Just before the start of the Denver Nuggets’ first Conference Finals game since 2009, Denver Stiffs was granted an interview with former NBA big man Carlos Boozer on behalf of DraftKings.
In a wide-ranging interview, Boozer discussed the process of building a team through the draft, his thoughts on LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, his relationship with Nuggets veteran Paul Millsap and gave his prediction on who will win the Western Conference Finals.
As a 13-year veteran who played for four teams in his career, the two-time All-Star has seen it all in the NBA, so it shouldn’t be surprising that he has quite a bit of familiarity with the path the Nuggets have taken to team-building. Just like the Utah Jazz team that Boozer signed with in 2004, the Nuggets steadily ascended into a Conference Finals contender with a steady diet of young and developing players.
Boozer acknowledges that building a team organically is “a difficult process.”
“You think about having to get talent, get them used to the NBA, have that talent be realized and developed and matured... what the Nuggets have done has been incredible. They were very patient. I know Philadelphia likes to use ‘The Process’ but they definitely were very patient and did a good job of putting really good pieces around.
[Bringing in Nikola] Jokic was a great move. They brought [Paul] Millsap there as well as a free agent. They made really good moves and then their young guys developed. Now you see them in the Conference Finals so early, which is similar to what happened to us. I came over in free agency, then we drafted Deron Williams a year later. We already had Andrei Kirilenko [and] we got Mehmet Okur through free agency as well when I was in Utah... Jerry Sloan, may he rest in peace, a phenomenal coach. So we got the Conference Finals pretty early as well.”
Frankly, the similarity between Boozer’s Jazz team and this current Nuggets’ team is a bit astounding.
Denver’s core has players like Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. all coming to the team via the draft, all over the the last six seasons.
Utah’s core had players like Andrei Kirilenko, Deron Williams and Paul Millsap who all came to the team through the draft over the course of six seasons.
The Jazz made the Conference Finals in what was just Boozer’s fifth season and the Nuggets have made the Conference Finals in Jokic’s fifth season. Both teams gave rookie power forwards substantial playing time through the regular and post season. In Utah’s case it was Millsap and in Denver’s case it’s Porter. The starting point guard for both teams (Murray and Williams) were just 22-years-old at the start of the season.
However, despite the striking similarities between both teams, Boozer admits that he “did not expect the Nuggets to be where they are.”
“They are ahead of schedule, to me. But it’s very impressive. Like you can’t discount them [coming back from] going down 3-1 twice in the same playoffs. They’re destined to be where they are, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.”
Defending the Lakers, realizing LeBron’s greatness
Noting that Denver is facing a team with players who have plenty of experience in their Conference Finals battle with the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Stiffs also asked the two-time All-Star what the Nuggets need to do against the Lakers this series.
After all, even though Boozer’s team didn’t advance past the Conference Finals in 2007, it was likely the experience of the team that they faced — the San Antonio Spurs — that lent itself to Utah’s demise.
To Boozer, what it comes down to is defense.
“I mean defense,” starts Boozer. “I know it’s an old adage and people kind of get tired of hearing it but defense wins championships.”
“They gotta play their style and play very good defense because the Lakers got everything. They got Anthony Davis in the prime of his career. They got good shooting and Danny Green. They got good defense and they got a closer in LeBron James who makes the right play. He’s not always going to shoot the ball but he’s going to make the right play at the right time and he’s done this over and over and time and time again. That’s why he’s considered one of the best basketball players to ever lace them up.
So for the Nuggets, they gotta play their style. They gotta attack and they gotta play defense. If they play good D, they’ll have a shot to win every game.”
Regarding LeBron James, despite it being his 17th season, he’s still playing at an elite level and Boozer finds it “impressive.”
“He’s had one hell of a career. Virtually injury-free — I know he had a groin (injury) or something a year ago that kept the Lakers out of the playoffs... But for most of his career, he’s been injury-free and. to be honest, it’s very impressive because he’s played deep, deep into the season. Not to mention, in the summertime with Team USA going to get gold medals all over the country, all over the world. So very impressive...
I saw an article one time, he talked about how much time, effort and money he spends on his body, making sure his body’s in tip-top shape, flexible, strong and able to do his job every time he goes on the court, so very impressive. He obviously was at an MVP level once again.”
“I know he only has four MVPs,” quips Boozer. “But he could have won about 10 times in those 17 years. So very, very impressive. To be in year number 17 and be the runner-up for MVP is very impressive.”
On his relationship with Paul Millsap
As he was once Boozer’s rookie and is a person that he’s still “very close” to, it doesn’t surprise Boozer that Millsap — who Boozer notes had a “great upbringing” — has become a veteran leader for the Nuggets.
“‘Sap was a phenomenal basketball player and we were fortunate to get him in the second round. He’s had a great, great career. He’s made the All-Star team four or five years... did a great job for us in Utah, a great job in Atlanta and doing a great in Denver as a leader and a OG. Paul is very skilled. Was able to transform his game... able to take you off the dribble, initiate the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, always had good hands, good defensively.”
Sure enough, leadership and on-court skill is what Millsap has brought to the Nuggets since he signed a three-year contract with the team in 2017. Now a 14-year veteran, he’s the oldest and most seasoned player on Denver’s roster, mastering the delicate balance between poise and toughness that’s helped the Nuggets throughout these playoffs.
In addition, with off-court snafus like Porter’s comments to the media about the playcalling after Denver went down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Clippers, you can be sure that Millsap was one of the veterans that talked to MPJ about how to handle the situation.
As previously noted, Millsap was a rookie in his first playoff run too, and one that went as far as the Conference Finals. There are similarities between the players that can pay dividends for Porter moving forward, so long as the rookie remains teachable and the veteran willing to teach.
“I think Paul is destined to be one of those guys, veteran leader guys.” muses Boozer. “And also, what he’s doing off the court in Atlanta and Louisiana — where he’s from — is very impressive as well. So definitely one of those guys that’s a great ambassador for our game and teaches the young guys how to be professional, how to work hard, how to have longevity at the professional level. I’m really, really excited for him with the opportunity to finally get to the Finals. It’s a tall task, it’s a tall task, but I think they got a good shot.”
Boozer’s WCF prediction
“I love [the] Denver Nuggets and what they’re doing. I think the lack of experience is gonna have them cut short.”
Laughing, Boozer jokes that “this series will probably go seven (games) like all their series’ have been going seven. But in a Game 7, I would have to go Lakers because of their experience.”
“Especially LeBron’s experience,” Boozer adds. “He does a great job of being able to make adjustments on the fly throughout the course of a series. I see LeBron being able to adjust and figure out a way for his team to prevail and go on to the Finals.”
“Granted, as long as you’ve got a shot, you’ve got a chance,” cautions Boozer. “So they’re in it. If I’m a betting man, I would pick the Lakers over the Nuggets though.”