Paul Millsap sat on a makeshift stage inside the 76ers’ practice facility in Camden, with Daryl Morey, James Harden, Josh Harris, and Doc Rivers all to his left. They had assembled for an introductory press conference following one of the more significant midseason trades in NBA history, but it took nearly 13 minutes for anybody to ask Millsap a question.
“First off, appreciate it,” Millsap said with a smile. “It was getting a little weird up here.”
The self-deprecating line drew boisterous laughs, and came from a sage veteran in the transition from former four-time All-Star to the so-called “other guy” in the massive deadline deal that brought Harden to Philly. The 37-year-old Millsap is now filling the Sixers’ backup center role behind MVP contender Joel Embiid, after Andre Drummond was included in the same trade with the Brooklyn Nets. And landing with the Sixers also keeps Millsap’s primary goal at this juncture of his career intact: contending for an NBA championship.
“You never know how that goes,” Millsap told The Inquirer following the Sixers’ practice Thursday in Minneapolis. “But through the choices and the decisions that led me here, I feel real comfortable and confident with this team.”
Millsap was once the recipient of arrival fanfare. After averaging 17.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.7 steals per game during four consecutive All-Star seasons with an Atlanta Hawks team that was a steady force in the Eastern Conference from 2013-17, Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million contract with the Denver Nuggets.
He was the splashy free-agent addition expected to inject playoff experience, toughness and professionalism into an up-and-coming Denver roster anchored by Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris. Although the Nuggets missed the playoffs by one game in Millsap’s first season — when he missed more than three months with a torn wrist ligament — they surged to the No. 2 spot in the West standings in 2018-19 and have become a postseason mainstay.
Millsap’s production dwindled as he aged and the frontcourt became more crowded over the course of his four seasons in Denver, but he remained a model of steady leadership in the locker room.
“The best thing about Paul Millsap, he’s true to himself [and] never tries to be something he’s not,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said during the 2019 playoffs. “He’s not a ‘rah-rah’ guy. He’s not a guy that’s gonna be screaming and yelling. But I think his calm nature, his calm demeanor has an effect on our group.”
When the Nuggets opted to sign Jeff Green to two-year, $10 million contract last summer, however, it signaled the end of Millsap’s Nuggets tenure. He said the Sixers were the first team to reach out during free agency, and he believed he would be a “perfect fit” on the roster. But he also described some personal and family matters — including a baby on the way — ”that really clouded my judgment at that time” before he signed with Brooklyn instead.
“Honestly, I was going through some stuff, and the decision-making was not at its greatest,” Millsap told The Inquirer. “What happened, happened. … At that time, I really didn’t know if I was going to play then or come back during the second half of the season.”
Millsap appeared in 24 games for the Nets, averaging 3.4 points and 3.7 rebounds in 11.3 minutes per game while shooting just 37.6% from the floor. He became the odd man out of a frontcourt logjam that included LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Nic Claxton, and Day’Ron Sharpe. In January, the Nets agreed to allow Millsap to leave the team while they worked on finding him a new basketball destination.
“It was tough,” Millsap said. “You don’t ever want to feel like you quit on your team. But at the end of the day, they’ve got to do what’s best for them [and] I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”
Millsap went back to Atlanta, where he spent time with his daughter, who is now 3 months old, and the rest of his family. He trained at the gym he owns in the city, spearheading five-on-five runs with local ex-NBA and college players on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He was in the middle of a game when his brother interrupted with the news that he had been traded to the Sixers.
“It feels good to be wanted like that, you know what I mean?” Millsap said. “Especially in this league. When it happened I was like, ‘Yeah, it was meant to be.’”
Millsap said his life has been a “whirlwind” since then. It is the first time he has been traded in his 16-year career. He is transitioning from playing power forward, where he has traditionally had a size advantage in the post, to center, where he knows it will be tougher to back defenders down but still believes he can score with open space on pick-and-pop plays.
Rivers acknowledges he is still unsure about Millsap’s role with the Sixers, who also signed 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein to a 10-day contract last week and have Paul Reed and Charles Bassey on the roster. But the coach loves Millsap’s combination of intelligence and physicality, calling a hard foul he committed in a brief stint at the end of a dreadful 48-point loss to Boston last week the Sixers’ best play of the game.
“[That] is one of the areas that I thought we lacked,” Rivers said. “... I enjoy those [hard fouls] every once in a while.”
Since the All-Star break, Millsap struggled to finish inside early during Friday’s win at Minnesota but had his best outing with his new team so far during Sunday’s victory over the Knicks. He totaled six points on 3-of-5 shooting — including a baseline jumper and a bucket at the rim off feeds from Harden — and added three rebounds (two on the offensive end), one assist, and one steal in 12 minutes.
“We’ll see how all that comes together,” Millsap said of playing center. “But I feel comfortable doing it.”
Millsap appreciates that people “got a good chuckle” out of his self-deprecating line during that press conference. He understands the magnitude of Harden joining this team for a fascinating stretch run. But once those laughs subsided, Millsap explained that he immediately felt a culture of joy and togetherness with the Sixers that was also present on the successful teams for which he previously played.
That’s why he is happy to be in Philly, too.
“The energy in the building, that’s what I love to be around,” he said. “That’s what I love to come to every day. … Coming here, man, with the talent and the players and the coaching staff [and] organization mixed with that energy, [it’s] unbelievable.”