Judging from some of the comments made after Wednesday’s practice inside the Pepsi Center, the Denver Nuggets begin the schedule after the NBA All-Star Game with a game that head coach Michael Malone and his team have been looking forward to for some time.
When Denver takes the court against the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena on Friday night, it marks the first time that Malone has been in the arena since the Kings fired him in December of 2014 after the Kings started the season with an 11-13 record. It was a moment that deeply stung Malone, but also set him on the path that would eventually lead him to the Mile High City.
Now at 22-32 and just five games out of a playoff spot, Malone has the Nuggets on the right path in his first season in Denver. Pulling the team out of the chaos of the Brian Shaw era, Malone has established a new attitude within the Denver locker room. The team’s marketing slogan of “It’s A New Day” is fitting and perfect for the transformation that has happened so quickly under Malone’s leadership.
The Kings, meanwhile, have had their fair share of drama this season with George Karl butting heads often with DeMarcus Cousins. Sacramento “expected more” from Malone, sources said, as the reason for his firing. Now, a little over a year later, Malone’s young Nuggets are just a half-game behind the Kings in the standings.
So how will emotions run on Friday night for Malone?
“I don’t dread nothing. I look forward to it,” Malone smiled. “There are a lot of great people in that organization and a lot of great fans. I’m looking forward to it. When I got fired, it was a low point but the support of the fans and the media was overwhelming.”
After a couple of other questions from the media members in attendance after practice, the attention turned back to Malone and the Kings. The smile he exhibited earlier left his face as he answered the question.
“I don’t care who we play. I’m a competitor,” Malone said. “That team fired me. They didn’t think I was good enough to lead them going forward. That’s their loss. I’m in a better place. I’m working with better people. I don’t go in there with any animosity at all. They gave me a great opportunity. As an owner, you have the right to get rid of people when you want. That’s the decision they made. Ever since I got fired, what has happened in that time speaks for itself. I’m just happy I’m in a place with good people who communicate with each other and they’re all operating on the same page.”
That place is Denver and the importance of Friday’s game to Malone hasn’t been lost on the Nuggets.
“It’s definitely a big game for him. I remember in Summer League in Vegas when we played (Sacramento), it was a big game for him as well,” Denver point guard Emmanuel Mudiay said. “Hopefully we can go over there and get the win.”
Will Barton, Denver’s second-leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, said there is extra motivation for all of the Nuggets when the game begins on Friday.
“We’re going to try to get a win for him,” Barton said. “I definitely want to win it for him. I felt like he was wronged. That’s the past, but I want to go out and get a win for him. He’s a good guy and one thing I know about him is that he’s not going to let it show. Deep down, he’s a competitor like me and I know it’s on his mind but he’s not letting it show.”
Despite the past and despite any extra motivation there might be, Malone also knows the importance of this game in the grand scheme of the NBA season. Few thought his team would have 22 wins at the All-Star break. Even fewer thought his players would even be thinking about a late playoff push. Yet here they are, ready to continue their winning ways that saw them capture three of their last four games before the All-Star Game.
“Honestly, once that jump ball goes up, it’s all about getting a win,” Malone said.
And, judging by his players’ reactions on Wednesday, Malone can expect an all-out effort for that win. Will it help in the race for that final playoff spot? Absolutely. But there’s more to it than that. These Nuggets have bought into Malone’s system and believe in him enough to want to get that win for him.
That’s the greatest compliment any coach can have and illustrates just how far this team — and their coach — have come in just a few months.