What Michael Malone and Jamal Murray tell us about Nuggets patience — like not trading Murray — paying off

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LOS ANGELES — Michael Malone will never forgive the organizational impatience that undercut his Sacramento Kings back in mid-December of 2014.

The longtime Denver Nuggets coach didn’t bring that painful chapter up in the aftermath of his team’s 119-108 win over the Lakers in the West Finals, and why would he? From Nikola Jokić on down — or from the Kroenke family that owns the Nuggets on down, to be more accurate — there was too much to savor about their latest clinic in cohesion and chemistry that led to a 3-0 series lead. They’re not in the Finals just yet, but it sure felt that way afterward.

Whether it was Jokić sharing a bear hug and a cheek kiss with his brother, Strahinja, on his way off of the Crypto.com Arena floor, or the elated members of the front office floating through the back hallways as if they were walking on air, there was a sense from all involved that this matchup is unofficially over. This Nuggets team that has been building toward this since Jokić and Malone arrived together in the summer of 2016, and which is reaping the benefits of loyalty shown to players like Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. along the way, simply looks superior to this Lakers squad that revived its season with a trade deadline for the ages a few months ago.

But for Malone, whose Nuggets tenure has long served as a referendum on the decision of Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé to fire him just 24 games into his second season, this is all an indictment of that sort of knee-jerk reaction ethos that is so prevalent in pro sports. Many owners and executives, as we’ve been reminded in these past few weeks in places like Phoenix (the firing of Monty Williams), Milwaukee (Mike Budenholzer), and Philadelphia (Doc Rivers), tend to reach for the panic button when the desired result doesn’t come quickly enough for their liking. So no, in other words, Malone’s experience back in his Sacramento days was hardly an outlier then or now.

But this Nuggets story, one that never could have unfolded if they hadn’t taken the long view all along the way, is the kind of thing that should make power brokers around the league think twice.

What if the Nuggets had parted ways with Malone back in 2018, when the Nuggets’ overtime loss to Minnesota on the last day of the regular season kept them out of the playoffs for the third time in his three-year tenure?

What if they’d decided not to build around Jokić, whose unorthodox style and physique created so much doubt around the league during those early years? What if they’d pivoted off of Jamal Murray — both before and after the ACL tear that cost him all of last season?

Ditto for Michael Porter Jr., whose long history of back problems made the choice to give him a massive extension in Sept. of 2021 look so questionable at the time. What if the departure of longtime Nuggets president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly, to Minnesota last summer, and the elevation of Calvin Booth to the general manager role, had somehow destabilized their program?

The list goes on from there.

These were the musings that came to mind in the wake of the Nuggets’ Game 3 win, and they were the basis of conversations with Malone and Murray afterward. While neither of the Nuggets’ principles was quite ready to fully reflect just yet, the history here is such that a sense of accomplishment was only natural. After all, 149 teams have tried and failed to come back from a 3-0 series deficit in the playoffs.

The following conversations with The Athletic have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

One-on-one with Michael Malone

Yeah, the thing I love most about this group is that our core has been built organically. We drafted Nikola (41st overall out of Serbia in 2014; he didn’t come over until two years later) — we developed him. We drafted Jamal (seventh overall out of Kentucky in 2016) — we developed him. We drafted Michael Porter (Jr., 14th overall out of Missouri in 2018) — we developed them. And obviously, you’ve got to add guys like Aaron (Gordon) and Bruce (Brown) and KCP (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) through other ways. But since the Bubble (in 2020, when they fell to the Lakers in the West Finals), I think this group realized that — when healthy — we have a chance to do something really special. And I think the guys on our team, especially the core guys, really appreciate that it’s the NBA and it’s a business but we have a collegiate family type of atmosphere. And guys have all improved here. I think they realize that the grass is not always greener, you know what I mean? It’s not always greener, and I think Nikola realizes that, ‘Ok, I’m playing for a franchise that has made me their guy and built everything around me.’ Jamal Murray, the amount of growth and maturity is just incredible. Our guys aren’t leaving to go here or there. Our thing is organic. It’s real. And guys have bought into that. And that’s why, now that we’re healthy, I think we’re back to showing everybody what we’re capable of.

On Murray, who had 37 points, seven rebounds and six assists in Game 3 and is now averaging 27.9 points, 6.2 assists, and 5.6 rebounds in these playoffs…

I remember Tim (Connelly) calling me up, (and saying), ‘Hey, we can trade Jamal for this guy.’ (This was) probably three or four years ago — (and it was) a marquee player. I said ‘No.’ Like, ‘What? Let’s not rush this. We have a patient ownership group. Let’s f—ing take our time and build this the right way. A bigger name is not always better.’ There are countless, different examples (like that). (Nuggets president) Josh (Kroenke) said to me after we lost to Minnesota (in the aforementioned regular-season finale in 2018), and Josh was like, ‘Man, I’m so excited about our two young players — Jamal and Nikola just balled out in Game 82.’ It was the play-in game before the play-in, and Josh’s reaction was, ‘Wow, we’re gonna be really good in a few years.’ Just the ability of ownership to be patient and not overreact (was key). Patience is not something you talk about in the NBA, or pro sports. And I think I, and we, are a perfect example of the results of being patient and saying, ‘You know what? Let’s continue to let this grow and marinate and mature and then we can see what we really have.’ And I think we’re seeing it.

On the departure of Connelly, who drafted Jokić, Murray and Porter Jr., and how they navigated the transition to Booth, the former NBA player who had been an assistant general manager for the Nuggets since 2017….

I’m gonna be completely honest, and I told Josh this when he called me up with the news (of Connelly’s departure). And I love Tim — I wouldn’t be here without him. But I said ‘Josh, we’re gonna be fine. No disrespect to Tim. Tim did an amazing job, drafting all these guys.’ And I go, ‘I’ve been the head coach here for a while now, and we have Jamal and we have Nikola. I have zero doubt that we’re going to continue to keep on moving in the right direction. And Tim would tell you the same thing.

I knew Calvin, and he was with us. That was a key, too, was moving Calvin up, the relationship I had with him. We had tremendous conversations all summer long going into the draft, going into free agency. (It was) a real partnership. I had zero doubts that we were going to keep on moving, keep on trucking.

One-on-one with Jamal Murray

On the Nuggets’ unity that has been born out of their longevity…

It’s like the Miami Heat. They’ve got three undrafted players. (Longtime Heat coach) Erik Spoelstra was a film guy. You’re a tighter group when you’ve been together for so long. You know each other’s tendencies. You have a better feeling for each other. I just think that we’ve grown as a team, and as a core. We’ve grown, (as opposed to) the team that moves around a lot.

It’s chemistry — on the court chemistry and off the court chemistry. It’s ‘Hey, let’s have an off-day so we’re ready. Hey, let’s get a film session in on both days instead of just one. Little stuff like that can make you win or lose the game. It matters that we’ve been growing as a core, with everybody here, and the coaching staff as well. We just have a little bit more chemistry than other teams, when we’re struggling or don’t have it. We know each other’s tendencies.

On whether that trait came in handy in Game 3…

Yeah, for sure. When they made the run in the (late third quarter, early fourth quarter), it was like, ‘We’re good.’ There was no sense of panic. We just needed a timeout to reset, get back in there and execute. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re on a run. We can’t stop them,’ and then you start rushing things. …You don’t want to get too high, and don’t want to get too low. I was at a very low point (during his ACL recovery), and I wanted to keep a level head, keep my head down and work so that when I come back, I’m ready. And now that we’re here, and we’re doing what we’re, we’ve got five more. Let’s get there. And then we can talk.

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 (Top Photo of Jamal Murray and Michael Malone: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

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