Although the NBA is filled with key figures that never take the court, our attention is typically fixated on only those in uniform. After the Sacramento Kings got off to a shocking 9-6 start during the 2014-15 season, that began to change in California’s capital. Before franchise center DeMarcus Cousins — who was lighting the basketball world aflame with his absolute dominance — was temporarily sidelined due to viral meningitis, everyone was fixated on the man at the helm of the controls: Coach Michael Malone.
Displaying an ability to connect with Cousins, something no previous coach employed by the Kings could claim, Malone had the team playing a brand of basketball that nobody expected. Projected to be another cellar-dwelling season for a team that’s become familiar with the basement, Malone was well on his way to changing the stagnant narrative. A franchise recently known for having only questions looked as if it finally had an answer at head coach with Malone. That’s when it all came unglued.
When Cousins was forced out of action due to the illness, the Kings predictably struggled without him. Feeling as if it was the right opportunity to use Malone as a scapegoat, the team laughably fired him, and multiple reports cited irreconcilable differences with the front office. Owner Vivek Ranadive, who has actually advocated the idea of playing 4-on-5 basketball, had apparently seen enough.
And while the owner can certainly do as he pleases with his team as Ranadive has done and did in this situation, it was a bizarre situation that prompted baffling explanations. An inexplicable decision at the time, Malone’s dismissal is still without real explanation from the Kings almost an entire calendar year later.
It couldn’t have worked out better for Malone, who’s now head coach of a Denver Nuggets team that’ll provide the opportunity he’s sought since the day he was told his time in Sacramento was over.
“I don’t believe in throwing players under the bus. Some coaches will coach through the media. I don’t believe in that. I’m gonna protect our guys. But in practice, and in meetings, if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, I’m gonna let you know it.”
For a team that’s struggled to find a sustainable culture of professionalism, Malone is going to come in and establish one. For a group of guys who’ve failed to jell as whole and instead looked like the sum of their parts alone, Malone will ensure that they’re playing for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the one sewn on the back.
And for a Denver Nuggets franchise that’s seen three of the last four seasons result in sub-40 win campaigns after four straight seasons of 50-plus victories, Malone’s road to success will be in both the process and the results. While it would be asinine to assume the Nuggets will suddenly flip the switch with questions at every position on the roster and a 19-year-old starting point guard entering his first season in the league, there’s every reason to believe in the idea that Malone will waste little time in showing why he didn’t have to wait for his next head coaching gig.
Let’s call it exactly how it’s still seen: Malone got a rawer than raw deal in Sacramento. Without getting a real chance to establish a culture, build a process or really invest in his players on a personal and professional level, the Kings held unrealistic expectations for a coach they decided to move on from long before his dismissal was made official.
Now in Denver with a management group that supports and believes in him, a roster thrilled to play for him and with both the freedom and ability to build a program that doesn’t have to breed immediate success so long as it keeps moving forward, Malone has resources that he simply did not during his first go-around as lead man on the sidelines.
Imagine having to constantly look over your shoulder at work because you know your superior is watching, changing your goals regularly and ready to micromanage and intervene at every juncture. Now imagine entering a work environment where your bosses trust you, you’re free to implement your ways and everyone is operating on the same page with the same expectations in hand. While making millions of dollars and working in professional basketball can eschew some of those concerns for those watching — and critiquing — from afar, the reality is there’s a stark difference between those two scenarios, and it’s beyond clear which would be preferred (via Rusty Simmons, San Francisco Chronicle):
“Everything after I got fired in December only validated the job my staff was doing. “Everything kind of went haywire after that, and in the end, it was a perfect scenario.”
Now in position to work freely without having to hold anything back, this is Michael Malone, in the spotlight, with a clear path to redemption.