2020 Playoffs | West finals: (1) Lakers vs. (3) Nuggets
The Q&A: Brendan Malone on West finals and LeBron vs. MJ debate
Former NBA coach watching as his son, Michael Malone, leads Denver Nuggets through West finals
The common thread linking Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone and LeBron James is a 78-year-old grandfatherly retiree who watches the Western Conference finals from afar, who roots hard for one man while taking special interest in the other.
Brendan Malone has fingerprints on both, as the father of Michael and the former coach of LeBron James. The elder Malone spent nearly 30 years on NBA benches, most famously at the hip of Chuck Daly during the Detroit Pistons’ championship years of the 1980s and early 90s. He was the inaugural coach of the Toronto Raptors and, for 18 games, was interim coach in Cleveland during LeBron’s second season.
Malone was briefly also an assistant with the Sacramento in 2013, the same year his son, Michael, was in his first season coaching the Kings.
With all those years comes wisdom, and Brendan Malone is long valued for his honest and refreshing take on the game, for being a confidant to players and coaches, and obviously for his knowledge.
He agreed to offer his take on his son’s development, a teenaged LeBron, the Nuggets-Lakers series so far, what made Daly great, his analysis of the LeBron-or-Michael Jordan debate with a surprising answer to that … and how the Secret Service lost a chance to hire the right man to protect U.S. Presidents.
Q: The Nuggets are down 0-2 but we’ve seen this movie before. Are you surprised by how they’ve rebounded throughout the playoffs, fighting back from 3-1 to Utah and the LA Clippers?
A: This didn’t happen overnight. This is the maturation of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray being a tandem, especially in pick and rolls, and the other players maturing. They were down 3-1 against what many thought was the best team in the NBA and showed some grit. I think Murray scared me in the first few games in the Utah series because he wasn’t looking to shoot and then he became aggressive. If he gets on a roll he’s hard to stop. Very much impressed with the team. They have to become better defensively if they want to go anywhere. Jokic has to become a rim protector. Murray has to become a better perimeter defender. When and if they become good defenders they will be ready to make the next step.
What about your son? He has developed along with the team, correct?
I’m impressed with Michael’s coaching and his matchups and the way he uses his bench. He’s been there for five years and each year he has become a better coach. He’s controlling his emotions on the sidelines. The team’s success is a reflection of coaching. He knows that when the game’s on the line he has to go to the two-man game with Murray and Jokic on the high pick and roll. It’s very difficult to guard. You’ve got Murray coming off a 3-point shot and if Jokic flashes he’s going to be open for a 3-point shot. He has that figured out. His substitutions are also very good.
Did you try to discourage Michael from seeking this profession? Including college and the NBA, you coached in 10 different places, so he had to see the rigors first-hand. It’s not easy on a family.
I wanted him to go get married and have kids. But after he graduated from college and I was with the Pistons, he was living with us and got a call from Greg Kampe, the coach at Oakland University in Detroit, to be a volunteer assistant. Michael helped clean the gym to supplement his salary, and sometimes Barry Sanders would come by and they’d play one-on-one. Then he just decided to be a Secret Service agent.
People ask me who was better: Michael Jordan or LeBron? And I always say you’re asking the wrong question. Who was better, Kobe Bryant or Michael? … LeBron is competitive but didn’t come up to the level as Michael. And the guy closest to Michael in that sense is Kobe.”
Former NBA coach Brendan Malone
Secret Service? That’s a drastically different gig. But he went through basic training in 1995 to get the law enforcement experience needed for the job, right?
He took the physical and the mental exams and passed. But before this, he’d written letters to a lot of head coaches for jobs, and the first coach who answered was Dean Smith, who didn’t offer him anything. Well, Michael was two weeks away from going to the barracks when Pete Gillen, the coach at Providence College, called the house. I thought he wanted to talk to me and Pete said no I want to talk to Michael. He offered Michael a job. Michael didn’t go to the Secret Service.
What kind of Secret Service agent would he have been?
(Laughs) Well, he’s a serious guy. I’ll just say he would’ve taken the job very seriously and been someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.
The coaching business is all about making connections. After Michael reached a dead end following his short stay as an assistant with the Knicks, another coach gave him a shot, right?
That summer Brett Brown and Michael went to Argentina with Basketball Without Borders. Brown was [Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich’s assistant coach with the Spurs. Popovich went down there to visit Manu Ginobili. Popovich, Brown and Michael went out to dinner every night. Popovich got to know Michael. After they came home Popovich called Mike Brown, who just got the job at Cleveland, and said, `You got to hire Michael as your assistant,’ and he did. Mike Brown gave him a lot of responsibility.
Your son’s first head coaching job was in Sacramento but it ended badly, with Michael being fired 24 games into his second season. The Kings were a dysfunctional organization with lots of infighting and many believed Michael got a raw deal. I suppose you agree?
I was angry. There were people there who had selfish motives. He was the only guy who could coach DeMarcus Cousins, who loved playing for Michael. They had a rapport. Right after Michael got the job he went down to Alabama to visit Cousins, stayed with his family. When they fired him, they mentioned his tempo. Well if he played up-tempo they would’ve been playing away from Cousins. He was smart enough to know you had to play through Cousins. He wasn’t a fast-break coach because his best player was his center and didn’t want the team to be running up the court while this guy was running from the back. I know this much: After seeing him come back 3-1 down twice in the playoffs, the people in Sacramento are saying, ‘Why did we get rid of Michael Malone?’
What was it like coaching a young LeBron?
He was very competitive, an extremely hard worker and very smart even then. He wanted to win every drill. He was still developing, though. I tried to get the ball to him down low and he was not comfortable then. Right now he’s a good low post player, but at that time he wasn’t.
As an assistant with the Pistons, you helped devise a plan to stop Michael Jordan 30 years ago and it was termed “The Jordan Rules.” What would be “The LeBron Rules?”
I don’t think any coach in the NBA has come up with that answer yet. He’s probably the best player in the open court. He’s so fast and strong going to the basket. He can finish. His best skill is passing. I would take away the drive, give him the 3-pointer, and if he goes to the basket, foul him because he’s not a high percentage free throw shooter.
Well, does this mean LeBron is better than Jordan, in your opinion?
People ask me who was better: Michael Jordan or LeBron? And I always say you’re asking the wrong question. Who was better, Kobe Bryant or Michael? I would say LeBron is in the conversation of course. There’s a lot of people who would put LeBron ahead of Kobe. And some would put LeBron ahead of Michael. I saw how competitive Michael was. LeBron is competitive but didn’t come up to the level as Michael. And the guy closest to Michael in that sense is Kobe.
How would Jordan do in today’s game, with no hand-checking or physical tactics that he endured when going up against Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer?
If you gave him that kind of freedom, he could flirt with 50 points every game if he wanted to.
At the risk of having a second Malone coach this series, how should the Nuggets handle LeBron and Anthony Davis?
Denver doesn’t have a lock-down defender who can guard either one of those guys. What you have to do is play one-on-one and do the best you can. The temptation is to double team Davis and LeBron, but then you leave people open. Davis and LeBron are going to score their points; they may score 60 together. You can’t let Dwight Howard have 13 points as he did in the first game and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope go for 18 or 19. You’ve got to shut down the other players and if you can do that, I think they can be successful.
What did you think of your son’s plea to have family members of the coaches visit at the Disney campus, as the players were allowed?
He was hurt that some coaches didn’t back him up and didn’t support his position. Some coaches thought he was out of place. Look, he missed his wife and two girls. It’s not easy being there alone. He rides a bike 20 miles every day in that bubble. He’d go back to his room and felt alone.
And what about a week ago when Michael Porter Jr. publicly talked about being more involved in the offense? How did your son react?
Porter’s a young man learning how to play. He has to learn to keep everything in the locker room. He says give me the ball. Well, they don’t run plays. It’s a free-flow offense. If you can hit Jokic and then cut, Jokic is always going to find you. Porter had to get himself involved in the offense. He hadn’t learned that yet. I think he’s learned a lesson. And I credit Michael for not blowing it up. He handled the situation pretty good.
What’s the best advice you ever gave your son?
The best thing you can do as a coach is to instill confidence in your team. Always be in the foxhole with them when they’re going through bad times. You have to pick them up after they’re down. Some coaches, and I don’t want to name names, were always with you when you won but didn’t want any part of you when you lost. I told Michael to be the same coach after a win and loss. The players have to feel you care about them individually.
Does this remind you of anyone?
One of the best coaches who ever did that was Chuck Daly. We were walking one time and he said, `I’m not the greatest X-and-O guy but coaching in the NBA is a people person business. You have to get along with your players, the general manager and the press.’ That’s what Chuck did. He subordinated his ego to the team’s ego. That’s what made him a success.
What’s the best advice you ever gave LeBron?
Actually I would turn that question around. When we were struggling in Cleveland, I asked LeBron for advice. He was young but he knew the game, even then.
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