Mike Malone Rumors
Jusuf Nurkić struggled to find his form upon his return, and he was bothered by his coach’s decision to bring him off the bench late in 2015-16. “Mike Malone came to me with all this sweet talk, saying that I was going to be fine and that he couldn’t wait to see me back,” Nurkić recalled. “If you like somebody else, play them. But don’t come to my home and say that I’m going to be the starting center and then play someone else.” Although the Nuggets experimented with starting the 6’10” Jokić and Nurkić together, that hardly seemed like a winning long-term combination with small ball sweeping the league. Reading the tea leaves, Nurkić went to Connelly and requested a trade in April 2016.
Denver tried to mend fences, dispatching Malone for a summer meet-up in Bosnia. Nurkić, who had battled weight and conditioning issues for years, spent the offseason losing weight and following Denver’s training protocol. After assessing his progress, the Nuggets promised Nurkić that he would get the chance to open the 2016-17 season as a starter. On opening night, Nurkić realized there was a catch. “In the first game, I only played three quarters,” Nurkić said. “I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. I’m playing a good game, we’re winning and I’m not playing in the fourth quarter? From that point, I could kind of see that something was wrong.”
As both sides waited for a trade, Nurkić took heat from local media members for pouting over his demotion, and he received multiple DNP-CDs from Malone. Rumors swirled that he had even left the arena during a game in frustration. Nurkić acknowledged that Malone was “mad” about his body language, but added that he never missed a practice or a team commitment and insisted that he bears no ill will toward Jokić over their position battle. “People assume I had an attitude problem and people like to make up stories that paint me as a bad guy,” he explained. “Once I asked for a trade, there were even more rumors that I wasn’t happy. But I shouldn’t be happy! No one in that situation should be happy. I put in the hard work to play and someone was holding me down.”
Nurkić also denied that he ever left the arena during a game. “I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I can’t change the whole world’s opinion. Ask anyone who has played with me and they will say the same thing: I’m a funny dude, I work and I have never had a problem with one of my teammates in my life.” Denver mercifully pulled the trigger on a Nurkić deal last February, sending the center and a first-round pick to Portland in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash. Plumlee’s inclusion in the deal ensured that Nurkić would step in as the Blazers’ starting center, fulfilling Nurkić’s top request. “I needed a change of scenery. Both sides needed it,” he said. “I’m thankful Denver let me go where I wanted to go. If I was doing all the bad things that people said, the Nuggets wouldn’t have traded me where I wanted to go, and they probably would have gotten a way better deal than they got.”
Denver coach Mike Malone and top scorer Nikola Jokic were ejected in the second quarter after Malone stepped onto the court during play to argue a no-call on a play by Jokic around the basket. Malone furiously confronted referee Rodney Mott, who swiftly ejected the coach and his best player when Jokic joined in the argument.
Malone was infuriated when Mott didn’t call a foul on the Lakers for contact while Jokic battled underneath the basket. When the teams headed upcourt, Malone took two steps onto the hardwood and blocked Mott’s path. Jokic had barely joined the argument when Mott tossed him as well, prompting a profane response. Malone’s assistants had to calm him down.