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Paul Millsap’s injury brings new opportunities and new challenges to the Denver Nuggets

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Ready or not, it’s Juancho-time in Denver

NBA: Preseason-Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s just get this out of the way: this is a huge blow to the Denver Nuggets. Paul Millsap was the backbone of the team’s defense and a guy that every player on the roster respected and looked to when things got tough. Earlier this year, Will Barton had this to say of Millsap:

“Once we signed Paul I was like, oh it’s really gonna be on now. We got a guy who is used to winning. I feel like that was all we needed, that one piece that could calm us down and you could play through him, he’s unselfish. He just brings a lot to the table. Early in the season he was just always talking to us. ‘Hey we’re gonna win this game. Hey, let’s do this, let’s do that. He’s just vital.”

With reports that he will be sidelined for 3 months, the Denver Nuggets are instantly a worse team. The question for the Nuggets will be how do they respond to this adversity? Admittedly, this is a lot of adversity. This isn’t a hiccup or a bump in the road, this is a haymaker thrown out of nowhere that changes the dynamic of this team on both ends of the floor. But as we’ve seen with the Boston Celtics when they lost Gordon Hayward, great teams fight through obstacles, both big and small.

So how does Denver’s roster and identity change now that Millsap is out?

First off, this opens the door for three players: Kenneth Faried, Juancho Hernangomez, and Trey Lyles and it changes the role for a key piece of the roster in Wilson Chandler.

Kenneth Faried

At media day back in September, Kenneth Faried went out of his way to let everyone know that he sees himself as a starter. “I’ll put this out there for everybody to know, I am not a bench player. I’ve been saying that for the longest, I’m a starter. I love to hear the crowd, ‘hey starting at power forward, number 35, Kenneth Faried.’ Yes! That’s me.”

Faried will likely get his wish as he’s the player that best fits into the starting role. Him and Nikola Jokic have great chemistry together, logging the team’s best two-man Net Rating on their roster last season. When both Faried and Jokic were on the court last year, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions, according to pbpstats.com. Most of their dominance comes on the offensive end where the two led the way to a 125.5 ORTG, an absurdly efficient number that ranked among the best two-man marks in the NBA.

With Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Wilson Chandler spreading the floor, the Nuggets starting lineup should be able to get into a healthy offensive rhythm early most nights, especially at home where the high altitude and thin air plays to the advantage of a front court that likes to run and play up-tempo.

Juancho Hernangomez and Trey Lyles

With Faried likely starting, a void is opened up at backup power forward. So far this season, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has brought Mason Plumlee in off of the bench at the six-minute mark in the first quarter, replacing Jokic at center and then bringing Jokic back at the nine-minute mark to replace Millsap, sliding Plumlee to power forward.

That rotation is likely to change as Jokic will now probably play the first nine minutes of every game. Denver may also leave Plumlee on the bench a bit longer, electing instead to go to smallball lineups behind the starting group, replacing Faried with Juancho Hernangomez or Trey Lyles at power forward midway through the first quarter. This also means that Plumlee will play more minutes as the lone true “big” on the court, a move that will probably open up his game.

The tradeoff for these moves is that you sacrifice defense for offense. Through 17 games, Denver has climbed to become a league-average defensive team, a huge improvement considering where they ended last season. However, their half court offense has faltered a bit. Replacing Millsap with more stretch lineups will likely open up the offense at the risks of collapsing the defense.

Wilson Chandler

Wilson Chandler’s role on the Nuggets also changes with the Millsap injury. Chandler has struggled with his offensive game this season, in part because he’s played small forward exclusively. Chandler has never been an elite outside shooter. His game is much more built around getting to the rim off of the dribble against slower defenders, posting up smaller defenders, and playing the mismatch as a smallball power forward. He hasn’t had much opportunity to do that so far this season.

Chandler has even professed his love for smallball, telling Denver media “I love smallball” following a win at home last month in which he was moved to power forward in the key stretch of the game. The Nuggets will likely use Chandler, Hernangomez, and Lyles interchangeably as combo forwards in more smallball lineups, providing a whole new look.

Minutes for Hernangomez and Lyles may help the team figure out their young roster in the long-term but it will almost certainly cost them some wins in the short term, potentially keeping them out of the playoffs for the 5th straight season. And with Millsap set to return sometime around 3 months, that means Denver will be faced with the difficult task of re-integrating Millsap into their roster in the back half of the season.

It’s not a completely hopeless proposition but it’s certainly not ideal. The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, two teams vying for a playoff spot in the west, have also experienced major injuries already this season. The Nuggets can still make the playoffs but the young Nuggets roster has a lot of growing up to do in a short period of time. It’s both a setback and an opportunity for this young roster.