Unrestricted free agency is on the way for Paul Millsap. Its reward has been a long time coming.
"I have no stress or worries over what's going to happen," the Jazz power forward said after a recent practice. "I feel like I worked hard enough for good things to happen. I'm really excited about it."
For seven years in Utah, he has kept his head down and his voice soft and low. Millsap has not appeared to feel comfortable seeking attention for himself because he has been more intent on developing his game. His skills have expanded every year, and this summer flattery will be coming to a 27-year-old who has neither sought nor anticipated it. Millsap laughed when I suggested he is like a character in a Western, the quiet stranger who comes riding into town, more interested in fighting for his values than in preaching them.
"I try to live and play a certain way,'' said Millsap, who is averaging 14.6 points and 7.6 rebounds with career bests of 2.6 assists and 42.9 percent shooting from the three-point line. "Just play the right way. You want to do everything right. That's the whole point of getting out there. You feel like you do it the right way, then things are going to work out for you
"As far as the Westerns,'' and he laughed again, "I guess you want to live by that code of honor. I guess so.''
Players such as the 6-foot-8 Millsap don't necessarily make All-Star teams so much as they help win games. He provides an example of self-improvement, accountability and drive that has enabled a small-market franchise like Utah to maintain values that are endangered in today's NBA. The Jazz have suffered two losing seasons over the last 29 years -- an amazing run in this era of personnel turnover -- because of the long-term investments made in their system, front office, coaching staff and roster. In a league of celebrity, they are an anomaly, and Millsap has been part of the backbone of the franchise during its transition after the departures of John Stockton and Karl Malone.
Jerry Sloan has retired (for now) and Deron Williams was dealt when the Jazz became convinced that he wanted to leave. Millsap doesn't necessarily want to follow them out of town.
"It always felt like a match made in heaven,'' he said of his association with the Jazz. "I always felt like this is where I was supposed to be. But if it doesn't happen, I've got to move on. Go to the next thing. Right now I'm here, trying to make the best of it. We'll see what happens from there.''
An innate tension of the NBA figures to play out around Millsap in free agency. There will be GMs and owners who will prefer to spend their cap space on a star who sells tickets. On the other side of the argument, there will be coaches coveting Millsap as a quiet leader who wins games without drawing attention to himself. Players like him are focused on improving in ways that enable the team to function.
"He came into the NBA as this dirt worker, really, if you want to know the truth,'' Suns coach Alvin Gentry said of Millsap. "He was this guy who said, 'I play hard, I can get a few rebounds, I'm not very good offensively.' And now all of a sudden he's expanded his game all the way out to the three-point shot, and he's become a much better ball handler and a post-up guy. He's a guy like [Luis] Scola -- I guarantee you they put in the hours, they put in the work.''
Gentry was pairing Scola and Millsap because he had watched the two of them go at each other last week during Utah's victory at Phoenix. At each end of the floor it was like watching a tight end working against an outside linebacker for position and yardage and control of the ball.
"They do whatever they have to do to get the job done, and those guys are becoming more rare in this league,'' Gentry said. "To be honest, with Scola, I'd never coached in a situation like that: I had to learn that he may struggle for five straight minutes and then just go, Boom! I had to get accustomed to coaching a guy that's not exceptionally athletic but is unbelievably smart and just has a way of getting things done.''
The comparison of Scola and Millsap is timely because Scola was waived via financial amnesty by the Rockets last summer after five years in Houston. The move hurt him because he had given his best efforts. But he was 32 years old, and it's hard to argue with the Rockets' new direction -- they are 21-14 behind their young trio of James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.
"I thought, Hey, this is where I am now, and I need to find a way to make the situation where I am now a good situation and just do what I've been doing,'' Scola said of his all-out approach. "This is the only way I know.''
Millsap is facing a potential transition of his own. The next contract will see him through the peak years of his career. He understands that the Jazz may consider dealing his expiring $8.6 million salary at the trade deadline next month.
"At least somebody wants you, so you can't really be hurt about that,'' Millsap said. "I don't have a problem with change if that's the case. I feel like I'm a guy that can adjust to whatever situation is thrown in front of him. For me, I hope it's here [in Utah]. But if not, you know, I've got to go.''
When Millsap arrived from Louisiana Tech as a second-round pick of Utah in 2006, he was hoping to develop a relationship with Karl Malone. They were from the same college, and now Millsap was arriving to fill the position Malone had vacated four seasons earlier.
"We know each other, talk to each other a bit,'' he said. "It's never about anything really personal or anything like that, which is cool, because he knows I understand what's going on and what happens on the court."
Now Millsap is the last Jazz player tied deeply to the old values. He came in trying to uphold the timeless standards and did. But the Jazz have a potential young star in Derrick Favors who, in today's NBA, could play power forward or center. In the meantime, the young Jazz will continue to benefit from the kind of leadership that matters -- not the big-talking type, but the self-starting kind that makes no excuses and shows up to work every day.