Remember that controversy? It was back on Feb. 28, 2015, when, at that time, the Denver Nuggets were coached by Brian Shaw and in dark and desperate times. So dark that they decided to break their huddle, heading into the fourth quarter against a division opponent nonetheless, with a chant that was essentially counting down the weeks until the end of the 2014-15 NBA season.
The Nuggets' culture was fractured, players were unhappy, and the coaching staff was struggling to maintain control. Everything about the 2014-15 season for the Denver Nuggets carried an aura of dysfunction.
Then everything shifted.
In 31 short months from the infamous '1-2-3...six weeks' chant, the Nuggets have taken what was quickly becoming a laughingstock around the league and re-configured it through the draft into one of the most talked about and exciting up-and-coming young rosters in all of basketball.
Now, with Paul Millsap in the fold, it seems the Nuggets' culture shift is nearly complete and, funny enough, it was the culture shift that was instrumental in Millsap choosing to sign with Denver.
"The one thing that was really revealing to me was that I think in those meetings you spend so much time talking about yourself and the team and the city that I asked [Millsap], 'What are you looking for? What do you want?' He gave me a one-word answer. 'Functionality', which could also be taken as a lack of dysfunction. However you want to look at it," Malone explained. "One thing I told him is, 'listen. We had a great season. We won seven games more than the year before but I promise you that you will never feel like you’re in a dysfunctional environment. The culture has changed. The locker room has changed in my two years.' It still has to change even more and Paul will help bring that.”
The addition of Millsap, a four-time All-Star and All-defense team member, will improve the Nuggets on both ends of the court. His defensive prowess, elite basketball IQ, natural fit alongside Nikola Jokic and veteran leadership qualities will allow him to come in and make an immediate positive impact on the team. What is truly special about signing Millsap to a three-year deal worth $90 million, a contract that will pay him the most single-season money of any athlete to ever play a professional sport in Colorado, is that his impact transcends beyond what he is able to do on a basketball court.
"Now we have players that are kind of carrying out what we are trying to preach. It goes a long way," Malone explained. "Paul Millsap is a guy that can bring that message and, more importantly, he can live that message every day, which I think is even more important."
What does that 'message' entail? It is Millsap's work ethic. It is his 'actions over words' mentality. It is his relentlessness coupled with selflessness. It is Millsap's undying drive to be the smartest player on the court. Each and every one of those skills fit like a glove into the workmanlike culture that Tim Connelly, Michael Malone, and Josh Kroenke have fought so hard to establish in Denver.
Having a consummate professional in Millsap around the Nuggets' young core can do nothing but great things. With so many of the Nuggets still developing not just as players, but as men, it is paramount to have veterans that are not just helpful on the court, but off.
“The value that we placed on who [Millsap] is as an adult and a professional will be so evident to our young pieces," Connelly explained.
Having great talent is wonderful but coupling that with a great character is what separates a good player from a great one. The value of having Millsap passing along the intricacies of how to maximize individual potential and become the best basketball player, and person, possible will ripple throughout the entire organization. If the likes of Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jokic are able to learn and adopt those skills then who knows how good this roster can be.
“They are excited to get a guy like Paul in the fold," Josh Kroenke said. "I know that they are working on their games and their eyes and ears are now open to a guy who has been there before and knows how hard it is.”
One thing is for sure; Millsap has bought in and excited for how talented and productive this Nuggets team can be. He did not come to Denver purely to be a veteran presence in the locker room. Millsap believes that this Nuggets' roster has the opportunity to be great and is not shy in saying so.
“I think that, especially with the guys that we have now in Denver, the growth is unbelievable. The sky is the limit," Millsap said. "I think that this team can be a lot better then that [Hawks] team and that was a 60-win team. I am coming into things with high hopes knowing and understanding what the situation is."