DENVER – Nikola Jokic bought a horse named “Dream Catcher” last winter that’s now winning races back home in Serbia.
“He’s really good,” the Denver Nuggets center said proudly.
No horsing around, Jokic’s team might very well be as well. Just ask Paul Millsap, who matter-of-factly said the Nuggets could be a top-five team even in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
The All-Star forward signed a three-year, $90 million deal in the offseason to help a Denver team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012-13. The other moves around the conference don’t faze Millsap.
“You can add as many guys as you want, but if you don’t have the team chemistry that I think we have, it doesn’t matter,” Millsap said Monday at media day.
Millsap’s impressed by what he sees out of a youthful team that includes a rising star in Jokic and Jamal Murray, the sharpshooting guard who’s healed from surgery to repair injuries to his core muscles.
Jokic averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists in a breakout season. This season, he enters camp 10 pounds lighter and down about 4 percent in body fat.
“That’s only going to help me,” Jokic said.
Jokic likes what he sees with the addition of Millsap along with bringing back fellow big man Mason Plumlee.
“We have a lot of good pieces. We just need to learn to play together,” Jokic said. “We just need to upgrade ourselves this year.”
General manager Tim Connelly appreciates the trajectory of a team that improved by seven games last season and narrowly missed the playoffs. Still, Connelly pumped the brakes on expectations.
“It sounds cliche and it sounds corny but our expectations are just to be better,” Connelly said. “If we’re better, then it’s going to be a heck of a season. We’re not going to sit here and make proclamations. We haven’t earned that right.”
Earning a playoff spot out of the West won’t be an easy undertaking. To think, Millsap was looking forward to getting away from some of the players he had to cover in the East while with Atlanta. For instance, Carmelo Anthony, who was just traded to Oklahoma City.
“I thought I escaped him by coming over here,” Millsap cracked.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone gave an early glimpse of his starting lineup Monday: Millsap at power forward, Jokic at center, Gary Harris as the two-guard and Wilson Chandler at small forward.
The only position undecided going into camp is point guard, where it’s a race between Emmanuel Mudiay, the seventh-overall pick in 2015, Murray, the No. 7 pick in 2016, and veteran Jameer Nelson.
“We have some very talented young guards in Jamal and Emmanuel and a heady veteran in Jameer,” Malone said. “The competition is healthy and I look forward to it playing out.”
Especially with Murray at full strength following offseason surgery. He said his injury was so bothersome at times last season that it “hurt to get out of bed.”
“It comes down to how much you want to play, how much you want to win,” said Murray, who was an All-Rookie second-team member after draining 115 3-pointers.
Murray doesn’t care if he plays point guard or slides over to shooting guard. He just wants to be on the court.
“I’ve got a game that can get along with everybody and score when I need to,” he said.
For Malone, success this season boils down to one thing – defense. The Nuggets were one of the top scoring teams in the league (111.7 points per game), but near the bottom in points allowed (111.2).
“If our players come in and say we want to be a playoff team, we’re going to have to live it every day,” Malone said. “Our everyday actions will dictate how serious we are about that goal. I expect us to get better every single day and improve significantly from last season. If that happens to earn a playoff berth, amen. I’m all for it. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s a playoff-or-bust season.”