In order to land what would be arguably their best free agent of the previous 20 years, members of the Nuggets’ inner circle knew they’d have to execute a sales pitch that would leave no doubt in the mind of Paul Millsap that Denver was the place for him.
That much was known to Josh Kroenke, Tim Connelly, Michael Malone, Arturas Karnisovas, and shooting guard Gary Harris as they descended on Atlanta prior to a July 1 meeting with the 32-year-old power forward whom they’d coveted for about four years.
“I knew what was at stake,” Malone said after Millsap was officially introduced at Montbello Rec Center. “This was a chance for us to go meet with Paul, sell him on who we are and more importantly, where we’re going.”
But what would Denver’s brass sell Millsap on exactly? Denver has long been considered a “flyover city” to prospective NBA free agents. Since Carmelo Anthony departed to the Knicks, the Nuggets have lacked the kind of marquee attractiveness as a new destination for players on the open market. Sure, Denver is a nice city and all, but to big-time NBA players, it has had a recent reputation as a hayseed outback.
As it turned out with the courtship of Millsap, the Nuggets had a lot to sell.
Basketball is fun with Nikola Jokic
When Connelly said at the onset of the offseason that agents had told him clients wanted to play with Denver’s rising center, you didn’t quite know what to think.
Sure it’s fun to play with one of the best passing big men in the game, who finds more joy in assisting than scoring, but would free agents really flock to Denver after Jokic’s sophomore season? Jokic’s pull was going to come but few saw it coming this quick.
“It’s a draw,” Millsap said when asked about Jokic. “It helps to have good young talent and a player like Nikola.”
Few players in the league have dictated a team’s style of play more than Jokic. Stephen Curry built the Warriors into a three-point juggernaut and the greatest show ever on the hardwood. LeBron James transformed the Cavaliers into an offensive powerhouse that can get a wide open look whenever they want. James Harden‘s gravity and free-throw prowess make Houston a historically efficient offensive unit. Kawhi Leonard sets the tone and standard in San Antonio that keeps five defenders on a string at all times no matter their age and athleticism. Russell Westbrook makes the Thunder….well, the Thunder.
Outside of those five superstars, it’s hard to comb through the league and find a player who’s more responsible for his team’s look and feel. It’s not just that Jokic is a real talent, but the fact that he changed Denver’s offensive style to such an attractive one was his biggest gift to the Nuggets’ recruitment efforts.
“You can’t scout for a team like the Denver Nuggets,” Millsap said. “The way they play, the game of basketball it’s like a Golden State or a San Antonio style and if you play that way, if you play unselfishly like they played, it’s hard to scout. Watching how they played this past year having fun doing that, I wanted to be a part of that.”
Jokic is Denver’s highest performing salesman, the rep who’s a staple at President’s Club, and the one who’s hitting quota a month early. The 22-year-old Serbian, who will be the lowest-paid player on the Nuggets next season at $1.47 million, is the only player in league history to score 1200 points, have 350 assists, and have an effective field-goal percentage above 60 in their second season (h/t Matt Moore, CBS Sports). Jokic does it all without having to open his mouth and make one cold call.
“(Millsap) knew that we were second in the league in assists per game,” Malone said. “And he wanted to be a part of a team like he was in Atlanta a few years ago where no one cared who scored.”
Denver is actually a pretty cool city with good people
By now, the reputation Denver has as a city with free agents is well known and the Nuggets’ brass has tried for the last few years to change it.
For some help, they enlisted a couple Denver Broncos players to sell Millsap on Denver and Denver’s fans. Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who’s spent his last four seasons in Denver after playing his rookie season in Jacksonville, helped seal the deal.
“When Brandon was able to look Paul in the eyes and talk about what this city means to him not just as a player but as a guy who lives here full time, talk about what it’s like to win in Denver,” Connelly said as he described the scene in Atlanta. “Those stories we can’t tell.”
After back-to-back seasons of the league’s worst attendance and just a year-and-a-half removed from Malone asserting that Denver “didn’t have a home court advantage” Marshall’s carefully chosen words about Colorado’s fans hit home and resonated with Millsap who spent much of his childhood in the same Montbello neighborhood where he was officially introduced.
A chance to come home, and attend to the “unfinished business” that Millsap described at his presser was a compelling factor for the 32-year-old.
“The way (Marshall) explained the fans, the way he explained the city, It made me think, I wanted to be a part of that,” Millsap recalled.
Denver has changed just a bit since Millsap was here. It’s growing at the 13th quickest rate in the country according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Denver is one of the most attractive cities for young professionals with a booming economy thanks to an influx of tech companies setting up shop in the Mile High City.
It’s not a city situated in the middle of Aspen like many think based on what they see in lead-ins during Broncos games. The Silicon Valley of the Rocky’s is booming and Millsap’s here for the ride.
The Malone factor
Ask the players he coached in Cleveland, New Orleans, Golden State, and Sacramento, and they’ll all rave about Michael Malone the renowned players’ coach.
A defensive-first thinker who grew up as a coach’s son ingrained in the game, Malone is a basketball lifer. Malone’s had an up-and-down two seasons in Denver and has compiled a 73-91 record, but how he spoke about the game resonated with Millsap.
“He’s a hard-nosed guy. He’s tough on his guys but getting to know him, I know he’s a players coach,” Millsap said. “Well respected around the league, his style of play and what he expects from his players, it fits my style and who I am. I’m appreciative for that.”
This isn’t the first time Malone’s made a good impression on a free agent Denver targeted. Just last summer, when the Nuggets were a finalist for Dwyane Wade, Malone’s message carried weight.
“Coach (Malone), someone who I respect from afar, just getting into his mind as a coach and how he thinks,” Wade said. “I really had a great meeting. It went way over time, just talking about basketball.”
The Queens, New York native knows how to sell himself and his team to free agents. Malone’s a no-nonsense coach who will say what he thinks and tell his players how he feels.
“I knew how much they wanted me and the interest level that they showed in me,” Millsap said. “Gave it a shot, had a meeting with them and it felt real.”
Signing Millsap is a vital step for the Nuggets. They’d repaired a fractured locker room under the previous regime, rebuilt through the draft without bottoming out and established a culture and way of conducting themselves that started to register throughout the rest of the league.
Denver followed a small-to-mid market rebuilding plan as close as they could have but needed to make a big splash to push along the way. The Nuggets couldn’t wait for just Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris to develop into all-star level talents while the rest of the Western Conference pushed on.
Denver identified Millsap, someone they’d been after for four years, and showed “genuine interest,” according to the four-time all-star, with a free agent pitch that hit home and made Millsap ask himself “why not Denver?” The roughly $30 million per year helps too, but Millsap gave off the impressions that money wasn’t the top reason he joined the Nuggets.
Should it be a complete shocker that Denver nailed their pitch? Probably not. This is the same group that flew to Chicago last summer and nearly convinced a future Hall-of-Famer with a couple good years left in the tank to journey west and join a team that hadn’t yet experienced Jokic’s rise, Murray’s playmaking and Harris’ breakout season.
Denver “wowed” Wade and his inner circle last summer but were a year away from getting that signature on the dotted line. They were able to close the deal with Millsap this time around.
“The sales pitch was unbelievable,” Millsap said. “They sold this community, they sold this organization in a way that I couldn’t believe could be sold.”