Since the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks and returned a truckload of assets, the Nuggets have been a tantalizing collection of talent. But for all its depth, Denver seemed a collection of disparate parts with no single catalyzing player to make it all fit. Nikola Jokic’s emergence as a borderline superstar provided a missing piece, but the addition of Paul Millsap could be what helps the Nuggets turn the corner.
For four All-Star seasons in Atlanta, Millsap outperformed all expectations. In his first season with the Hawks in 2014, Millsap helped stake the Hawks to a 3-2 series lead against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. Atlanta had lost Al Horford for the season to a pectoral injury, and Millsap spent significant minutes at center against a Pacers front line that included Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West all at the peak of their careers.
The Pacers would win a pair of elimination games to advance, but Millsap emerged to show that he could push a depleted team to the verge of history. The next season, the Hawks won 60 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals. Atlanta’s fortunes declined in subsequent seasons but Millsap remained the most stabilizing force for the Hawks, both in the locker room and on the court.
Millsap and the Nuggets are an ideal fit. While Denver’s offense vaulted to the top of the NBA once Jokic moved into the starting lineup, the Nuggets finished with the league’s second-worst defense. In Millsap’s final three seasons in Atlanta, the Hawks’ defense finished seventh, second and fourth. Look for Millsap to impact the Nuggets’ defense from day one, both with individual contributions and by getting buy-in from his teammates through his humble-yet-forceful personality. That Jokic opted out of EuroBasket 2017 despite his centrality to Serbia’s rise as a global basketball power shows that he sees the opportunity that pairing with a top-flight professional like Millsap brings.
And it is that pairing that could unlock the full potential of the Nuggets. Jokic and Millsap have many similarities. Both handle the ball like guards and are among the NBA’s better-passing big men. Millsap can’t match the jaw-dropping creativity of Jokic, but both players will immediately make the other better. Millsap won’t just finish plays that Jokic creates. He’ll also ease the playmaking burden for Jokic via his ability to score in isolation.
Among 54 players with at least 100 iso attempts last season, Millsap was 27th in efficiency with .93 points per possession, rating in the 71st percentile. The departed Danillo Gallinari was slightly better at .97 while Wilson Chandler, the only Nuggets holdover on this list, scored an anemic .88. Millsap was even better in post isolation, scoring one point per possession, ranking 9th among 50 players with at least 100 post-ups last season. Entry passes are not a specialty of Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder. With Jokic able to feed the post and demanding constant attention on the perimeter, Millsap should see an uptick in both volume and quality of opportunities in Denver.
Gallinari was first on this list at 1.2 points per possession, but on only 115 attempts compared to 223 for Millsap, who had to work around the lane-clogging Dwight Howard. Where Millsap won’t be able to replace Gallinari is from the three-point line, where Millsap connected on just 32 percent of his shots the last two seasons. Neither Millsap nor Jokic was a huge threat from deep last season, but both can score from a variety of places on the floor. As a team, Denver was an impressive 11th in the NBA last season on just under 37 percent three-point shooting. Losing Gallinari’s 40 percent will hurt, but the Nuggets remain a good bet to stay near the top third.
While Jokic and Millsap aren’t deadly from three-point distance, both shoot a respectable percentage for their position. Their versatility makes the Millsap acquisition a great move. Unlike pairing with the predictable Howard, Millsap will once again enjoy a front court partner similar to Horford, who can score inside, outside and from midrange. And with both players adept at handling the ball and moving without it, the combination will pose an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses — especially while surrounded by so much shooting from the rest of the roster.
As much as things are looking up for Denver, the fact remains that the ascent to the playoffs must happen in the stacked Western Conference. There’s little margin for error and the vital point guard position remains an issue with former lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay thus far not living up to his draft position. Jameer Nelson is long in the tooth while combo guard Jamal Murray is promising but unproven. The team’s depth remains impressive, especially in the front court with youngsters Juan Hernangomez and Trey Lyles joining veteran Kenneth Faried. And that’s before Mason Plumlee’s status is decided after the team shipped Jusuf Nurkic to Portland to obtain him.
Millsap’s arrival doesn’t guarantee that Denver will make noise in the ridiculously-overpowered West. But it’s a certainty that the Nuggets’ defense will improve while the offense remains potent. Jokic and Millsap are a pair of extremely cerebral big men and it should be a joy to watch them interact. Despite question marks at point, Denver will be must-see TV on League Pass, especially if emergent utility guard Gary Harris comes close to matching the absurd 42 percent he shot from three last season. Millsap may not be the final piece, but he fits right into the Nuggets’ puzzle.
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