Nuggets in dog­gone good hands now

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KISZLA Den­ver Post Columnist

More than fierce re­bound­ing or tena­cious de­fense, what Paul Mill­sap can give the Nuggets is an al­pha dog. Gather ’round, young pups. Here’s your leader. Fol­low him.

“An al­pha male gives you a lead per­son­al­ity on the court and in the locker room. With that, comes a peck­ing or­der,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “With­out an al­pha male, you have a bunch of wolves com­pet­ing. You have play­ers say­ing: ‘That guy’s not bet­ter than me. I’m bet­ter than him.’ ”

On their way to a 40-42 record that fell two vic­to­ries short of a berth in the Western Conference play­offs, the Nuggets wasted way too much en­ergy yelp­ing about roles.

If Ken­neth Faried wasn’t mop­ing about be­ing dis­re­spected, then Wil-

son Chan­dler was grous­ing be­cause the Nuggets didn’t trade him. There was Will Bar­ton un­happy with the in­con­sis­tency of his touches, and Jusuf Nur­kic bolt­ing the arena at half­time in a child­ish tantrum. This dis­con­tent did not nec­es­sar­ily make any of them bad ac­tors. The ten­sion was the nat­u­ral byprod­uct of con­fused peo­ple, work­ing out their is­sues in full view of 12,000 wit­nesses in the arena.

There was way too much drama and not enough win­ning. It’s fair to place part of the blame on Malone’s fail­ure to es­tab­lish a con­sis­tent play­ing ro­ta­tion. But the Nuggets haven’t had a true al­pha male since Chauncey Billups left town.

The way Mill­sap can be­come in­valu­able to the Nuggets goes far be­yond 17 points and nine re­bounds per game. It will be in­cum­bent on Mill­sap to es­tab­lish him­self as the lead dog.

“My job as coach isn’t to make ev­ery­body happy,” Malone said. “But when guys un­der­stand their roles, it makes the locker room a lot bet­ter place to be.”

If Mill­sap suc­ceeds as a re­spected leader, al­most ev­ery­body else in the locker room will fall in line. In one re­spect, ath­letes are no dif­fer­ent than Dil­bert in his of­fice cu­bi­cle or Fred Flint­stone on his crane down at the rock quarry. In any work­place, there’s usu­ally a whole lot less bick­er­ing with clearly de­fined ex­pec­ta­tions and well-es­tab­lished roles.

Given time, the Nuggets will be Nikola Jo­kic’s team in ev­ery sense of the word. He will be the star on the court and set the tone in the locker room. Yes, Jo­kic is al­ready the most tal­ented player on the ros­ter, but as a team­mate, he would rather get along than get in your face.

Re­mem­ber last sea­son, when the Nuggets were painfully slow to em­brace Malone’s ex­per­i­ment with two cen­ters in the start­ing lineup? Jo­kic’s way of al­le­vi­at­ing the con­flict was by vol­un­teer­ing to come off the bench. His nick­name is “Big Honey” for a rea­son.

Jo­kic is 22 years old, as is shoot­ing guard Gary Har­ris. Ja­mal Mur­ray, ex­pected to be the start­ing point guard, is only 20. Mill­sap is here to be a men­tor that will al­low their tal­ent to grow while he sweats the big stuff.

“One of the big­gest rea­sons (Den­ver) brought me in was def­i­nitely to help these younger guys and show these guys how to win. I feel like I can do that. I feel like I can lead these guys,” said Mill­sap, a vet­eran of 11 NBA sea­sons. “The old say­ing is: You catch ’em while they’re young.”

When Mill­sap re­turned to his child­hood stomp­ing grounds in Mont­bello to be for­mally in­tro­duced as the team’s new star, a drum line that banged out a happy hello was im­pos­si­ble to miss, and dozens of kids scream­ing Mill­sap’s name brought a smile to ev­ery face. But maybe the coolest as­pect of the scene came hob­bling into the re­cre­ation cen­ter on a cane.

Ralph Simp­son is 67 years old, and re­cov­er­ing nicely from hip-re­place­ment surgery, thank you very much. But 45 years ago, Simp­son was a young shoot­ing guard who av­er­aged 27 points per game for the Den­ver Rockets. He came to town for a job in the 1970s and never left. Simp­son lives in Mont­bello.

Know one of the things Simp­son likes best about the ad­di­tion of Mill­sap? If he can be the al­pha male for a young Nuggets team try­ing to learn how to be a con­tender, then Mill­sap can earn ev­ery penny of his $30 mil­lion an­nual salary.

“The value of lead­er­ship is im­mea­sur­able,” Simp­son said. “I once had a con­ver­sa­tion with (Los An­ge­les Clip­pers coach) Doc Rivers about how crit­i­cal lead­er­ship is to a bas­ket­ball team. And he told me: ‘If you have too many young kids on your ros­ter, they spend too much time fight­ing against each other. But if you bring in a vet­eran that can com­mand the young guys’ re­spect, it al­lows ev­ery­body to chill.’ ”

John Leyba, The Den­ver Post

Ralph Simp­son, 67, a for­mer Den­ver Rockets star, wel­comes Nuggets new­comer Paul Mill­sap to Den­ver last week at the Mont­bello Re­cre­ation Cen­ter.

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