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Reviewing the 2019-20 season of Paul Millsap
As part of Denver Stiffs’ transition from Denver Nuggets postseason coverage to offseason coverage, staff members will be conducting End of Season Reviews for all 17 players on the roster. There will continue to be news, NBA draft, free agency, and trade articles, but over the next three weeks, an accompanying End of Season review (or two) will also post every week day.
Today’s review: Paul Millsap.
The 2017 offseason marked an evolutionary period for the Denver Nuggets. Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried were still on the roster. The team failed to add OG Anunoby in the 2017 NBA Draft despite attempting to do so (and in the process missing on Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo).
With the Nuggets appearing to be a team on the rise, they needed to get 2017 free agency right. So, they committed a three year, $90 million contract to former Atlanta Hawks power forward Paul Millsap. Over the past two seasons, Millsap dealt with injuries but was massively impactful in helping the Nuggets transform from a young, offensive minded team to a well-rounded organization.
This year, Millsap’s impact was more of the same…at least until the bubble where everything changed.
When Nikola Jokić struggled to find his form at the beginning of the year and the Nuggets needed someone to step up, it was Millsap (and Will Barton) who led the charge. Through December 3rd of this past year, the day Jokić stated publicly he was in a slump, Millsap was averaging 13.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and shooting 50% from three-point range. Though Denver’s offense wasn’t performing at a high level, Millsap was. He hit just enough shots on the offensive end while captaining the defensive efforts in order to keep Denver in the driver’s seat throughout the season.
Unfortunately, Millsap started dealing with nagging injuries just a couple weeks later, missing two back-to-backs against bad teams in December (Denver went 4-0 in those games). Millsap’s production and efficiency understandably dropped during this time, and he then sat out 16 games in a row for nearly the entirety of January and into February with a left knee injury. Denver gave him as much time as he needed to recover fully, and when he returned, he gave the Nuggets another lift on both sides of the ball.
When the Nuggets entered the bubble though, things began to change. Millsap’s effectiveness began to diminish from game to game when faced with playoff teams that had an elite floor spacing power forward. Against the Utah Jazz in the first round, Millsap failed to accumulate a positive plus-minus in any of the seven games. Against the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, Millsap’s overall level impact was a lot higher with seven of the 12 games spent as a positive plus-minus contributor as his defense became more prevalent. There were tradeoffs though — against the Lakers, Millsap shot 26.7% from the field and 25% from three-point range in Denver’s 4-1 series loss.
Things began to fall apart without warning for Millsap in the playoffs, and the Nuggets, though they had Jerami Grant ready to step into a larger role, still felt ill-prepared to operate without Millsap at times. Rookie Michael Porter Jr. had his moments, but without Will Barton in the bubble and with Gary Harris struggling, Millsap’s decline was felt heavily at times. This will leave a sour taste after three years of excellent complementary play and a high level of impact in a Nuggets uniform, especially if it’s for the last time.
Season Grade: B
Millsap’s baseline for impact for years has always been high. There were signs of aging and decline at different points, but for the most part, Millsap was the same as he has always been in 2019-20. His role for the Nuggets as the elder statesman on the floor has been to make sure the Nuggets are always trending in the right direction and doing the things they need to do to win. So much of that impact and role is also felt off the floor, and it’s notable that the Nuggets reached the Western Conference Finals by displaying the grit and resilience that Millsap has always been known for.
For that reason, Millsap gets a ‘B’ level grade. Despite the individual declines and a disappointing playoffs overall, Millsap did everything he was asked to do at various moments throughout the year and helped push Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Jerami Grant in the right direction. He set the standard for hard work, playing the game the right way, and allowed for his mild personality to impact the Nuggets in the best way possible. It’s unlikely that the Nuggets come back from down 3-1 twice in the playoffs without Millsap’s even-keeled nature. He contributed to various playoff wins, defended Anthony Davis better than anyone in the playoffs, and stayed the course despite some individual struggles.
Season Highlight: Game 5 versus Los Angeles Clippers
I hope Marcus Morris feels bad that he ruined LA’s season by trying to punk Paul Millsap.
For the entire playoff series, Morris ran an extremely foul mouth, and after taking an(other) elbow to the chops in Game 5 with the Nuggets down 3-1, Millsap was fed up. In the third quarter, he played like a man possessed on both ends, drawing fouls, hitting shots at the rim, and hitting threes as well. His 17 points were the difference in Game 5 and gave the Nuggets the burst of energy they needed to complete the comeback in the games that followed.
What’s next for Paul Millsap
As Jokić and Murray have blossomed into stars, their strengths and weaknesses have shown that length, athleticism, and perimeter shooting have become the most important tenets of supporting cast members for the best possible version of the Denver Nuggets going forward. It appears that Denver has found two quality candidates there in Porter and Grant, with Porter showcasing the potential to become more than just a supporting player.
It appears that Millsap’s days as a starter in Denver are probably done, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t return in a valuable bench role. He still has a skill set that the Nuggets value as a big man defender who can operate in the pick and pop offensively. With Mason Plumlee also hitting free agency, the Nuggets may very well want to keep Millsap around as a backup power forward or center.
But ultimately, this chapter of Millsap’s career is entirely up to the 35-year-old himself. Millsap ranks 184th all-time with 28,961 regular season minutes played and 125th all-time with 3,435 playoff minutes played. The man has played an absolutely full and heavily accomplished career, and nobody should be surprised if he decides he wants to retire. The one thing he hasn’t found is a championship ring though, and if he still has that competitive drive to win it all, don’t be surprised if he decides to lace it up at least one more time, whether it be in Denver or elsewhere.
Whatever Millsap decides, let this serve as more of a Millsap appreciation post than anything else. He has meant the world to the rise of the Denver Nuggets and helped Michael Malone and the rest of the organization establish a level of respectability they didn’t previously have. Many have questioned the contract he was signed to, but what Millsap has done for the organization is worth more than a max contact. He helped set up the Nuggets for championship contention for years to come.