It was a cloudy night in Portland on November 30th, 2018. The Denver Nuggets, who were coming off of an impressive win against the Los Angeles Lakers on national TV three days prior, found themselves in a dogfight with the Portland Trail Blazers in one of the most intense matchups of the season. The Nuggets were up late and edged out a win, but what pushed them over the top wasn’t a Jamal Murray flurry of baskets or Nikola Jokic playmaking mastery. It was Paul Millsap’s veteran leadership and poise.

“[Millsap] said if we’re gonna be a playoff team it’s time to show everybody. For him to open his mouth like that it shocked a lot of people,” Gary Harris said post game via the Associated Press. “That was big and it got us over the hump. He’s our vet. He’s our leader.”

Every now and then this season, Millsap has flashed the scoring dominance and two-way excellence of his prime seasons with the Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks. A 25-point performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves while frustrating Karl-Anthony Towns in a two point victory comes to mind, as does his 33 points versus the Dallas Mavericks in a one-point win. The vast majority of Millsap’s games have been understated though. On a team where the stardom of Jokic and the scoring potential of Murray are often visceral, Millsap’s impact is below the surface, doing the dirty work on every possession and felt both everywhere and nowhere.

Make no mistake about it, Paul Millsap is the player that transformed the Nuggets from good to extraordinary.

Scoring reconfiguration

Millsap’s 3-year, $90 million contract seemed rich for a player his age but with the third year serving as a team option combined with Denver’s paltry history of attracting major free agents, the signing was deemed a clear win by most.

But seemingly as quickly as the Nuggets added Millsap, they lost him to injury — a torn ligament in his wrist versus the Lakers in mid-November of his first season. Millsap missed 44 straight games and only played in 38 total, 16 before the wrist injury and 22 after. Between those two stretches, the Nuggets transformed into Nikola Jokic’s team. From the first game without Millsap through the end of the 2017-18 season, Jokic averaged 19.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 6.5 assists on 49.9% shooting from the field and 39.2% from behind the three-point line. This included time when Millsap returned from injury, but with added protection to his wrist and little flexibility and strength, Millsap struggled to make a consistent impact offensively.

Fast forward to 2018-19, and any questions about Millsap’s offensive skill set have been answered. His overall scoring is down from 14.6 points per game in 2017-18 to 12.8 per game in 2018-19, but his efficiency is up. More importantly, he looks more comfortable. The Nuggets starting power forward has used a slightly reduced offensive role to produce his most efficient scoring season since 2010-11.

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The three biggest improvements for Millsap’s scoring this season have come in three key areas: post ups, spot ups, and cuts to the basket.

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Millsap has been picking his spots to post-up, showing off his trademark footwork that would make Kevin McHale proud.

With so many cuts, passes, and actions in Denver’s offense, mismatch opportunities often lead to Millsap on a wing in or around the paint. Millsap’s touch has returned to him this year, and he’s making the most of it.

In addition, Millsap’s three-point shooting has improved as he’s been able to be more selective with his shots. He’s shooting 36.2% from behind the arc this season, his highest mark since 2010-11. 100% of his makes have been assisted this season, generally off of the drive and kick from a guard, passing out of the post from Jokic, or ball rotation on the perimeter.

The only play type where Millsap has had significantly more scoring opportunities this season is off of cuts. So much of Denver’s offense is built on the playmaking prowess of Jokic so Millsap has learned how to be active playing off of him. When performed correctly, cuts are a great way to boost the overall efficiency of a player’s scoring profile, and Millsap is a great example. Some of these buckets are easy money.

Defensive Ace

More importantly for the Nuggets though is Millsap’s ability to transform the defense. When the Nuggets signed the power forward away from the Atlanta Hawks, they craved his experience and intuition on the defensive end, envisioning him as the captain of a resurgent defense that finished 29th in the NBA the year before. While that vision was lost last season in the face of injuries, Millsap began to show his full impact this season, even at 34 years old.

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The Nuggets have slowly transitioned from an incompetent collection of defenders to a competent team defense behind Millsap who has remained as vesatile defensively as ever, posting a 2.3% steal rate, a 2.7% block rate, and a 20.2% defensive rebounding rate. The only players in the NBA to match or exceed those averages (minimum 1,000 minutes) are:

  • Paul Millsap
  • Anthony Davis
  • Andre Drummond
  • Larry Nance
  • Dewayne Dedmon
  • Draymond Green

Four defensive positives who have spent most of their minutes at center and a potential All-Defensive team member in Draymond Green. Oh, and Millsap, who deserves a spot in that convesation as well.

Millsap’s hands in passing lanes remain unbelievably sound. When defenses run pick and roll in his direction, Millsap heads off the action extremely well, cutting down angles and forcing offensive players to settle for low probability scoring and passing windows. When Millsap is off the ball, he uses excellent timing and feel to rotate on the back side of the play, sometimes poking the ball away for steals or coming up with an excellent weak side block.

The Nuggets starting power forward has made these plays consistently, using a blue collar mentality to put himself in position to impact the game every single possession he’s on the floor. Sometimes, teams attack Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray or Will Barton exclusively, and there’s little Millsap can do to get involved. Despite that, he stretches the boundaries of what he can accomplish as a help side defender, and the results are clear as day. The Nuggets currently sit at 10th in Defensive Rating, and fans should continue appreciating Millsap as the impetus behind that change.

Total Impact

Add in Millsap’s value on both ends of the floor, sprinkle in some leadership and experience to guide the team, and you get one of the most impactful players in the NBA. I saved the advanced metrics and plus-minus numbers for last, largely because they are the most impressive.

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While many Nuggets fans see Murray as Denver’s second best player, Millsap’s consistency on both ends wins out in the advanced metrics. If he’s not the second best player, he’s certainly the second most important player. This can be confirmed by Denver’s Net Ratings by rotation player this season:

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Millsap’s impact is a direct mirror to the dearth of options the Nuggets have at power forward behind him. For as many power forwards as the Nuggets have drafted, signed, and traded for over the years, it seems that Millsap is the only one with serious trust from Michael Malone. He has clearly earned it. When Millsap is on the floor, the Nuggets post a Net Rating of +9.0 points per 100 possessions, aided by the best offensive rating and fourth best defensive rating among rotation players.

The Nuggets have no options behind Millsap as a true power forward. The skills of Murray, the two-way play of Harris, and the playmaking of Barton are less valuable comparably for the Nuggets because of the presence of Monte Morris and Malik Beasley waiting in the wings. It’s arguable that those two are better than the starters at times. Millsap has no such luxury behind him, only the veteran skills and savvy to aid him through Denver’s first playoffs in over half a decade.

What’s more, Millsap’s positive impact directly ties to Nuggets wins. During the 2018-19 season, Millsap has posted a positive single game plus-minus in 40 of the 62 games he has played. During those 40 games, the Nuggets are 39-1. When the starters are clicking, the Nuggets generally win, and Millsap is a major reason why. Nikola Jokic may be the conductor of the symphony, but Millsap is sitting in first chair, providing the oomph necessary to get the job done every single night.

For a long time, Nuggets fans wondered if Paul Millsap would ever justify the contract he signed during the 2017 offseason. It was a fair point after last season, as it’s hard to justify such a sum with a suit on for the majority of the year. Despite that, Millsap has made up for any missed time in full. Last night is the perfect example. Millsap only attempted 10 shots and scored just 10 points, but add in 13 rebounds, 5 assists, a block, a steal, and held Blake Griffin to 12/32 from the field.

It’s hard to imagine the Nuggets would have eclipsed 50 games without Millsap this season, especially this early in the yea. They can get volume scoring from almost any position on the floor, even from Millsap’s backup, Trey Lyles. That said, volume scoring has proven to be a bit overrated, especially in the Nuggets’ offense. At times, it’s best to just fit in, be part of one of the best teams in the NBA rather than the driving force.

Most Nuggets fans will remember this season from Millsap as just a cog in the machine, but he has truly been so much more. His scoring reconfiguration has helped the defensive skills shine, and the resulting impact is one of the most valuable players in the NBA.

Now, the Nuggets just need a dose of Millsap leadership to complete the job.