Mark Medina, USA TODAY
Published 10:56 p.m. ET April 21, 2020
SportsPulse: Former Chicago Bulls teammate B.J. Armstrong breaks down the first two episodes of “The Last Dance” and explains why Michael Jordan’s criticism of his teammates was only the “PG” version.
Unprompted, Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone offered his opinion on the endless comparisons between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Malone sided with the player he grew up watching (Jordan) instead of the player he coached as an assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers (James).
“It’s always an ongoing argument about who is the GOAT. Michael obviously is up there and is the greatest of all time,” Malone said Tuesday in a Zoom call with reporters. “There are not many Michael Jordans out there. I coached LeBron James for five years and have a great relationship with him. LeBron did not have the same mindset or killer mentality that Michael Jordan is supposed to have had. But LeBron James is arguably the greatest of all time as well.”
Malone did not base his evaluation on NBA championships — Jordan’s six in six NBA Finals appearances to James’ three in nine Finals. Malone did not cite statistics or roles, either. Malone admired Jordan’s aggressive mentality even when he faced physical teams.
“Michael Jordan was not just a great player. He would reach into your chest and pull your heart out if he had to win a game,” Malone said. “You don’t see that really often. He had that killer mindset and brought it every single night. That’s why all of these many years later, he’s the greatest of all time.”
“THE LAST DANCE”: What we learned in first two episodes of Jordan doc
That debate rarely has dissipated on sports talk shows. The subject has re-emerged with Sunday’s airing of the first two episodes of “The Last Dance” documentary. The ten-part series features exclusive footage of the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 season, as well as extended interviews with Jordan and various Bulls coaches and teammates, family members, notable rivals and admirers.
With the NBA suspending its season on March 11 because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, “The Last Dance” has not just given ESPN original programming that set a record among its various documentaries for the most average viewers (6.1 million). The series has also given NBA teams some more teaching material. As Malone noted, “you can always learn from the best.”
Yet, Malone considered it “a fine line” as to what extent he wants his players to be like Mike.
“I want our guys to feel comfortable with who they are,” Malone said. “You have to be comfortable in your own skin. You have to be comfortable with admitting and accepting who you are. A lot of times young players, and even young coaches, try be something they’re not.”
Before the NBA suspended operations, the Nuggets (43-22) ranked third in the Western Conference largely because of center Nikola Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray. Malone called them “two franchise players.” Jokic made his second consecutive All-Star appearance this season, led the NBA with four game-winners and tied the Nuggets’ franchise record for most triple-doubles (12). Murray made the All-Rookie second team after the Nuggets selected him seventh overall in the 2016 draft. He is second on the team behind Jokic in points and assists.
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Those credentials hardly compare to Jordan, who ranks fifth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list (32,292). Nonetheless, Malone liked that the Nuggets have improved with holding each other accountable the way that Jordan did. Malone said that Jokic and Murray have become increasingly vocal this season. Malone also credited Will Barton for questioning the team’s effort following a 29-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in late February.
“A locker room that can really police themselves, I think that is invaluable,” Malone said. “When it’s always coming from me as a head coach, that will only go so far. When our players take responsibility and say, ‘This is our team. We’re going to police us and will hold each other accountable,’ that is what will allow us to go from being a good team into a great team.”
Malone admired from afar how Jordan helped the Bulls become that team. Malone’s father, Brendan, coached in the NBA for over 28 years, including assistant jobs with the New York Knicks (1986-88) and the Detroit Pistons (1988-95), as well as the Toronto Raptors head coach (1995-96). That season, the Raptors were one of only 10 teams to beat the Bulls during the regular season. Malone often watched Jordan play when his dad coached Knicks and Pistons teams that often employed the so-called “Jordan Rules.”
“They were just trying to beat up on Michael Jordan. Every time he drove to the basket, he would wind up on his ass,” Malone said of the Pistons and Knicks. “Through Phil Jackson and through Michael Jordan — the face of the NBA — the league really started changing and said, ‘We really have to protect our players. We want this to be something that our fans want to come and watch and, more importantly, to watch on their TVs.’ “
Those people that watched Jordan on television included plenty of future NBA players. Some of them play for the Nuggets, but that does not mean Malone will bring up Jordan’s name too much. Malone said he felt the same way when Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant died nearly three months ago in a helicopter crash.
“All of our players respect the hell out of Michael Jordan, admire him, grew up with him and idolized him,” Malone said. “But I also want them to feel comfortable with being who they are and not trying to be something that they’re not.”