DENVER (AP) — The Denver Nuggets gave team unity the full-court press over the offseason.
There were voluntary workouts in the Mile High City that were well attended, training sessions in Las Vegas and even an informal camp in Atlanta hosted by Paul Millsap.
All this to foster chemistry on a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2012-13, because as LeBron James noted after his first game with the Los Angeles Lakers, the bonding of a squad is not “instant oatmeal.”
“Outside of basketball and the outside work, that’s really where you build the chemistry,” Millsap said.
The Nuggets’ strength this season just may reside in that bond. The closest they have to a star player is big man Nikola Jokic, who’s looking for his first All-Star nod. Really, though, their most potent asset is being a tight-knit group that’s been tethered for a while. The young nucleus of Jokic, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jamal Murray are entering their third season together.
“Everybody wants everything yesterday. It takes time,” said newly extended coach Michael Malone, whose team plays Phoenix in the home opener Saturday, followed by hosting Golden State on Sunday. “One of the luxuries we have is continuity … the same players and the same philosophy and terminology. That’s something we feel we have a lot of advantage on a lot of teams with. Our guys have bought in.”
That’s why they frequently got together over the summer. They had dinners. They played pickup games. They nurtured that bond. Millsap invited the team to Atlanta just to promote even more growth. Granted, Jokic and Harris couldn’t make it in as they participated in an international NBA event.
“We’re blessed to have a group of guys who like each other, who like being around each other,” Millsap said. “Anytime you can get guys in a room that have agreed to being a good teammate, being a brother, it helps.
“Some teams are blessed to have guys who are in sync, but there are not too many of those teams. The team that’s patient with it, is normally the team that comes out on top.”
It’s a connection that showed up at crunch time in the season opener Wednesday, when the Nuggets used a 23-6 spurt to beat the Clippers 107-98 in Los Angeles.
“You need chemistry, because there are going to be tough moments in a game, where you have to have a comeback, and you need that chemistry to put you over the edge,” Barton said.
“Guys trust each other. We’re able to communicate with each other differently now. We can get on each other a little different.”
The burgeoning strength of their relationship afforded Millsap the ability to have a heart-to-heart chat with Jokic last season. As Millsap returned from a wrist injury, he wanted Jokic to be fully aware of one thing: It was his team. Don’t play second fiddle.
“I was like, ‘Be yourself, because the ball is going to find you and you’re going to be the guy who makes the plays,'” Millsap said. “You make everyone around you better. Those are the conversations we have. Before every game, let him know that.”
In addition, he reminds Jokic of something else — be aggressive.
“Because when he plays at that aggression level that we know he can play at, he’s getting a triple-double every night,” Millsap said. “That’s the beauty of this team — we have guys pulling for each other. When one guy struggles, other guys are pulling for them and trying to help them out. You don’t get that on every team.”
NOTES: Sue Bird, who helped the Seattle Storm to a WNBA title last month, is in town for the weekend. She’s visiting the facility and with Nuggets players. No official role with the team has been offered yet. … Guard Isaiah Thomas (hip) is out for Saturday’s game. “No update on any timeline,” Malone said. “I definitely know he’s making improvements. … Everything is definitely moving in the right direction.”
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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