Mike Malone fiddled with the Nuggets frontcourt lineup all season, and it's one of the ingredients that cost Denver a playoff birth. It's the main explanation for why it took until late December to set Nikola Jokic wholly free. The Joker, Jusuf Nurkic, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, and Danilo Gallinari each started 10 or more games at power forward or center. Add in a handful of experimental starts with Darrell Arthur, and it's fair to acknowledge in hindsight that the frontcourt rotation needed more stability. The Nuggets allocated too many minutes for lineups with multiple traditional bigs. It was a defensive nightmare. In today's pace-and-space NBA, teams need to have a combo forward who can offer versatile defensive traits. Denver found a marquee cornerstone player in Jokic, but they needed a defensively minded forward to couple him with.
Paul Millsap is just what the doctor ordered. The former Atlanta Hawk has been an all-star in each of the last four seasons and has been to the playoffs in 9 of his 11 seasons. Denver was 29th in defensive rating last season. Tim Connelly was no longer interested in Denver trying to win every game 130-125. Millsap is a defensive machine. Per Basketball Reference, he posted an impressive 3.8 defensive win shares last season. For reference, Nikola Jokic posted 2.0 defensive win shares this season, and no other Nugget was higher than 1.2. Millsap hasn't posted below 2.9 defensive win shares since 2010.
With (some) apologies to Wilson Chandler, Millsap instantly becomes the Nuggets best defender. He's always near the top of the leaderboard in steals by frontcourt players. From the outset, Millsap will match up with the opposing team's best forward. He has the quickness and length to switch onto guards and effectively defend the perimeter. Millsap routinely turns drive-first scorers into low percentage jump shooters. At 246 pounds, he has the strength to also handle bruising post up scorers. In Denver, Millsap will cover speedy combo forwards who hover around the perimeter. The Nuggets conventional bigs struggled with isolation perimeter defense last season. With Millsap's defensive versatility, Jokic can focus on playing a true center role on the defensive end. Rostering forwards who can reliably safeguard the three point line is integral to defending in the modern game. Adding Millsap is a step forward toward matching up against the best small ball lineups in the Western Conference.
Millsap's offensive skillset is impressive across the board. He doesn't have nuclear athleticism, but he makes up for it with a polished scoring game. He likes to face up and use a myriad of shoulder shakes, step backs, and jab steps to open shooting space. He's a creative finisher near the basket and has nice shooting touch within 5 feet. Millsap won't jump out of the gym. Instead, he uses supreme upper body strength to absorb contact and still get his shot off. Every season, he's around the top fifteen players in free throw attempts, a list that's littered with NBA's elite offensive players. Millsap offers a unique combination of power and finesse, and he will be a go-to option in clutch moments. Here is Millsap's statistical outlook, per basketball-reference.
Due to Millsap's versatility, he should dazzle next to an adroit passing center like Jokic. He won't space the floor quite like Gallinari did, but he'll provide Jokic with ample room to operate. As Millsap's game refined in Atlanta, he's developed a reliable 3 point shot. He's drained over 70 in each of the last four seasons. Per NBA.com, Millsap ranked in the 70.0 percentile or greater in post up scoring and scoring off cuts. I expect the Nuggets to run a lot of high-low action for their two big men. If Jokic gets a high post catch, expect Millsap to be carving out post-up space on the block. Millsap is an expert at exploiting mismatches in the post. He overpowers smaller players around the rim. I expect Malone to design a collection of screen plays for to get Millsap into advantageous matchups with smaller guards. If Jokic receives the entry pass in the low post, Millsap can dive toward the rim, rub his defender off Jokic, or set flair screens to get Gary Harris open for 3. Millsap has always accessed solid catching skills from close range, so he will have no issue handling Jokic's advanced bullet passes. Millsap played three seasons in Atlanta with Al Horford, another willing passer at the 5 spot.
Here is a highlight of Millsap dominating the Celtics in a critical 2016 playoff game. Just imagine that the green crowd is actually powder blue.
From a salary cap standpoint, Nuggets fans should be pleased with the financial details of Millsap's contract. Denver had been connected in rumors with Millsap for close to a year. Last summer, most thought Millsap would receive multiple contract offers worth $30-35 million per season over four years. Denver's underlying concern was whether a maximum level deal for the 32-year-old Millsap would interfere the team's ability to extend younger players like Jokic and Harris. That fear no longer exists. Millsap ended up penning a 3-year $90 million contract, with a team option for the third year. The opt out option could be eventually become critical for long term salary cap planning. Jokic's contract will be up after two years, and Tim Connelly can let Millsap walk if he isn't worth his third year $30M salary. Millsap's peak performance years don't fully align with his promising younger teammates, but his contract won't burden the franchise's future variability. That alone is a win for the Nuggets.
Millsap brings quiet leadership to a team that needed an injection of veteran presence. He's a consummate professional who's widely respected in NBA circles. His low profile stardom is a good thing. He's always had an unselfish demeanor on and off the court. He's the kind of player who will have no problem having the spotlight shined at Jokic. As an elder statesman, assisting with player development is the best thing Millsap can do for the Nuggets. Millsap returns to the Mile High City, where he spent the first eleven years of his life growing up in the Montbello neighborhood of Denver. The Nuggets held his introductory press conference at the Montbello Recreation Center on Thursday.
“This community helped mold me into the person I am today,” Millsap said. “The hard times, the good times. The words cannot explain what the city of Denver meant to me and my family when we were here." He added. “Coming back to this community and help this community out and helping this organization out, I mean that played a big factor.”