More than fierce rebounding or tenacious defense, what Paul Millsap can give the Nuggets is an alpha dog. Gather ’round, young pups. Here’s your leader. Follow him.
“An alpha male gives you a lead personality on the court and in the locker room. With that, comes a pecking order,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Without an alpha male, you have a bunch of wolves competing. You have players saying: ‘That guy’s not better than me. I’m better than him.’ ”
On their way to a 40-42 record that fell two victories short of a berth in the Western Conference playoffs, the Nuggets wasted way too much energy yelping about roles.
If Kenneth Faried wasn’t moping about being disrespected, then Wilson Chandler was grousing because the Nuggets didn’t trade him. There was Will Barton unhappy with the inconsistency of his touches, and Jusuf Nurkic bolting the arena at halftime in a childish tantrum. This discontent did not necessarily make any of them bad actors. The tension was the natural byproduct of confused people, working out their issues in full view of 12,000 witnesses in the arena.
There was way too much drama and not enough winning. It’s fair to place part of the blame on Malone’s failure to establish a consistent playing rotation. But the Nuggets haven’t had a true alpha male since Chauncey Billups left town.
The way Millsap can become invaluable to the Nuggets goes far beyond 17 points and nine rebounds per game. It will be incumbent on Millsap to establish himself as the lead dog.
“My job as coach isn’t to make everybody happy,” Malone said. “But when guys understand their roles, it makes the locker room a lot better place to be.”
If Millsap succeeds as a respected leader, almost everybody else in the locker room will fall in line. In one respect, athletes are no different than Dilbert in his office cubicle or Fred Flintstone on his crane down at the rock quarry. In any workplace, there’s usually a whole lot less bickering with clearly defined expectations and well-established roles.
Given time, the Nuggets will be Nikola Jokic’s team in every sense of the word. He will be the star on the court and set the tone in the locker room. Yes, Jokic is already the most talented player on the roster, but as a teammate, he would rather get along than get in your face.
Remember last season, when the Nuggets were painfully slow to embrace Malone’s experiment with two centers in the starting lineup? Jokic’s way of alleviating the conflict was by volunteering to come off the bench. His nickname is “Big Honey” for a reason.
Jokic is 22 years old, as is shooting guard Gary Harris. Jamal Murray, expected to be the starting point guard, is only 20. Millsap is here to be a mentor that will allow their talent to grow while he sweats the big stuff.
“One of the biggest reasons (Denver) brought me in was definitely to help these younger guys and show these guys how to win. I feel like I can do that. I feel like I can lead these guys,” said Millsap, a veteran of 11 NBA seasons. “The old saying is: You catch ’em while they’re young.”
When Millsap returned to his childhood stomping grounds in Montbello to be formally introduced as the team’s new star, a drum line that banged out a happy hello was impossible to miss, and dozens of kids screaming Millsap’s name brought a smile to every face. But maybe the coolest aspect of the scene came hobbling into the recreation center on a cane.
Ralph Simpson is 67 years old, and recovering nicely from hip-replacement surgery, thank you very much. But 45 years ago, Simpson was a young shooting guard who averaged 27 points per game for the Denver Rockets. He came to town for a job in the 1970s and never left. Simpson lives in Montbello.
Know one of the things Simpson likes best about the addition of Millsap? If he can be the alpha male for a young Nuggets team trying to learn how to be a contender, then Millsap can earn every penny of his $30 million annual salary.
“The value of leadership is immeasurable,” Simpson said. “I once had a conversation with (Los Angeles Clippers coach) Doc Rivers about how critical leadership is to a basketball team. And he told me: ‘If you have too many young kids on your roster, they spend too much time fighting against each other. But if you bring in a veteran that can command the young guys’ respect, it allows everybody to chill.’ ”