Last season, the key to Denver’s successful jump in the standings was the trio of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Paul Millsap.
While Jokic and Murray generally received the fanfare as the primary initiators and scorers offensively, Millsap held a major role as the glue holding many units together, including the starters. In the 1,259 regular minutes with all three on the court last year, the Nuggets cobbled together a +7.2 Net Rating. In the playoffs, that rose to a +10.8 Net Rating in 372 minutes. As soon as Millsap left the floor though, Denver dropped to a -10.0 Net Rating, even with Jokic and Murray on the floor. That’s a full 20 points per 100 possessions of difference, even with Denver’s two most important players on the floor.
There are a lot of numbers that relay Millsap’s underlying value to Denver’s team functionality, but none more so than Michael Malone’s unwavering confidence in the 34-year-old power forward as he steps on the floor for another year. Even with the addition of former Oklahoma City Thunder starting power forward Jerami Grant, Malone named four guaranteed starters as the team heads into a new season: Murray, Jokic, Gary Harris, and Millsap.
It’s no secret Millsap is getting older though. During the 2018-19 regular season, Millsap averaged 27.1 minutes per game, consistently sitting between 23 and 28 minutes from month to month, save for March when Millsap eclipsed 31 minutes per game. This was unsurprising, as the Nuggets lost backup power forward Trey Lyles in early 2019 and never replaced him with a traditional power forward backup. Often, Mason Plumlee would slide into that position when playing next to Jokic or Torrey Craig would shift from small forward to power forward instead. Still, the Nuggets wanted to make an effort to reduce Millsap’s overall regular season burden. The last time Millsap played under 30 minutes per game was a decade ago, and during the 2018-19 season, his Usage and Assist rates on offense dropped to similar thresholds when Millsap was first coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.
It certainly feels like this trend of asking less and less from Millsap during the regular season will continue in an effort to preserve Millsap throughout the season. The Nuggets now have the luxury to treat Millsap’s minutes with the utmost sensitivity throughout the year. Jerami Grant is a solid player, ready to contribute wherever he can. Malone notably did not mention Grant when discussing candidates for the starting small forward position, meaning he plans for Grant to spend significant time at power forward instead. Is it possible that Malone’s plan is to rest Millsap more frequently throughout the year, effectively allowing Grant to start roughly 25% of games this year and play heavy minutes throughout? I’d expect that to be the plan.
The magical cutoff for many quality players to stop starting games begins in their mid-thirties. Only 21 players that are at least 35 years old played NBA games last season. Among those players, only three guys averaged over 20 minutes per game: JJ Redick, Dwyane Wade, and Andre Iguodala. Wade retired last year, while Redick and Iguodala have made mention that this upcoming season could be their last. Millsap is approaching that point, and while he’s far closer to the above group of contributing players than he is to the other veterans who played last year, it’s no longer something that can be ignored for Denver’s future.
But the playoffs are a different animal entirely. The three listed vets above, especially Iguodala, have shown time and time again that they could contribute to a championship caliber team as long as the minutes were managed properly. The Golden State Warriors rarely asked for anything from Iguodala during the regular season the last several years, but every playoff season, Iguodala proved he was still was capable of high level play.
This is the year the Nuggets start focusing on playoff preparation from the outset, as Malone discussed at media day. I was surprised to not hear Millsap coming off the bench being discussed if the goal is to truly manage his workload. When a bench player is in and out of the lineup, only one spot of the rotation is disrupted regularly. When a starter regularly sits, his backup fills in as the starter AND the bench rotation is altered. Grant feels like the ideal player to slot into the starting lineup in this case, but it’s possible that Malone was unwilling to modify a starting group that works so well already.
Either way, Millsap remains a good player, a quality starter for a Nuggets team desperately in need of the stability he offers on both ends of the floor. During the playoffs, the Nuggets often turned to Millsap for offense in moments of need when Murray and Jokic were either sitting or needed a different course of action. At times, Millsap stepped up and filled that void well. At other times, Denver could have used more. The hope with the addition of Grant is that Denver both has an additional option at power forward and can spare Millsap some extra wear and tear of a long season. The NBA calendar is an exhausting one, and if Denver can help Millsap get to the playoffs at full health and effectiveness, that’s part of their window to advancing deeper in the playoffs than they did last year.
Time will tell this season, and for Millsap, the sage veteran of this Nuggets team, time is certainly ticking.