Nuggets coach Michael Malone has made several public campaigns for lead assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. to get one of the handful of head coaching vacancies around the NBA.
After five seasons in Denver, where Unseld Jr. helped transform the Nuggets from a middling defensive team to one that finished 10th in defensive rating last season, Malone’s top assistant is in the running for at least two jobs. Unseld Jr. has already interviewed for the Houston Rockets head coaching vacancy and was scheduled to interview for the Los Angeles Clippers job on Thursday, a league source told The Denver Post.
Both high-profile jobs would be a giant step forward for Unseld Jr., who’s known as a savvy defensive mind that connects exceptionally well with players.
“I love him,” said Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic when asked about his relationship with Unseld Jr. “I talk to him a lot, even outside of basketball. I love him as a person, as a coach. Me and him have kind of a similar mindset. We don’t need to say that much. … I really love the communication, the relationship that we have. It’s fun. We are helping each other.”
The irony of Unseld Jr. interviewing for the Clippers vacancy shouldn’t be dismissed. When the Nuggets were trailing 3-1 to Los Angeles in the second round of this year’s postseason, it was their defense that authored their second consecutive historic comeback of the postseason. Across Games 5, 6 and 7 against the Clippers, Los Angeles shot just 40% from the field, and averaged only 97 points per game. Both Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were held at or below 40% shooting from the field during their collapse.
After Denver’s second 3-1 comeback of the bubble, Malone offered a ringing endorsement for Unseld Jr.’s head coaching credentials.
“Wes Unseld should be a head coach,” Malone said after the Nuggets convincing Game 7 win over the Clippers. “Our defense in the last three games has been phenomenal. To hold that team to 33 points in the second half? I think last game they scored 35 in the second half. Against the highest-rated offense in the first round of the playoffs? That’s unheard of.”
Unseld Jr.’s heard it from his head coach, and he’s heard it from president of basketball operations Tim Connelly. Both have raved about the job he’s done in elevating the Nuggets’ defensive acumen.
Unseld Jr. was a serious candidate to land the Bulls job before former Nuggets GM (and Chicago’s current head executive) Arturas Karnisovas hired former Thunder coach Billy Donovan.
The Rockets, Clippers, Thunder, Pacers and Pelicans all have vacancies for their head coaching positions.
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