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Paul Klee: Keeping pace out West comes at a cost for Denver Nuggets — and Paul Millsap is worth it

By: Paul Klee
July 3, 2017 Updated: July 3, 2017 at 10:15 pm
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DENVER — There are nights, after Nuggets games, when Nikola Jokic requests a printed box score. He wants to see what all the fuss is about.
Jokic is 22 and confused by the triple-doubles he scores. One such night he told Tim Connelly, now the president of basketball operations, “Even I can’t believe it.” So what the Nuggets have in Jokic is either the bizarro LaVar Ball, or a guy who simply doesn’t realize how flippin’ good he is.
That's one reason Paul Millsap is the best fit for the Nuggets since they traded for Chauncey Billups: Millsap, a second-round pick himself, is the kind of been-there, done-that veteran who can help Jokic, another second-rounder, see there are no boundaries to where he can take this thing. There are plenty more, too: Here is a well-respected (the de-facto captain of the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in 2015), durable (at least 73 starts in four of the past five years), smart (he’ll make $180 million over 14 seasons, per Spotrac.com, if you count the $90 million he’ll reportedly make on his three-year Nuggets deal) All-Star power forward to pair alongside a future All-Star center in Jokic? Sign me up.

Finding a reason Millsap is a bad idea for the Nuggets is much tougher. Yes, Minnesota scored the better player in swingman Jimmy Butler, Oklahoma City's loaded for bear with Paul George, and Houston turned Chris Paul from Lob City to Flop City. Truth is, the only move right now that could turn the Nuggets into an NBA Finals contender is a move to the Eastern Conference.

But that’s not the point. The Nuggets’ sweet spot — relative to the NBA's super teams, articulated by Connelly in this space last week — isn’t next season, or even in Millsap’s second season. How this looks in 2020 is what matters in the long game.

Now the Nuggets have a couple seasons to enrich a locker-room culture that took a more serious hit than people realize when ownership got cocky and blew up a winning program in 2013. The young guys they are hoping to build around — Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and go-getter Juancho Hernangomez — are getting a daily internship on the importance of defense by a guy who led the NBA in defensive win shares just one year ago.

Even though it was merely a summer-league practice on Monday, you could tell the returning Nuggets were genuinely enthused to learn the franchise is willing to spend in order to keep pace in the West.

“We need a player like him for sure,” Hernangomez told me.

Back in the day, the Warriors spent $80 million on power forward David Lee. While Lee failed to make the impact on Golden State he did in previous stops, the bold and pricey move laid the groundwork for what was to come down the road. Now Golden State is where all the cool kids hang out. If the Nuggets can parlay Millsap's time here with a move up the Western Conference leaderboard, Colorado could be where all the cool kids want to hang out.

The guys who should be downright giddy are the young guards. The sublime and willing passing of Jokic and Millsap amounts to an ATM card for Harris, Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay. Go make some money, fellas.

Considering his age, 32, Millsap is more of a bridge than a forever structure. But a team as young as the Nuggets desperately needed a bridge to avoid taking on water in the West.

The Nuggets can’t be done yet. Adding a dogged, veteran guard — perhaps George Hill or my personal choice, chief instigator Patrick Beverley — would bump their offseason grade from a strong ‘B’ (hey, I still haven’t gotten over draft night) to an ‘A,’ for action ball. And I pity the intern dispatched to tell Kenneth Faried he’s now going to come off the bench again.

Last week Nuggets coach Michael Malone traveled to Serbia to connect with Jokic in his hometown of Sombor. Upon his arrival, Malone was shuttled directly to the local horse track to witness Jokic’s horse — “Dream Catcher” — win its first race. The good news, one of the Jokic brothers told Malone in the winner's circle, is that the horse won. The bad news was that “now you’re going to be up all night” celebrating.

Selling a big-name free agent on the Nuggets is like that: Good (Millsap is a perfect fit) and bad (age that matches the annual salary), but far more good than bad.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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