The Denver Nuggets need Paul Millsap to fill in the blanks


Last season’s Denver Nuggets came but a few minutes away from making their long-awaited return to the playoffs. The Nuggets, who have been to the lottery every year since 2013, lost what was essentially a play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final night of the season — in overtime, no less. You could point to any of Denver’s 35 other losses and say that if the result had flipped the other way, they might have made the playoffs anyway; but the fact remains that they had an opportunity to secure their place in the postseason by winning on the last day of the regular season, and they couldn’t string together enough consecutive stops and scores to get it done.

By all accounts, it was a disappointment — even if it was an understandable one. The Nuggets had been pegged by preseason oddsmakers as the sixth-best team in the West. They’d finished sixth in ESPN’s Summer Forecast as well, while Kevin Pelton’s WARP-based projections gave them a 78 percent chance  to crash the postseason party (seventh in the West) and Five Thirty Eight’s CARMelo system predicted they’d win 49 games.

This year’s projections convey a similar, if slightly better, outlook for the Nuggets: their Westgate over/under is 47.5, sixth in the West; Pelton’s initial projections pegged them for 50.5 wins, fourth-best in the conference; and Summer Forecast predicted a 47-win season and a fifth-place finish.

Missing the playoffs this year, after coming so close a year ago, would be an even bigger disappointment. Ownership has had designs on returning to the postseason for a while, and management has made an annual push in that direction, with last year’s team coming the closest to making that dream a reality. Denver has progressed over the past few years from 30 wins to 33, and then to 40 and finally 46 a year ago.

The next natural step that every team like this wants to take is to push their win total into the 50s, essentially guaranteeing a playoff spot. The key to determining whether this particular version of the Nuggets can get there is likely what they get out of veteran forward Paul Millsap.

Millsap — who last summer left Atlanta for Denver and signed a three-year, $90 million contract with a team option on the final season — was supposed to be the piece that pushed Denver over the top last year. But while the team very nearly got there, it did so largely without the services of Millsap himself. A wrist injury suffered in mid-November necessitated surgery, and held him out for more than three months’ worth of games. The Nuggets went 24-20 during that stretch, falling from the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference into a virtual tie for eighth. Denver then won 13 of its final 22 games after Millsap’s return to the fold, only to see the Jazz streak to a 17-5 finish and bump Denver into a dead heat with Minnesota for the last playoff spot.

You can make a reasonable argument that if Millsap had been healthy all year, the Nuggets never would have been in that position in the first place. Most of Denver’s best lineups had Millsap on the floor, and they were especially effective when he played with the team’s three young building blocks: Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray. The team outscored its opponents by 12.7 points per 100 possessions when that foursome was in the game, per, the 19th-best figure out of 136 four-man groups that played at least 400 minutes together. Of Denver’s 10 most-used five-man combinations last season, the three featuring Millsap ranked first, fourth, and seventh in pace-adjusted scoring margin. All of them outscored opponents by at least 6.9 points per 100 possessions, the equivalent of the fourth-best net rating in the league.

Millsap still fits with that foursome like a glove. They badly need his ability to cover space defensively, which he should still be able to do even if he has lost a step or two at age-33. There has been enough consternation about Jokic’s defense to fill a book and reasonable people can disagree about whether he is an abomination of a defender or merely a below-average one, but what should not be argued is that he (and, by extension, Denver’s overall defensive performance) would be aided by the presence of Millsap next to him in the front-court. Millsap’s ability to jump out on smalls and wings on the perimeter, to switch at a moment’s notice, and to be in the right place at the right time when helping are hugely valuable to a team that has issues preventing the best available shots — especially in the half-court.

The Nuggets have several strong individual defenders on their team, but they too often let opposing ball-handlers get where they want on the floor, which results in the easiest types of shots. The Nuggets allowed opponents to shoot a higher percentage on shots taken off the drive than any other team in the league, for example, while their opponents knocked down the second-highest percentage of their catch-and-shoot jumpers and the fourth-highest percentage of their pull-ups.

Gary Harris does good work in individual situations and because of that often handles the toughest perimeter matchup on a night-to-night basis and he’s pretty good off the ball as well; but while his backcourt mate Jamal Murray is turning into a very nice offensive player, he doesn’t provide much resistance at the point of attack. Will Barton is more of a good multi-positional defender in theory than in practice. Jokic at the very least not not provide much in the way of rim protection. (Among 90 players who challenged at least three shots per game at the rim, Jokic ranked 79th in opponent’s conversion rate when he was within five feet of both the shooter and the basket.) Wilson Chandler, the team’s most versatile defender last season, is now a Sixer. Trey Lyles is not exactly a defensive stalwart.Juancho Hernangomez can survive at the 4 but is not quick enough to defend most wings, which he does too often because of the unbalanced Denver roster. And the less said about Mason Plumlee’s defense, the better.

And those are just the holdovers. This is a team that added possibly the worst defensive player in the league in Isaiah Thomas, as well as a scoring forward who has defensive issues of his own in Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets are going to need Millsap to put out a ton of fires, pretty much every night. Whether or not he’s up to the challenge will go a long way toward determining whether the Nuggets can make a jump from the back half of the 20s in defense to merely being below-average, which is where they’ll need to get if they want to be taken even remotely seriously. The Nuggets should be able to singe the nets every night and come close to having a top-five offense, but even that is not enough to guarantee a playoff spot in the West. Not this year.

You’d think that merely adding Millsap to last season’s mixture would be enough to bump the Nuggets in front of one of the teams that made the dance last year, but even that might not guarantee a playoff berth. The Lakers added LeBron James and it seems extremely unlikely they’ll be at home come April and May. Even some of the teams from the lower rungs of the West have gotten considerably better: the Mavericks added DeAndre Jordan and Luka Doncic and should no longer be an easy victory; the Suns landed Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges in the draft, traded for Richaun Holmes, and signed Trevor Ariza; the Grizzlies will likely get more than 12 games out of Mike Conley this season, and while they lost Tyreke Evans, they added Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and draft picks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter.

In other words, merely getting a little bit better is not good enough for the Nuggets. They need to make real strides. Some of that progress will surely come from the team’s young players, but they also need Millsap to do what he was signed to do last summer. They envisioned him as something of a skeleton key to unlock the potential of their young core, and that role still makes a whole lot of sense for him.

Next. Is this the year Myles Turner takes the leap to stardom?. dark

He doesn’t have quite the range on his jumper anymore than he used to, but he is capable of creating space as a spot-up shooter or in pick-and-pops. He can facilitate from the elbows or off the catch in roll-man situations. He can lurk in the dunker spot and feast in dump-offs. He can be a valuable outlet for Murray and Harris on the perimeter or the interior, and form a strong big-to-big passing combination with Jokic. He can work as a complementary scorer most of the time but also take over a larger role on occasion. He can fill in the blanks. And if he fills enough of them, count on the Nuggets filling a spot in the playoff bracket for the first time in six years.

Illustrations for this article were provided by Elliot Gerard. Check out the rest of the Stepmoji series here.