Speaking with the media for the first time since undergoing reconstructive surgery for a left wrist ligament injury, Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said his wrist is improving by the day and hinted at an aggressive timetable for his return.
"Yeah, for myself, but no one agrees with it," Millsap said with a laugh when asked if there's been a timeline established for his return. "I won't tell you, but it's soon. I'm hopeful."
"I'm seeing an improvement in the range of motion in my fingers," Millsap added. "The pain is going down a little bit, but we know it's a process and we can't rush it too fast. So just taking our time."
Nuggets coach Michael Malone thinks the earliest Millsap could return is after the All-Star break.
"For me in my mind, I don't think he's back until maybe the best-case scenario is until after the All-Star break," Malone said. "And if it's before that, great. But we're not going to rush him back obviously."
Millsap injured his wrist during the first quarter of Denver's Nov. 19 loss to the Lakers. The 32-year-old tried to play through the pain but left the game midway through the quarter and did not return. Millsap told reporters Sunday that he lost all feeling and motion in his wrist at the time of the injury.
The team has not announced a formal timetable for Millsap's return but said in a press release following his Nov. 26 surgery that he's expected to miss "several months" and that his "return to sport progression will be dependent upon consistent assessment throughout the rehab process." If Millsap were to miss three months, he'd be on track to return Feb. 23 versus San Antonio — Denver's first game after the All-Star break. If that scenario plays out Millsap will miss a total of 42 games.
Millsap is currently sporting a green and red hard cast and said the next steps in his recovery are to improve the range of motion in his fingers, get the cast off and work on strengthening his wrist because of the muscle mass he'll lose in his arm by not using it.
An ironman by NBA standards, Millsap's worst injuries throughout his 12-year career were common ailments like knee swelling and tendinitis. He's never played less than 69 games in a season. (Millsap played 64 out of 66 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season).
"This is by far the worst and by far the toughest (injury) I've been through."
Millsap's injury came at an awful time for the Nuggets. After Millsap and frontcourt partner Nikola Jokic struggled to mesh on the offensive end of the floor over Denver's opening stretch of the season, the two slowly started to discover a chemistry that was stymied by the injury. The Nuggets' defense was also giving up 5.5 points per 100 possessions less than it did a year ago with Millsap in the lineup. After finishing last season with the league's worst defense, the Nuggets ranked 17th in the league in defensive efficiency over their first 15 games this season.
Since Millsaps's injury, Denver's offense has produced at the same levels it did with the forward in the lineup, but the Nuggets' defense has gone from giving up 105.0 points per 100 possessions (17th-best in the league) to 109.9 points per 100 possessions (29th-best in the league). Last season Denver surrendered 110.5 points per 100 possessions.
"I was starting to feel good, really good and our team was starting to feel really good and you could tell things were coming together defensively and offensively," Millsap said about the timing of his injury. "We had our defensive ups, we had our offensive downs. We had our offensive ups and defensive downs. And in that stretch I felt like all of it was balancing out, and this happened and then Joker went down, but we're looking at it as a positive and hoping and knowing that other guys are stepping up."
Millsap watched Denver play from home while recovering from surgery but rejoined the team on its recent six-game road trip. Millsap flew into Detroit prior to Denver's Dec. 12 win over the Pistons in the middle of a snowstorm. His presence lifted the team's morale from all accounts.
"Watching at home I could tell the spirit was down a little bit, and I just wanted to come and help and show my support and hopefully give them a little boost," Millsap said. "And actually, I see a completely different basketball team right now. The energy level is high, guys are wanting to win and hopefully, we can keep it up."
"For Paul Millsap to walk into that locker room was an uplifting moment, I know for myself and for his teammates and I think it was really important for Paul as well," Malone said. "When you're out with the injury that he has and you're going to be out as long as he's going to be, I don't ever want Paul Millsap feeling like he's on an island by himself. We're going to help him get through this and I think he needs to be around the team and more importantly, I think our team needs him to be around. We have so many young players and even our veterans that respect Paul and any message he can give, any presence he can give us I think is invaluable. So he may not be able to be able to help us on the court right now but he can still help us by being around and offering words of wisdom and words of encouragement."
Millsap has been a vocal presence since he's been back with the team. He routinely grabs guys and takes them aside in the locker room and offers advice in huddles during timeouts. Millsap said he's more nervous while on the bench and in street clothes than he is when playing.
"To know that you're helpless and you can't do anything to help your team, it's a tough situation for myself," Millsap said. "But hopefully through what I say, it can encourage the guys."