It’s two days before Paul Millsap breaks a toe that potentially jeopardizes a promising season for the Denver Nuggets and he is wondering what kind of animal Llama Llama is. The repetitively named character that stars in a series of books and television shows is, of course, a llama. Millsap knows this. But he is also the last player to walk off the floor after an early morning shootaround in Orlando, drenched in sweat, his heart racing, just hours before he helps extend a Denver winning streak to seven games. The 33-year-old has seen much during his career and has faced it with a familiar, steady stoicism. Answering questions about llamas through an endorphin-induced fog makes the momentary lapse an excusable one.
He is recalling a recent social media post that belies his typically serious disposition; the 6-foot-8 goliath gingerly holding a stuffed version of the animal in question. “Oh, it’s, um…what is it? A little bear?” I think it’s a llama, I tell him “Yeah, yeah, it’s a llama!” he exclaims, as the fog begins to clear. “It’s my daughter’s, you know? They do this thing at her school, they take the little llama everywhere and you gotta take pictures with it, and my daughter asked me to take it into the locker room and I did it for her.”
Millsap, a father of four, doesn’t still have Llama Llama with him in Orlando. “No, no, no,” he says almost ruefully. “They gotta take it and give it to somebody else, so we only had it for a weekend. It was my youngest.” She’s got you wrapped around her finger, he’s told. A smile breaks out on Millsap’s face as he cocks his head to the side. Over 900 career games, four All-Star berths, and countless battles among the biggest bodies in the league and he’s finally met his match. “Oh, yeah. For sure,” he proudly admits.
Moments like these seem incongruous with how Millsap is generally perceived. If the archetype of the grim-faced warrior extends to basketball, he has always fit it perfectly. And, in truth, even as much as his children are privy to a softer side than what is seen on the basketball court, he takes his job as a parent seriously. Millsap’s dedication to the work is what drives him, a lesson he learned from his own mother as a boy, watching her work multiple jobs to support Paul and his siblings. That baseline, he says now, defines the example he wants to set for his own children. “A person like that, with that kind of faith and work ethic,” he says, “You hope you can be like that and you want your kids to see that. I try my best to do that, anyway.”
There’s an immutability to Millsap that is undeniable. As much success as he’s achieved throughout his years in the league, there’s a dry constancy to his game that many find unpalatable. He will not put up the kind of highlights that lure the casual fan, nor put up the gaudy numbers that cement his place in the game’s pantheon of greats. There are no rainbows or sunrises of infinitely colored palettes in Millsap’s career landscape. He is the cragged, steady rockface, in the foreground and well off-center and every bit as necessary, if only to provide a true sense of perspective.
Of his role in Denver, Millsap acknowledges that he probably hasn’t evolved as much as you might think. “I’m just trying to win. I don’t see a role that I have to play. I just see myself as a guy that’s playing my game,” he says. True to form, he adds that change can be difficult for him to accept. “When I try to do something that I’m not really used to doing, it doesn’t work out too well.” Instead, he’s learned to find a balance that allows him to remain simultaneously unchanged and effective.
It’s worked. The Nuggets have been among the best teams in the Western Conference this season and Millsap himself was recently named the West’s Player of the Week. While Millsap’s scoring improved during Denver’s win streak, his impact is multi-faceted and unglamorous. He leads the team in steals and blocks with rather pedestrian averages (1.4 and 1.1, respectively) but the end result — wins — are all that matters.
If the Nuggets are true contenders this season, their hopes are built on an egalitarian foundation where everyone contributes how they can. Versatility is the team’s defining characteristic. After years of potent offenses that were nothing more than empty calories, they now average just 110.7 points per 100 possessions, ninth among 30 teams. They instead thrive off their defensive capabilities, holding opponents to just 104.5 points per 100 possessions, tied for the NBA’s fourth-lowest average. Victories are hard-fought and earned in unspectacular fashion, perhaps the ultimate testament to Millsap’s presence.
There may not be anyone more appreciative of Millsap’s balanced impact than Denver head coach Michael Malone. While Malone recognizes that Millsap’s recent individual award is likely because of team-wide success, he doesn’t mince words as to why the team offered Millsap a lucrative contract in 2017. “When we signed him last summer as a free agent,” says Malone. “it wasn’t just Paul as an offensive player. It was the leadership. The experience. The playoffs. It was also the fact that he could help a team that desperately needed help on the defensive end.”
A dependable and wide array of skills have long identified Millsap. He can shoot, he can pass, he can rebound and defend with the best of them. He works, by his own admission, on every aspect of his game because it’s what always suited him best. Millsap recognizes his age looms large in the distance and so he fights, perhaps in vain, to stave off its effects for as long he can. And so, in his own abiding way, he has become the Nuggets’ leader by doing what he does best. “ I think our guys feed off of his leadership, even when sometimes it’s not really vocal, but just following the example that he sets every single day,” explains Malone.
Juan “Juancho” Hernangomez, the 23-year-old from Madrid, has absolutely taken notice. “Yeah, he is quiet. But when he think he need to talk, he has the voice in the locker room so when he talks,” says Hernangomez, “everyone listens to him.” There was a period of adjustment Hernagomez admits, one exacerbated by a spate of injuries that limited Millsap’s first season in Denver to just 38 games. But there was even inspiration in that, as Millsap predictably lost himself in the work. “He was [such] a professional. We never doubt his level of play because he is one of the tougher guys in the league. But I always try to learn about these guys, what they do or did to be the best player for so long. He works so hard, knows exactly what he needs for his body, for his game. So I try to watch him and learn from him.” Not surprisingly, Hernangomez is playing major minutes for Malone this season and is a key part of the Nuggets’ rotation.
When told of his impact, Millsap nods his head slowly, knowingly. The effect is like watching a sculptor standing back as they watch a shape only they can see slowly emerging from a mass of clay. Or like a farmer, appreciating the slow growth of their crop, the product of their labor beginning to sprout. “I want leadership,” he says, “to be contagious.”
That contagion will be tested sorely over the next 4-6 weeks while Millsap recovers from the broken toe. Denver’s roster is crumbling apart, with Gary Harris, Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas and rookie Michael Porter, Jr. all out of action due to injury. The Nuggets dropped two winnable games in Charlotte and Atlanta with Millsap stuck on the bench. There was a good win over the Memphis Grizzlies, too, and the hope is that the players still healthy enough to play can help Denver stay afloat. There are too many teams competing for a playoff berth in the Western Conference and any loss could potentially sink Denver’s postseason chances.
Back in Orlando before the injury took place, Millsap is asked about the team’s chances at reaching the NBA Finals. It is the question every team in the league has to ask, especially those franchises that consider themselves realistic contenders. As good as Denver has been, could it all be for naught if the Golden State Warriors continue their postseason dominance? Millsap dismissed the notion in predictable fashion, choosing to focus on the Nuggets’ day-to-day growth instead. He sees his team more determined than ever, building confidence along the way. The Golden Gate Bridge that remains a possible obstacle down the road can only be crossed once they actually get there.
But he also sees the Nuggets as a deep, capable group. When asked if this is the most talented team he’s ever been a part of, there is no hint of the short-lived smile at the recollection of llamas. He is the rock, immovable and unchanging. “I think so,” he says.
He has stopped to answer questions in the bowels of the Amway Center. The byproduct of being the last on the floor is the risk of missing the bus back to the hotel, to get those precious moments of rest before another game, another chance to keep working and to get better and prove that this team has learned from Millsap’s quiet example.