DENVER — Michael Malone’s a tough guy from NYC. He was raised in basketball by his father, Brendan, a coach with Detroit's "Bad Boys.” Give him a hard screen over a dunk any day.
But when I shifted our conversation to the looming trade deadline and Malone’s favorite people — the Nuggets, who on Sunday thumped the Clippers 114-104 at Pepsi Center — his rub-some-dirt-on-it persona vanished. He got sentimental. He reminisced.
“I hope we can keep this team,” Malone said. “I know what this team is capable of.”
Yes, this is going to be tough. A real basketball family is about to face the team’s most difficult trade deadline decisions since the Carmelo Anthony trade way back in 2011.
When they speak of the brotherly atmosphere they've nurtured into a 27-12 record, tied for the best start in team history, it's no baloney. When Michael Porter Jr. glided coast-to-coast for a sweet bucket, Will Barton, whose minutes will be cut by Porter’s emergence, pumped both fists on the bench. The love is real. But there’s also the matter of six expiring contracts to address. Do you really want to lose Malik Beasley or Juancho Hernangomez in exchange for nothing in return?
“Malik Beasley’s sitting there saying, ‘I should be playing more.’ And you know what? He’s right. I can’t argue that,” Malone said.
“All these guys, you have relationships with them as people. It’s not just player-coach,” he said. “It’s people you’ve spent a lot of time with over my five years and however many years they’ve been here.”
Even so, NBA history favors the bold. Just scan the final four from a year ago: Golden State, Portland, Toronto, Milwaukee. Only Golden State stood pat at the deadline, and Portland’s acquisition of Rodney Hood helped the Blazers beat the Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. Subtle, valuable move right there.
It’s comforting to know Denver’s decision-makers can distinguish a good player from a bad player, as shown by Jerami Grant on Sunday. Woo, boy. Grant had been underwhelming. But the sight of all-world star Kawhi Leonard brought the 6-foot-9 jumping jack to life. Twice he blocked Leonard’s shot. When the playoff road goes through the likes of Leonard, LeBron James and Luka Doncic, willing and able defenders are a valuable commodity indeed.
The Nuggets got their mojo back against the Clippers, whose frustrations boiled over when Doc Rivers was ejected in the fourth quarter. Trade deadline moves before Feb. 6 or not, Denver can follow a three-step process toward being a factor in the postseason once again.
One, Michael Porter Jr. must be allowed to play through the rookie mistakes that threaten the remaining hairs on Malone’s head. Porter’s a year or two away from being the scoring star he believes he is. But 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting can't stay on the bench. Porter needs to play.
“I play my best when I’m feeling free,” Porter said Sunday.
Two, Grant must defend like his contract depends on it. It’s not often you see a man chase down Kawhi Leonard for a blocked shot at the rim. Grant can do that sort of fun thing.
“You can’t teach that size, strength and athleticism,” Malone said.
Three, when do the star calls kick in for Nikola Jokic? Is it after his second or third All-Star game? The red scratches up and down Joker’s arms suggest he wrestled a lion, yet Sixers center Joel Embiid, for example, is awarded twice as many free throws per game.
Malone scored his 200th win as Nuggets coach Sunday and was met with congratulations by Stan and Josh Kroenke in the tunnel.
“I said, ‘Let’s get 200 more,’” Malone said.
That's going to happen without one or more of the young players he’s helped grow.
“Of course I want to stay here,” said Beasley, who shot 50 percent from 3 (54 for 108) last season as a starter yet hasn’t gotten on the court in three of the past six games. “But the front office, they’ve got some things they want to do and I respect that. I’m just going to control what I can control."