The Denver Nuggets are tied for 3rd in Defensive Rating this season, and Paul Millsap’s resurgence is the biggest reason why. Have Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray improved with their effort and focus? Sure. Has the bench play been fantastic defensively when the starters leave the floor? Absolutely. Still, the improved effort and scheme changes are symptoms of what Millsap provides the Nuggets on a daily basis as their best defensive player.

Some of Denver’s defensive improvement has stemmed from the scheme change of bringing Jokic higher in line with defending the pick and roll, but that change is useless without an excellent back line of defense. Millsap has provided that again and again.

Jokic has mostly done a good job this year of cutting off direct passes into the middle of the paint when he’s defending the pick and roll. Still, sometimes they get through, and Millsap has been there to clean up for him on a number of occasions.

His timing as a weak side rim protector is also exquisite. Offensive players very rarely see the power forward coming from the weak side. He’s good for about a block per game, but the timing of these rejections have been very important within Denver’s scheme.

He has even made a number of game-saving defensive plays. One in particular, defending Justin Holiday in a game Denver couldn’t give away on the road, was exceptional.

Millsap hasn’t just been a block artist though. His best skill on defense is his brain, paired with quick hands to get in passing lanes to make offenses look foolish. His ability to read and react quicker than anyone warrants heaps of praise. This play just isn’t fair to Moe Harkless and the Blazers.

Honestly, Millsap is kind of a bully, especially to inexperienced teams. His brain puts him in such great position that many of his steals come by planting himself firmly in the passing or driving lane. Most player use their length and intercept the pass with an outstretched arm. Millsap uses his whole body, and opposing teams are flummoxed with how he gets such great position.

The 1.4 steals per game aren’t a career high, but the 2.6 steal percentage is up there with his best work. Even at the tender age of 33, the wily vet is still flexing his defensive excellence on the opposition, and it has put him firmly in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

The question is, can he win the award?

The competition

The last five Defensive Player of the Year winners were Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard twice in a row, and Joakim Noah. On the season, those players’ team defenses ranked first, second, first, third, and second respectively. The award generally reflects the best defensive player on one of the top three defenses during that season.

Since team defense rankings will change over the course of the season, it’s prudent to account for all of the elite defensive teams today when trying to find the best candidates. Only the 11 teams with a 107.0 Defensive Rating or lower will have players considered. In addition, only starters will be considered, as they have the greatest effect on the game by playing the most minutes.

10t. Philadelphia 76ers – 106.8 Defensive Rating

Joel Embiid is always a candidate. With the center from Cameroon on the floor, the Sixers post a 101.1 D-Rating. With him off the floor, that number rises to 108.2.

10t. Dallas Mavericks – 106.8 Defensive Rating

No candidates here. Dallas’ defensive success is mostly bench driven.

9. Detroit Pistons – 106.4 Defensive Rating

No candidates here. Andre Drummond feels like he should be, but the Pistons are 5.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he sits on the bench.

8. Toronto Raptors – 106.3 Defensive Rating

Kawhi Leonard should be a candidate, even though the numbers don’t love him. He’s the best defensive player on the Raptors, though, and he will be added to the player pool.

7. Los Angeles Lakers – 106.1 Defensive Rating

JaVale McGee can be on the initial list. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who the catalyst is for the Lakers’ defensive improvements though. It’s not LeBron James. Lonzo Ball is excellent, but LA’s Defensive numbers with him on the floor are worse than when he leaves. Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma aren’t good defenders. That leaves JaVale.

6. Milwaukee Bucks – 106.0 Defensive Rating

With Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor, the Bucks have a 101.3 D-Rating. His length and athleticism impact passing lanes, he grabs the most rebounds, blocks some shots, and bothers even more. He may be the leader in the clubhouse.

5. Memphis Grizzlies – 104.8 Defensive Rating

Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have near identical D-Ratings to Giannis when each of them is on the floor. While the two of them are insulated by other solid defenders, this combo is the head of the snake. Gasol gets the nod as a DPOY candidate. He may be the best defensive center in the league.

3t. Denver Nuggets – 103.5 Defensive Rating

As previously mentioned, Millsap is the best candidate. Nikola Jokic has had a resurgent year, but he’s not on that level yet. What hurts Millsap most is probably the brilliance of Mason Plumlee this year, who’s captaining Denver’s bench defense and forming one of the best units defensively, hurting Millsap’s On/Off splits.

3t. Indiana Pacers – 103.5 Defensive Rating

The Pacers have two fringe candidates in Myles Turner and Victor Oladipo. Both are excellent, and while Indiana’s bench has also been excellent, Turner and Oladipo are part of some of the best defensive units in the NBA.

2. Boston Celtics – 103.1 Defensive Rating

All of Boston’s starters are worse defensively than their bench unit. Al Horford deserves similar attention as Paul Millsap though. He captain’s Boston’s defense and has the versatility to impact the entire defensive floor. He’s also Joel Embiid’s kryptonite.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder – 100.5 Defensive Rating

Oklahoma City has two candidates: Paul George and Steven Adams. George has been an absolute monster impacting all three levels defensively, while Adams is the anchor of the best defensive team in the NBA. Both have a claim.

In addition, three other players that are excelling individually but don’t have the team impact needed to compete for the award:

  • Anthony Davis – New Orleans Pelicans
  • Robert Covington – Philadelphia 76ers/Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz

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Above are the Defensive Rating On/Off splits for all 14 candidates. It’s difficult to take too much from the splits early in the season, but the importance of Joel Embiid, Robert Covington, Anthony Davis, and Rudy Gobert are clear as day. Giannis and Marc Gasol also shine through.

Interestingly, Millsap seems to fall into the tier of players in Al Horford and Kawhi Leonard who are clearly exceptional yet overshadowed by capable bench defenses. The Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, and Denver Nuggets have three of the top five bench defenses in the NBA. Does that weaken their claim for Defensive Player of the Year? Possibly.

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NBA catch-all metrics don’t favor Millsap in comparison to other top candidates though. While the DRPM (via ESPN) is a solid mark, Millsap falls behind in two other catch-all marks: Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (via BBall Index) and Defensive Points Saved (via NBA Math). Based on both the ratings above and how teams perform when these players are on the floor, six players truly stand out:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Marc Gasol
  • Myles Turner
  • Anthony Davis
  • Robert Covington
  • Rudy Gobert

If I had a vote right now, Giannis would be my Defensive Player of the Year.

That being said, I believe in Paul Millsap as a fringe Defensive Player of the Year candidate. On film, he impacts the Nuggets’ starters in a way that allows the unit to be aggressive at the point of attack. They know that Millsap will cover for them if a mistake is made, which allows the entire unit to play with more confidence. Individually, Millsap’s defense on players like LeBron James, Karl-Anthony Towns, and switching onto smaller guards late in the clock has been impressive as well.

As the season wears on, it will be interesting to monitor how the numbers above change. Part of the reason Millsap’s defensive metrics are lower than others is the impressive defensive performance from Denver’s bench unit. Will that continue throughout the season? Time will tell. Either way, Denver has an All-NBA caliber defender on their hands in Paul Millsap. He has helped change Denver’s culture to play defense for 48 minutes every game, and he may have a case for DPOY given where Denver was last season alone.

Where the Nuggets would be without Paul Millsap this season is a dark thought. He’s been everything they’ve needed and more.

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