Grades: Paul Millsap Is The Star Denver Has Long Been Chasing

Monday July 3rd, 2017

The Denver Nuggets have spent the last few years star-gazing. When Dwyane Wade started exploring his options outside Miami, Denver made sure its interest was known. When Cleveland and Indiana started kicking around potential Paul George deals, the Nuggets came up as a possible landing spot for Kevin Love. Every disgruntled or expendable star in between seemed to catch an association to Denver purely on the basis of logistics; the Nuggets have more interesting prospects than they can realistically develop, making them a sensible candidate for any trade of consolidation.

Yet when it came down to it, the Nuggets made their big play not by redeeming those young players via trade, but by taking advantage of their small salaries to sign an All-Star free agent. Paul Millsap—after agreeing to a three-year, $90 million contract—will be a Nugget. 

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As veterans go, the fit makes perfect sense. Nikola Jokic is the crux of all that Denver is planning and you’d be hard-pressed to find a power forward whose skill set is a better fit alongside him. Millsap is an off-ball natural who contributes constantly without demanding touches. His off-ball screens occupy defenders on the weak side of the floor. His cuts come just after an opponent has diverted their attention, a dangerous weapon in Jokic’s orbit. Denver is positioning itself as a smart, balanced, read-and-react team. The chain reaction cutting and passing from Jokic to Millsap to players like Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler and Jamal Murray should prove impossible to predict and challenging to stop.

The kicker is a reported team option in the third year of Millsap’s deal. The worst that could be said of this contract was that it would carry an undersized big all the way through his age-35 season. We’ve already seen some statistical indication of Millsap’s decline—rebounding rate, shooting percentages, etc.—beyond the observable evidence that he wasn’t quite his best self last season. Yet even that lesser Millsap is a star. Any big who can defend so many positions and areas, fit into such a wide variety of play actions, and produce so soundly across the board is tremendously valuable. It just has to be acknowledged that Millsap’s best year as a Nugget will likely be his first, through little fault of his own. A relatively short deal coupled with team control in the final season means that the Nuggets are fully protected. Denver gets the best of both worlds: a contract long enough so that it can make the most of Millsap’s tenure, but with the kind of control and limited frame that could prevent any steep decline. 

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What a get. Millsap is the rare sort of player who improves on what the Nuggets did well and did poorly. Need to sharpen the teeth of the defense? Add an intuitive big with some of the best hands in the league. Turn the ball over a bit too often? Land a secondary playmaker whose movement creates both open looks and helpful diversions. Trouble maintaining consistent coverage on the perimeter? Pick up one of the most switchable bigs—and most reliable help defenders—out there. Millsap became a star when the Hawks leaned into his flexibility. Now the Nuggets have paid a premium for it, understanding full well what Millsap’s rising tide does for every damn boat at harbor. It’s not only Jokic that benefits. It’s every player coordinating with Millsap in a pick-and-roll, every point guard whose burden just lessened, and every shooter who might benefit from one of his passes.

Signing Millsap adds to some of Denver’s roster imbalance, but a move like this cannot be stopped on account of Kenneth Faried or Trey Lyles. Denver can figure out who among last year’s power forwards it wants to bring back (the only real lock seems to be Juan Hernangomez) and whether it makes sense to re-sign Mason Plumlee. The biggest actual loss was the release of Danilo Gallinari’s cap hold, the team’s most realistic means of retaining him. The Nuggets move on because—nothing againat Gallo—Millsap is the better player with the less redundant game. Gallinari will find a happy new home and Millsap steps in to usher the Nuggets toward their next step.

The West is going to be a bloodbath this season. By adding Millsap to a high-upside core, Denver has ensured a place in the scrum with a fighting chance.

Grade: A

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