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David Ramsey: It's playoffs or bust for Millsap and vastly improved Denver Nuggets

September 25, 2017 Updated: September 25, 2017 at 9:37 pm
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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, back, fakes a kick toward forward Paul Millsap as they pose for a photographer during an NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in Denver. The Nuggets open training camp for the upcoming NBA season Tuesday on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER – Paul Millsap, superstar?

 “Um, sure,” says Millsap, the Denver Nuggets $30 million man as he begins a philosophical examination of the meaning of the word “superstar.”

“What is a superstar? What fits that criteria?” he asks, before answering.  “To me, it’s the guys who make their teammates better, guys who can do anything on the basketball court.  We know who those guys are.”

The Nuggets have wandered in the NBA wilderness since 2013, failing to make the playoffs or record a winning season since the firing of “Furious” George Karl.

On Monday, the theme was progress. The Nuggets are boldly moving forward, or at least that’s what they hope they’re doing.

Hope, in the Nuggets case, is always limited. No one is talking about a ride to the NBA Finals because everyone knows that level of hope would be absurd. A victory in a playoff series would bring joy to the franchise with the saddest history in Colorado. 

Still, there’s reason to believe in better days ahead. Millsap, 32, brings defense, muscle and attitude to a franchise that lacked all three last season. Millsap, a 6-foot-8 power forward, helped the Jazz and Hawks win seven playoff series in his 11 seasons.

If that fails to impress you, remember the Nuggets have won two playoff series – count ‘em – since 1994.

Millsap is a superstar by his definition, if not mine. To me, a superstar ranks among the top 10 players in the NBA. To me, a superstar is the undisputed emperor of his team. (Kobe Bryant plus Shaq and Russell Westbrook plus Kevin Durant were rare superstars playing together.)

But Millsap is correct. He does it all. He understands what is required to win in the NBA. He’s diligent. He’s an overachiever instead of an underachiever.

Nikola Jokic, the emperor of the Nuggets, is only 22, and so much could be ahead for the point guard in a center’s body. He’s been impressed by Millsap’s maturity and diligence and  hunger.

“Young players who come into the league, they need to look at him and say, ‘That’s how I need to play,’” Jokic says.

The Nuggets won 40 games last season and flirted with a return to the playoffs. The team could run. The team could score.

But the soft team struggled to defend. No one ever describes Millsap as soft.

 “He’s the one piece that was missing,” Jokic says.

Millsap brings an encouraging homecoming story. He spent a decade of his youth in Denver before moving to his mom’s home state of Louisiana. Nuggets power forward Antonio McDyess was his basketball hero, and he wanted to someday play in downtown Denver.

His vision for his future came true, and he’s getting paid $30 million to live his dream. That’s one sweet gig.

He’s competed in 87 playoff games. He helped fuel the Hawks run to 60 wins and the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals. (The run ended in a four-game sweep to the Cavs and LeBron James, who delivered superstar averages of 30 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists.)

He understands the difference between a team that just misses the playoffs and a team that’s still battling  when it matters most.

“I think we’re one of the top five teams in the West,” he says in a matter-of-fact voice.

Translation: Millsap believes the Nuggets can add a dozen wins. This is not a far-fetched dream. The Jazz, who finished fifth in the West last season with 51 wins, are depleted after the loss of Gordon Hayward to Boston.

His teammates share his optimism.

“It’s a win-now team,” center/power forward Mason Plumlee says. “This team was put together to win. We can compete with anybody on paper.”

Players and fans are weary of losing. Hey, maybe even the ever-losing ownership group filled with Kroenkes is weary of losing.

Small forward Wilson Chandler embraces the expectations.

“You want that,” Chandler says. “You want that drive to be a playoff team. You want that determination that anything else is failure.”

Coach Mike Malone declines to join the chorus. He’s cautious when talking about the team that added a $30 million man.

“I’m not going to say it’s a playoff or bust team,” Malone says.

Um, coach, it’s playoff or bust. The tomorrows you’ve been talking about have arrived. If the Nuggets miss the playoffs, it’s nothing but bust.

And bust will endanger your employment status.

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