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Projecting Paul Millsap’s impact on the 2017-18 Nuggets

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The Nuggets have their starting power forward of the present. What will his numbers look like?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Rejoice, Nuggets Nation. Tim Connelly has closed his first major deal as the President of Basketball Operations, setting out to make a big splash and re-routing Paul Millsap to the city of Denver. There are very few names Denver could acquire that would make a bigger two to three-year impact than the former Atlanta Hawks power forward, but Denver got one of the best on the market.

Millsap may be the biggest free agent signing the Denver Nuggets have ever had. As a two-way power forward, his fit next to Nikola Jokic has been well documented. The Nuggets had a great offense last year, top 5 in fact, but struggled defensively after removing Jusuf Nurkic from the rotation. Millsap will help mitigate those struggles while not being an anchor offensively.

The Nuggets can feel confident about the fit between Jokic and Millsap for a variety of reasons. The first is Millsap’s numbers throughout his career. At the power forward position, Millsap has averaged no less than 1.3 steals per game ever since he became a full-time starter in the NBA. Nobody on the Nuggets has ever averaged more than 1.3 steals in their career, with Gary Harris doing so in 2015-16 and Jameer Nelson accomplishing it once during his prime in Orlando. Millsap is an intelligent and heady defender, making the correct read defensively on countless occasions. The Atlanta Hawks have ranked among the NBA’s elite in defensive efficiency during the last three seasons, with much of the credit going to Millsap as a floor captain.

The second reason is how Millsap played both with and without big man Al Horford during his days in Atlanta. Here are Millsap’s averages playing with the Nikola Jokic look-alike in Atlanta:

3-year average Minutes Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Field Goal % 3-Point %
13-14 to 15-16 33.0 17.2 8.5 3.2 1.8 1.3 46.9 34.4

Horford sustained a season-ending injury about one-third of the way through the 2013-14 season, but when those two were on the floor for this three-year stretch, the Hawks were dominant. They won 60 games together during 2014-15 with Kyle Korver as the third offensive threat, and the Hawks dominated other teams due to the smart, heady two-way play of their bigs.

The Nuggets can create that chemistry between Millsap and Jokic. While Jokic is less defensive-minded than Horford, he’s more gifted as a rebounder on both ends and a creator on offense. Millsap was forced to shoulder much of the creation in Atlanta, and his efficiency took a small hit because of it. With Jokic as the main creator of offense in Denver, it’s possible, even likely, that Millsap receives a statistical renaissance. He has so much less responsibility in Denver to be “the guy” because “the guy” is Jokic.

Millsap should settle back into a role that he’s comfortable with on both ends, becoming a secondary creator and finisher on offense and the defensive captain on defense. Much like the Dallas Mavericks and Tyson Chandler, Millsap should give Denver’s “Dirk Nowitzki” in Jokic a huge lift on both ends.

He should also help elevate guys like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray to an even higher level. Harris is an excellent cutter, spot-up shooter, and continues to get better coming off of screens and off the dribble. Murray is an excellent creator in isolation situations and as a cutter, but he needs help in the pick and roll. Millsap’s gravity at all three levels will warrant the attention of all defenders, stretching the defense even further from guys like Jokic, Harris, and Murray. Wilson Chandler would also do well next to Millsap. Both guys can switch at the forward positions and make defensive battles easier for each other, while Chandler has improved as a cutter and off-ball mover in the Jokic-offense.

Overall, I see Millsap putting up similar numbers to which he put up in Atlanta while with Al Horford. He averaged 8.3 win shares during those three seasons, and a similar campaign should be expected from him individually. On the whole though? Buy stock in Jokic (duh), but also Harris, Murray, and Chandler. All three of those guys should be positively affected statistically by the addition of Millsap. They combined for 9.4 win shares during the 2016-17 season, per Basketball Reference, and it wouldn’t surprise me if those numbers doubled when paired with Jokic and Millsap. If Jokic hits 12 win shares and Millsap hits 8, a starting group that hits 40 combined win shares bodes extremely well for team success.

Paul Millsap projected per game stats for 2017-18: 32.0 minutes, 17.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks, 0.480 FG%, 0.350 3P%, 8.0 win shares