Like Fathers, Like Sons: The unique upbringings that helped cultivate a love of the game for Michael Malone, Wes Unseld Jr. and David Adelman

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

There is no tried-and-true linear path to becoming an NBA coach.

For some, a lifetime spent as a player is plenty of preparation to move to the sidelines. For others, elite knowledge of the game coupled with a knack for leadership translates to such a career.

For some lucky individuals, brought up around experienced players and coaches can instill a passion for the game that otherwise may not have developed Through that passion, the sharpening of skills and insights is what truly allows one to make it as a coach in such a high-stakes league.

For the Denver Nuggets, these unique circumstances have joined together to create a coaching trio that has spent decades in and around the game. Whether it was growing up around a Hall-of-Fame player, a legendary coach or a basketball lifer, each of Denver’s three leading coaches was exposed to basketball from an early age.

The rest, as they say, is history. Over the past couple of decades, assistants David Adelman and Wes Unseld Jr. and head coach Michael Malone have developed careers in and around the game after growing up under some true legends of the game. For David, growing up under one of the transformative basketball minds in Rick Adelman has helped shape a career as an offensive-minded coach.

For Unseld Jr., being able to sit in on team practices and travel to several All-Star weekends as his father Wes Unseld was building out a Hall-of-Fame career provided unique insights into the team-oriented game.

Finally, growing up under and eventually working alongside his father Brendan allowed Michael to learn the ins-and-outs of the coaching game from an early age.

All three coaches have used the unique experiences their unique upbringings afforded them to cultivate their love for the game and carve out their respective careers.

Slick Rick

When discussing the greatest coaches in NBA history, it doesn’t take long for Rick Adelman’s name to be dropped in the conversation.

Over the course of his 23 years as a head coach, Rick racked up 1,042 victories, making him one of only nine coaches in league history to break the 1,000-win mark. Rick’s 79 playoff victories rank 11th all-time.
Rick’s corner offense has influenced countless coaches around the league as new trends develop on that end of the floor. The offensive philosophy that Rick developed during his eight seasons as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings relied on all five players being engaged each possession, moving the ball quickly and remaining aggressive as they read and react.

“I’ve stolen so much from Rick Adelman that it gets embarrassing,” Mike D’Antoni said during his 2016-17 NBA Coach of the Year acceptance speech.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise to see David Adelman follow in his father’s footsteps as one of the drivers behind Denver’s offense. Creatively scheming to consistently generate buckets certainly seems to run in the family.

“Growing up around my Dad and seeing him lead and be a part of a group and a team all the time was an incredible influence on me,” David told Nuggets.com. “Whether I became a coach or not, I think I would have gravitated towards doing something group-centric with a common goal.”

David was hired by the Nuggets ahead of the 2017-18 season, following stints as an assistant coach for the Orlando Magic and Minnesota Timberwolves.

After Rick was hired by the Timberwolves to serve as head coach in the 2011 offseason, David joined him as a player development coach for two seasons. It was at that time that Rick had misgivings of bringing David into the coaching business.

“I knew how tough the job was,” Rick told the Portland Tribune in 2019. “I felt bad bringing David into that business. But he wanted to do it, and he has done a great job."

In Rick’s final season coaching, David joined him on the bench as an assistant. During this time, David served as the head coach of the Timberwolves’ Summer League team for three seasons.

"I know how special my dad was to the game, how many people benefited from his style and creativity," David told the Portland Tribune. “I looked at him as a model of how to be a good coach, but I've tried to find my own voice and style."

However, David’s experience as a head coach goes back farther than those three Summer Leagues. Prior to joining the Timberwolves, David spent five seasons as head basketball coach at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon.

During those five seasons, Adelman went 83-53 (.610), leading the Cardinals to three Portland Interscholastic district championships (2006-07, 2009-10, 2010-11). He also guided Lincoln to the Oregon Class 6A state championship final in 2009. Adelman was named PIL Coach of the Year three times.

The experiences listed above made David a perfect fit for a young and developing Nuggets team when he joined the coaching staff in 2017. During this time, David has put his fingerprints on Denver’s offense, which has posted three seasons in the top 10 of offensive rating following Adelman’s arrival.

As his coaching career has progressed in Denver, David still takes time to reflect on and appreciate what he was able to learn from his father.

“It was easy to see how good he was at it and his relationships with the various teams he coached were always unique and constructed in such a way to let players succeed in a comfort zone they needed,” David told Nuggets.com. “It’s had a lasting effect on me.”

While some can feel the pressure of being the coach’s son, David hasn’t succumbed to the pressure. He looks at his experiences as part of the good luck that has translated into his career.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have somewhat followed in some very big footprints and I’m hoping to pass a lot of those same positive lessons on to my children.”

Growing Up Around Greatness

For Wes Unseld Jr., coaching was never in the plans.

“About a week or so before graduation, I had other opportunities lined up and I had no desire to be in this (coaching) business,” Unseld Jr. revealed in a Nuggets 360 interview back in 2016.

However, when a league MVP, NBA champion and Hall-of-Fame player approaches you with a job opportunity, it can be hard to resist. Especially when that person also happens to be your father.

“I was going to take a year to do some other things like travel,” Unseld Jr. said. “Then my dad came to me and said ‘hey, do you want to work for me for a year and then go back to grad school?’ Well, 19 years later, here we are.”

What started as a one-year trial period to see if he enjoyed the day-to-day of working for an NBA team has developed into a journey through the coaching and scouting ranks of the league. Unseld Jr. first started as a personnel scout for the Washington Wizards while his father was the team’s general manager.

After spending eight years in the scouting department, Unseld Jr. was promoted to assistant coach. During Unseld Jr.’s time as an assistant from 2005 until 2011, the Wizards posted three-consecutive top-ten offensive seasons, for which Unseld Jr. is given credit for the team’s system on that end of the floor.

Following his time with the Wizards, Unseld Jr. held assistant coaching positions for the Golden State Warriors and Orlando Magic before he received a call from a longtime friend in 2015.

That friend was Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly, who had earned the team’s general manager position in 2013. Connelly and Unseld Jr. had gotten to know each other in the late 1990s while both were working for the Wizards, who were still known as the Bullets at the time. Connelly was working as an intern, with his primary responsibilities involving inputting personnel and scouting reports into the team’s database.

Fast forward to 2015 and Connelly called on Unseld Jr. to join the Nuggets coaching staff, which quickly developed into a de facto defensive coordinator position.

As Unseld Jr. has played a key role in Denver’s defensive turnaround (the Nuggets have ranked in the top 12 of defensive rating in each of the past two seasons), it all started with a simple invitation from his father.

“In this business, like any other business, it’s who you know,” Unseld Jr. said. “That’s going to get you in. But putting in the time and earning your keep is what keeps you there.”

While the Unseld name carried a lot of weight in the Wizards’ organization, it wasn’t going to let Unseld Jr. skate by on name alone.

“My dad made it a point that I’m going to have to earn it,” Unseld Jr. revealed. 23 years later. It’s clear he’s done just that.

“He’s got an unbelievable work ethic,” Connelly told DNVR back in February. “And he’s a grinder. I mean, anybody who spent eight years as an advanced scout, that’s really hard. So you’re always certain that when he speaks there’s knowledge behind it.”

Regardless of where his journey takes him next, Unseld Jr. has etched out his own path in the league, despite the initial reservations before he accepted a job working for his legendary father. While the early childhood experiences around the game helped shape Unseld Jr., it has been his hard work, determination and knowledge of the game that has led him to such heights in the NBA.

Malone Game: Two coaching careers progress simultaneously

Michael Malone was born into the game of basketball.

As the son of a longtime basketball coach, Denver’s head coach gained an appreciation and understanding of the game at an early point in his life.

“I grew up in a gym, I grew up with a ball,” Malone told Denver Stiffs back in 2016. “My earliest memories are when he was a coach at Power Memorial Academy (the prestigious high school in Manhattan that Lew Alcindor attended).” Brendan Malone also ran a basketball camp in Maine which helped the Malones get to know others among the coaching ranks.

Brendan Malone enjoyed a lot of success at Power Memorial Academy, winning two New York City championships and being named Coach of the Year on three occasions in his six seasons with the school. From there, Brendan transitioned to the collegiate level, serving as an assistant at Fordham, Yale and Syracuse University, where he worked alongside Jim Boeheim for six seasons.

“When he moved into college at Syracuse University with Jim Boeheim, if my father was recruiting in the city, I was along with him in the gym,” Malone said. “I remember seeing Kenny Smith, Mark Jackson, Pearl Washington, all these amazing players, by going to all of his games. I loved it, and it was all I knew, being in the gym and being with my father.”

Following his time at Syracuse, Brendan made the jump to the NBA, as he became an assistant for the New York Knicks in 1986. Those years proved to be invaluable for Michael.

“I almost compare it to me being an apprentice, and just watching him work every day,” The 48-year-old head coach said back in 2016. “One of the best things he's passed along to me is that the best coaches aren't just coaches. The best coaches are teachers. I've really taken that to heart. Anybody can coach, and tell a guy what to do, but can they explain the ‘why’.”

As Brendan’s coaching career continued to develop in the NBA, Michael had started to gain experience with assistant roles at the Friends School of Baltimore (1993-94), Oakland University (1994-95), Providence College (1995-98) and ultimately, Manhattan College (1999-2001).

Fast forward to 2003 and the two Malones were able to work together as assistant coaches for the Knicks.

“That (working with his father) was really neat because we had a chance to work together every day, see each other, talk to each other, and even challenge each other,” Michael said. “Don Chaney (the head coach at the time) would laugh and say that sometimes we'd disagree just for sake of disagreeing.”

Being able to work alongside a coach that won two championships with the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons, who are credited with designing the “Jordan Rules” defense, that also happens to be a trusted family member is a unique experience that can further a career in coaching. For Michael, that was certainly the case.

Although Brendan has lived on the other end of the country while Michael’s coaching career has taken off with the Nuggets, the proud father continues to be invested in the game that he worked in for nearly 50 years.

From his home in Westchester County, New York, Brendan continues to watch nearly every Nuggets game, often finding himself rooting and yelling at the TV like a fan.

For the Malones, the typical bond between a father and son was only strengthened as the two navigated the basketball coaching ranks. What started out as a mentorship in the 1970s developed into a partnership in the early 2000s.

Although no career in coaching is ever a smooth sail, the ups and downs of working in professional coaching never took away from the simple bond between a father and his son, the most important relationship of all.

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