Ma­jor tal­ent mi­gra­tion makes West even bet­ter

Nuggets ac­quire all-star Paul Mill­sap to stay com­pet­i­tive in the NBA’S best con­fer­ence

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider The Den­ver Post

LAS VE­GAS» Le­bron James has spent most of this wild off­sea­son in the NBA far away from the fray.

The four-time league MVP was in a beach­side bar in a re­mote, sun-splashed lo­cale last week, slowly puff­ing on a cigar and try­ing to match Michael Jack­son’s high notes as the late pop singer’s hit “Off the Wall” floated in the back­ground.

Those images beamed from the so­cial me­dia ac­counts of ar­guably the world’s great­est bas­ket­ball player por­tray a man seem­ingly free of worry. Or, at the very least, free of the worry that an­other team in the East­ern Con­fer­ence will stand in the way of his eighth con­sec­u­tive trip to the NBA Fi­nals.

One by one over the past two-plus weeks, as James has rapped with his daugh­ter, thrown an epic birth­day party for his son and laughed with his mom, top play­ers in the East have mi­grated to the West. From block­buster trades to big free-agent sign­ings, teams in the West­ern Con­fer­ence have made it clear this sum­mer they don’t in­tend to stand idly by while the Golden State War­riors con­struct a dy­nasty.

Though Gor­don Hayward, an all-star for­ward, left the Utah Jazz and agreed to join the Bos­ton Celtics on July 4, al­most all of the mas­sive tal­ent shift in the NBA has hap­pened in the West. Star point guard Chris Paul left the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers only to join James Har­den, the run­ner-up in the MVP race, in Hous­ton. The Min­nesota Tim­ber­wolves made an ag­gres­sive move to get Jimmy But­ler from Chicago. One year after Kevin Du­rant left Ok­la­homa City for Golden State, the Thun­der added an­other star in Paul Ge­orge.

“It’s kind of crazy when you look at it now,” Nuggets guard Gary Har­ris said of his con­fer­ence col­lec­tively don­ning more ar­mor. “It’s go­ing to be fun with how com­pet­i­tive it’s about to be with

the teams we have.”

The good news for the Nuggets? By agree­ing to con­tract terms with free agent Paul Mill­sap, Den­ver will have cor­ralled its own mi­grat­ing star. The power for­ward, an al­ls­tar each of the last four sea­sons in At­lanta, pro­vides the Nuggets with a durable, con­sis­tent and ver­sa­tile front­court vet­eran to add to the team’s emerg­ing young core. Mill­sap led the Hawks to the play­offs each year he was in At­lanta, in­clud­ing a trip to the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals fol­low­ing a 60-win sea­son in 2015.

“I think of all the sign­ings that took place so far, the Mill­sap sign­ing was the one I was most ex­cited about,” NBA TV an­a­lyst Stu Jack­son said. “He truly is a very good fit in terms style of play, a fit in terms of per­son­nel and how I an­tic­i­pate he’ll be uti­lized. Any time an or­ga­ni­za­tion can get a player of his level and, as im­por­tantly, a pro­fes­sional of his level, you’ve bet­tered your­self.”

Clip­pers coach Doc Rivers didn’t mince words when asked about the mass move­ment to the West­ern Con­fer­ence.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I was hop­ing all these free agents would go to the East. Every­body’s com­ing to the West. I don’t get it. I think Gor­don Hayward is the smartest one. He got out of town and went to the East. I re­ally don’t un­der­stand the logic of this . ... It’s just go­ing to be a hard con­fer­ence.”

The ques­tion is whether the Nuggets, who missed the play­offs by one game last sea­son, have bet­tered them­selves enough rel­a­tive to a reload­ing con­fer­ence to crack the post­sea­son field for the first time since 2013.

The War­riors re-signed Steph Curry and Kevin Du­rant — win­ners of a com­bined three of the last four MVP awards — and will be the unan­i­mous fa­vorites to reach the Fi­nals for a fourth con­sec­u­tive sea­son. The Rock­ets, by adding Paul, could pro­vide a se­ri­ous threat. The Spurs fig­ure to be among the con­fer­ence’s best teams as Kawhi Leonard con­tin­ues to emerge as per­haps the best twoway player in the league. The Ge­orge-rus­sell West­brook pair­ing should vault the Thun­der, al­ready sixth in the West last sea­son, into the up­per tier of the con­fer­ence.

With the Clip­pers (fourth in the West­ern Con­fer­ence last sea­son) los­ing Paul and the Jazz (fifth) bid­ding farewell to their best play­ers, the peck­ing order could get murky after that. But there are no short­age of emerg­ing con­tenders who have been pre­par­ing them­selves for an op­por­tu­nity to slow Golden State’s quest for a big­ger ring col­lec­tion.

“I felt like last year the bal­ance of power over­all was start­ing to get move­ment to­ward the East­ern Con­fer­ence,” Jack­son said. “These things tend to be cycli­cal. I thought, ‘Maybe the pen­du­lum will start to shift.’ But after this free agency, gosh, it’s go­ing back the other way with full force. It has re­ally mo­ti­vated teams to en­ter the arms race to ul­ti­mately not only de­feat the War­riors, but just to make the play­offs.

“If you look at it right now, there are prob­a­bly 12 teams in the West that you could make a case that they are a sure­fire play­off team. So it’s go­ing to be tough.”

Har­ris, who was part of the group that made the win­ning pitch to Mill­sap, sees a con­fer­ence that has added fire­power and de­tects an ad­van­tage with his squad: room for in­ter­nal growth.

“You could start to see it at the end of last sea­son,” Har­ris said Fri­day after watch­ing the Nuggets’ sum­mer league team from a court­side seat. “I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing every­one take strides into the up­com­ing sea­son. It’s go­ing to be tough. No one said it would be easy. We just have to con­tinue putting in the work … and be ready to com­pete ev­ery game.”

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