Risky Assertions: Nuggets coach Michael Malone can’t afford to lose the locker room

Jan 11, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone watches game action against the Denver Nuggets during the first half at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get something straight right off the top: I miss the era in which coaches had more power than players, the good ol’ days when a grouchy ol’ curmudgeon of a coach could pop off the bench and issue a good ol’ fashioned a$$ chewing – laced with curse words, through a rusty whistle and gritted teeth – to an underachieving player who would stand there and take it in stride, then head back out with an earnest effort to do better.

Let’s get something else straight: These days aren’t those days.

Especially in the National Basketball Association, where AAU stars who have been coddled since they were 10 years old grow up to be multi-millionaires, making infinitely more than their coaches. It’s not a favorable equation – if you’re a coach, that is – but it falls into the overused truth of the modern day: It is what it is.

And that’s why the words of Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, offered Tuesday night in L.A. after one of team’s most devasting losses on the season, are worth further examination.

“Losses like this can keep me awake for weeks,” Malone said in response to Mike Singer’s question: What is the frustration level from the guys in the locker room? “I think today’s NBA player is worrying about where they’re going out tonight, or what’s going to happen.”

Translation (or at least how I translate it): “I care more than they care.”

Modern or throwback, rich or poor, young or old, those aren’t words any athlete wants to hear. If Malone’s assertion is true, it still stings. If it isn’t true, it borders on offensive.

Prior to those comments, Malone offered some other salty food for thought, offering an explanation for his decision not to call a timeout in the game’s 7.5 seconds, down two and immediately following a Nikola Jokic defensive rebound.

“Our execution was piss poor,” Malone said. “If we’d have called a timeout, we’d have been doing them a favor. We probably wouldn’t have gotten the ball in bounds.”

In case you’re not catching the vibe, Malone was not pleased with his team. And rightfully so. After all, the Nuggets gave up a 25-point lead in the second half to ultimately lose to the Clippers.

But the problem goes back to the reality of “then versus now.” If Red Auerbach barks out such barbs in 1952, it’s perfectly acceptable. If Michael Malone says as much in 2022, a time in which everyone is offended by everything, it might just backfire.

This is not to say which time or style is right or wrong, just to say what is.

The other problem with Malone’s comments becomes a little more complex. If a team chokes away a 25-point lead, everyone – especially the head coach – shares in the blame. In fairness, Malone did say, “It starts with me; put this one on me,” but the arrows that followed will likely sink deeper than his initial, personal culpability. There is the debate of whether or not Malone should have used his final timeout and drawn up a play – many that follow the Nuggets believe he should have – but his rationale for not calling it could easily be interpreted as, “If our players were playing better, I would have, but since they were incompetent all night, I didn’t.”

Again, Malone may not be wrong. But is his method right, considering the current state of the Nuggets – banged up, thin and, for stars like Jokic or Aaron Gordon, potentially overused?

It’s one thing to offer a tirade behind closed doors, but to call out a team through the media is quite another. Malone has built somewhat of a reputation of doing this. Remember after the Nuggets went down 0-2 to the Suns in round two of the playoffs last spring, when Malone said – more or less – that Will Barton was the only Nugget who wasn’t “soft” and didn’t “quit.”

“I just told our players, ‘It’s embarrassing that a guy (Barton) that hasn’t been able to play for seven weeks was out there leaving it all on the line,’ and I don’t think anybody else did,” Malone told the press.

Same thing – Malone might be speaking the truth. But how does that sit with the NBA MVP, who, by the way, had 24 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists in the loss? More importantly, did Malone push the right button at the right time? It’s debatable, but it’s a fact that his team proceeded to get swept after his harsh assessment.

Tonight, the weary Nuggets will square off against the Portland Trailblazers back home in Denver.

How will the Nuggets respond? Will they take Malone’s words to heart and play their hearts out?

Or will they conclude that Malone might not be the kind of guy they like playing for?

Michael Malone might want to choose his words wisely, as they’ll likely point his depleted Nuggets in one direction or another.

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