DENVER — Can an NBA franchise be too nice?
“You think we get pushed around?” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap shot back at me with a look that screamed who’s-this-clown-questioning-our-manhood?
Sure did, at Portland. But did the most highly paid player in team history?
“I think we played the game how it’s supposed to be played. It’s unfortunate we weren’t rewarded for it,” Millsap said of the 17-point loss to the rival Blazers on Monday. “It happens. We have games like that. Teams are going to try to come in and bully us. If we keep our composure we’ll be all right.”
As the Nuggets prepare to host the Pelicans and the league’s pre-eminent bully, all-World center DeMarcus Cousins, at Pepsi Center on Friday, two things have proven to be true. One, after years of searching for a guy to replace Carmelo Anthony and make the final play, they found him in Millsap. Fourteen games in, no one has needed to ask coach Michael Malone who gets the ball in crunch time. Make or miss, the last shot goes through Millsap.
“I think Paul is probably the emotional leader that we’ve been waiting for,” Malone said.
Two, the Nuggets too often get pushed around when they shouldn't. There's nothing easy about the paths that guys like Will Barton, Wilson Chandler and Emmanuel Mudiay navigated to the NBA. Talk about tough. But in each of their losses the physicality of the opponent was clearly by design and seemed to rattle the Nuggets. Their guys should be tougher than that. Starting in the preseason with Russell Westbrook burying a shoulder into the chest of center Nikola Jokic, opponents know the path to victory goes straight through Denver's manhood. As Millsap said, teams are trying to bully them.
From the top down, the Nuggets operate with a smile and a warm handshake. It's not a recent development, or a bad one. Just an unusual one. Years ago when Masai Ujiri was pilfered away by the Raptors, they openly praised Ujiri's decision to leave and rooted for the general manager's success with another team. More recently, when it came to Jameer Nelson, they chose to release the point guard instead of trade him for assets, according to an ESPN report Thursday. Their goal was to give Nelson a shot to continue his career with a contender, not some tanking outfit biding its time until the next draft.
Bunch of sweethearts, these guys. From their star player, Jokic, whose guilty conscience pushed him to return from the locker room to sign an autograph for a tiny fan after a recent game, to general manager Tim Connelly, who's so nice he took Timofey Mozgov out for chicken wings the night Mozgov was traded to Cleveland, the Nuggets are professional basketball with a heart.
Out: midnight phone calls concerning Ty Lawson's nightlife. In: Friday nights meditating with sharpshooter Jamal Murray.
“It’s a quiet team,” Malone said. “Sometimes too quiet.”
So this might come as a surprise: the most promising aspect of this young season arrived during that telling, blowout loss at Portland. Millsap channeled his inner Kenyon Martin, without the expletives. He blew his top on the Blazers and the foggy officiating crew. And it was beautiful.
“I love it. Not just because he showed the emotion and he was heated. But he did it while we were down 20,” said Malone, the kind of New Yorker you want buying drinks when a bar fight breaks out. “There’s a lot of guys that I’ve been around that when they’re down by 20 they just roll over. They throw in the towel. Here’s a guy that’s a four-time All-Star and has 87 playoff games under his belt that’s still competing, that was still complaining to the referees.”
To paraphrase philosopher Yogi Berra, pro basketball is 90-percent talent, and the other half is attitude. It would do Denver a world of good to assume the gritty persona of its coach.
I don’t know yet if Malone can overcome a pair of 20- and 21-year-old point guards, or piece together the puzzle that is playing Millsap alongside Jokic. So far the results are up (on defense) and down (on offense, strangely). But I know for certain Malone possesses the fiery edge the Nuggets lack. It's a guarantee the Pelicans will have to hold the team bus after Friday's game while Cousins has his annual, extended conversation with the only pro coach who's been able to reach him, Malone. It happens every time Cousins plays Malone's Nuggets; they are tough guys cut from the same scratchy cloth.
Malone was such a pain in the backside as a high school player that his coach refused to put him in the starting lineup, as a lesson.
“But he’d have me at the scorer’s table to check in at the first timeout,” said Malone, a self-proclaimed “former bad point guard.”
At their best, the Nuggets play a refreshing brand of basketball. They are too unselfish, if anything, a worthy lesson for area high school coaches looking to enlighten their own players. Can you name another pro team whose best player wears a goofier smile after he goes scoreless (and the Nuggets beat the Kings) than when he goes for 28 points (and the Nuggets lose to the Knicks)?
“If we win, I don’t care (if I) score,” Jokic said.
At their worst, the Nuggets get their lunch money stolen by bullies, as Millsap himself said.
“I think we need to find ways to be a little more comfortable being uncomfortable,” Malone said.
Hey, nobody's pushing around Chris Paul's Rockets, Gregg Popovich's Spurs or Draymond Green's Warriors. Whether it's Malone earning a premeditated technical foul or Will Barton bringing Baltimore to the court by knocking a rival into the dance team, it's about time for the Nuggets to fight fire with fire.
The Nuggets have made a lot of friends. Don't the best teams have enemies?