the fourth quarter before rallying, leading to their remarkable playoff run.
“We would have liked to be able to climb the mountaintop and be able to get that final win,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But I think this is a team that a lot of people can relate to. If you ever felt that you were dismissed or felt that you were made to feel less than. We had a lot of people in our locker room that probably have had that, and there’s probably a lot of people out there, you know, that have felt that at some time or another.”
A handful of players who contributed to the Heat run may not return. Gabe Vincent, who proved he was a starting-caliber point guard, is a free agent, as is 3-point specialist Max Strus. Kyle Lowry, 37, has one year and $30 million left on his contract and could be traded in the offseason.
Duncan Robinson and even Tyler Herro could be part of a bigger trade for a superstar. The Heat realize that Butler and Bam Adebayo need help, and Miami has always been a franchise consumed with chasing stars.
“The way this team handled setbacks and adversity, you know, to develop a collective grit and perseverance, I mentioned this before that hopefully these are lessons that will transcend this beautiful game, that hopefully these are lessons that we can pass along to our children,” Spoelstra said. “That even though it is sport, that you can learn lessons of life from this game, that you can persevere, that you can handle what people may view as mini-failures along the way and become stronger from it and to be able to overcome things and find beautiful things on the other side of that.
“Now, obviously, we didn’t get the final win, but sometimes that’s true in sport and also in life, that you don’t always get what you want. But there’s no regret from our side. Everybody, staff, players alike in the locker room, put themselves out there and put themselves into the team, whatever was best for the team. And the tough pill to swallow is it just wasn’t good enough. We ran up against a team that was just better than us in this series.
“You have to tip your hat to them. I said it, but they are one hell of a basketball team. They play the right way, they compete, they are well coached, and they have a strong culture. So for this season, they deserve this.”
Spoelstra likely knew Herro would not play in the Finals because of a broken hand sustained in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Bucks. The fourth-year guard worked himself into good enough condition for Game 5, but Spoelstra thought it unfair to throw Herro into a must-win after being off for so long.
“It’s just a really tough call and I’ll probably have to wrestle with that all summer,” Spoelstra said. “I’ve never been in an experience like this. I just know that the way this game was played is totally different than — you can’t even compare it. It’s another sport in the regular season.
“But first round, this is totally different, the way this game was played. Second round, totally different. Even the conference finals, the physicality and the way that they play, and I think they should have. This is what it should be about, is let the players decide. But that’s the hardest-played, most-physical competition you can have, and that would be a tough thing for a guy that’s been out for two months that hasn’t had any kind of ramp up. But that won’t save me from thinking about that for the next few weeks.”
Butler, who has become a popular figure in Miami by leading the Heat to two NBA Finals in the last four years, maintains the franchise will win a championship in the post-LeBron James/Dwyane Wade era.
“It’s been great. I’ve had some hell of a teammates come through and compete with me and give us the opportunity to win a championship, which I still believe, with everything in me, that we will do as a team here, as an organization, as a city in Miami,” Butler said. “The four years have been great. It’s always great to be wanted and loved and appreciated. I don’t think that’s going to change. But I’m grateful, man, that we made it here. Came up short, but I’m blessed. I’m fortunate.”
Adebayo, who has emerged one of league’s more versatile centers and led the Heat by averaging 21.8 points and 12.4 rebounds in the Finals, marveled at the team’s ability to turn what was a disappointing regular season into an Eastern Conference championship.
“It was a whirlwind because going into this season, we expected — obviously we didn’t get off to a great start in the beginning of the season, and then go through adversity, guys being out, playing with eight guys, still trying to find a way, missing shots, everybody counting us out,” Adebayo said. “You lose the first play-in game, then win the second one, and you go on an unbelievable run to the Finals. The only thing I can say is, man, they need to put more respect on undrafted players. They are still basketball players at the end of the day, and obviously you’ve seen, they can take you there.
“So for me, it was a joy to get this far and have these type of guys, undrafted, fighting to make a name for themselves. And they fought to the Finals. Came up short, but I don’t care what anybody says, you can never count these guys out.”
The Wizards are making the not-so-difficult decision to rebuild, meaning centerpiece Bradley Beal, who has a no-trade clause in his maximum contract, could be dealt if he approves. The Wizards have been languishing for years and team president Michael Winger, who was hired last month, has to determine whether a complete overhaul will be the fastest way to being a perennial playoff team in the Eastern Conference. It’s not that the Wizards have done everything wrong, it’s just that they’ve been mired in mediocrity, with no standout draft picks, no superstars besides Beal, and a fan base that’s apathetic because the Wizards have not reached the conference finals since 1979. Beal signed a maximum contract last summer, and he will potentially make $57 million in the final year of that contract in 2026-27. Beal has been injured often in recent years, and the Wizards haven’t won more than 35 games in the last five seasons. Not only is Beal likely on the block, but forward Kristaps Porzingis has a player option on his contract for $36 million, while Kyle Kuzma is expected to opt out of his deal and become a free agent. The Wizards also haven’t drafted well, with Corey Kispert, Johnny Davis, and Deni Avdija being considered nothing more than role players. Washington could be buoyed by multiple draft picks in a deal for Beal and an expiring contract, and a deal could come soon with the draft on Thursday … The Pelicans made the controversial move of parting ways with assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon, a Hall of Famer as a player, who had been popular in the front office … New Orleans is seriously considering the future of former No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, who not only has missed considerable time with injuries over the last three years but had a messy social media episode with a former companion after announcing his girlfriend is pregnant. Whether Williamson is a cornerstone and can be relied upon to return to form is a serious question within the organization. The Pelicans have enough talent to compete in the Western Conference, if healthy, but that hasn’t often been the case the last few years. General manager David Griffin is considering making a deal that would net the Pelicans a top-three pick as a way of starting over. The Hornets, who are in desperate need of star power, could be interested in Williamson, who is a South Carolina native.