There are so many nuances of winning basketball that don’t get enough recognition. Talking on defense. Timing. Making every rotation. Setting solid screens. Moving the ball without needing loads of dribbles. Paul Millsap does all this and more.
Millsap has been able to keep the lowest profile of virtually any four-time All-Star due to never having the loud personality, highlights or volume scoring associated with most star players. When discussing players whose value isn’t appreciated by casual fans, Millsap is right up there. It’s all the little things — and, you know, defense — that made him a $90 million man last summer and make his return for the Denver Nuggets so important.
The Nuggets have improved a pinch (that may be overstating it) from 29th in defensive rating in 2016-17 to 26th this season, but a dearth of lockdown wing defenders, an abundance of small guards, and Nikola Jokic’s lack of rim protection and mobility at center aren’t exactly a recipe for success. There isn’t the personnel or Spurs-sharp rotations to make a good defense. It’s nothing one man can fix. But except for adding major size and rim protection with Anthony Davis or the NBA’s best defender, Draymond Green, you can’t do much better at power forward than Paul Millsap.
In his first game back from a lengthy injury absence, coming off the bench in a 122-120 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers (in which Denver blew a 19-point lead), Millsap looked really good for someone who had been out for three months. He was surprisingly quick on his feet, aggressive and unafraid of contact. It’s clear he stayed in good shape while recovering and didn’t play too soon. A near-instant return to the starting lineup in just his second game back against the Memphis Grizzlies certainly reaffirmed that.
We saw perfect examples of what Millsap can do. He settled in with a 23-minute performance which forged nine points, seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and two blocks. He hit cutters going to the basket, faced/posted up well as he always does, offered highly-tuned defensive timing and disruption, and did a little bit of everything.
Take a look at his two blocks in the following clip. Despite Tobias Harris getting a good first step on him, Millsap’s quick recovery, refusal to give up and vicious denial at the rim created the kind of play no other Nugget can make on a talented, 6-8 forward such as Harris:
The second rejection, this time on Lou Williams, is a great example of how Millsap can cover for the weaknesses of others, such as slow-footed center Mason Plumlee. Even though Plumlee has some bounce, his lateral quickness isn’t springy. Once Williams burst past him with ease, leaving a wide-open lane to the basket with three lost Denver defenders watching, Millsap timed his contest perfectly — he avoided shifting too early from the weak side to prompt Williams to pass back out. With Williams keeping the ball, Millsap then made the block right on time to create a sudden stop.
It goes without saying that Millsap’s reactions haven’t slowed a bit. Making athletic moves like this (particularly the block on Harris) is a good sign of the shape he’s in.
Things continued against the Grizzlies, when Millsap played 27 minutes as a starter. He snatched four steals and made a major impact, switching fluidly between each position and covering all areas of the floor, all while communicating constantly to get his teammates in the right spots.
Take this sequence from Millsap’s stellar third quarter:
As Gasol moved inside, Millsap gestured for Jamal Murray to switch onto Ivan Rabb (the lesser threat), preventing an ugly mismatch on the Nuggets’ guard on the low block. With Millsap in position, he proceeded to comfortably hold his own against Gasol and unsettle him with his dribble. Murray was then able to swoop back in and grab a steal.
Due to the Nuggets’ offense slipping after a building a hefty lead, it was Millsap’s commanding play on defense that once again helped them hang on in the final minute. Watch Millsap talk again as he called out the oncoming pick from Jarell Martin to help Will Barton stay in the play:
Millsap switched onto the ballhandler, Mario Chalmers, after the second screen came from Gasol but before attacking the ball. This forced Chalmers to pass. Millsap rounded out the defensive stop by diving into the paint for a rebound in traffic.
Defense has been the focus here because it’s the biggest part of Millsap’s value to this team. Offensively, some time will be needed (unfortunately, there isn’t much with 20-ish games left in the brutal West) to adjust, even after he recorded 15 points, seven rebounds and an assist in his 27 minutes. While Millsap is a terrific passer in his own right and his ability to face up and get to the line adds obvious value, the Nuggets’ offense wasn’t its fluid, Jokic-centered self against Memphis, when multiple 15-point leads dwindled.
His offensive skill set is highly well-rounded, and he’s far from selfish, with passing and good enough 3-point shooting to work off Jokic. Plus, you can’t reintegrate a major part of a team after 44 missed games like it’s nothing.
However, after a slower start to the season, Millsap started finding his rhythm alongside Jokic and Co. in November before his injury. Denver also went 7-3 through February and ranked second in offensive rating (116.8) in those 10 games. The Nuggets sit in sixth place in that regard for the season, so it’s safe to say they can score. With so much movement, shooting and talent, things should come together again soon enough.
What can be more immediately improved is the defense.
Millsap’s versatile strengths can cover for a lot of his team’s weaknesses; his communication and leadership should pull up those around him, too. There’s a different level of activity when he is in charge, calling out screens, executing timely switches, and alerting players of where they need to be.
Like former Atlanta Hawks teammate Al Horford, Millsap calmly goes about his job as the quarterback of a defense, ensuring he is always where he needs to be at just the right moment.
The Nuggets are only the eighth seed right now. With every team from the third to 10th spot between 33 and 38 wins, the playoff standings could go in so many directions. Some of the Nuggets’ offensive slips in recent games after building leads is an unwanted concern, but Millsap’s condition and instant defensive impact should give Nuggets fans a boost of excitement that he can spark a push in the West.
For this team, with a top offense and its healthy defensive anchor back in the lineup, finishing in the top eight should definitely be possible.