The discussion revolving around Paul Millsap and how he will be able to impact the Denver Nuggets’ already explosive offense involves an interesting quandary.
On one hand, Denver led the entire league in offensive efficiency once Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris re-entered the starting unit on December 15th of last year. So, realistically, how much better can the offense become? Even with the loss of Danilo Gallinari, it is hard for some to build an argument that Millsap could improve on the freakish-efficiency that the Nuggets offense was able to showcase.
This article will preach quite the opposite.
Thanks to Millsap’s vastly understated playmaking ability, elite-level basketball IQ, and former understanding of how to play within a selfless and ball-movement-oriented offensive system it seems that Millsap can take this Nuggets’ offense to unimaginable heights largely from his production as a facilitator.
“I think part of the allure of Paul Millsap is that he fits into how we play, especially offensively,” Malone said at his introductory press conference. “We feel that with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap we have the most talented, most unselfish, best playmaking front court in the NBA.”
Millsap may be one of the most underrated passers in the game. The statistics back that up. His assist percentage, 17.2, was higher than that of Devin Booker and Bradley Beal while being just three-tenths of a percentage point behind C.J. McCollum. Millsap also contributed 7.2 potential assists per game, which put him above Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward and Paul George, all of whom had significantly higher usage rates.
For Millsap to rack up assists at the rate he does is spectacular and he does so in virtually every way possible. Whether he is working on the perimeter, in the low or high post, in transition, or any other way; Millsap possesses the creativity, vision, and touch to make plays for his teammates at any point in time.
Millsap will step into the Nuggets’ offense like a missing puzzle piece and is an ideal complement to Jokic in the front court, because of that passing ability.
Nuggets’ newly minted General Manager, Arturas Karnisovas, has high hopes for the combination of Millsap and Jokic in the front court and for very good reason. Millsap’s skill set and strengths are an ideal match to fit into the Nuggets’ offensive philosophy. Millsap, while not as gifted, creative or flashy, is able to distribute from the high or low post in largely the same way as Jokic.
“With our offense, which is elbow offense, with Nikola and Paul handling the ball and how good of passers they are,” Karnisovas explained. “I think it is easy.”
When watching plays like the one below it is nearly impossible not to agree with him. This Nuggets team, with Millsap in the fold, is going to make the offense look easy.
When watching the play above its easy to see Millsap’s awareness. Ty Lawson stunts down to provide help defense which tips off Millsap that there is an open teammate somewhere. That read changes Millsap’s perspective and puts him into distribution mode. After the Hawks motion Kyle Korver from the corner to the far wing and Dwight Howard takes a step out of the paint is when Kent Bazemore makes his move and splits the defense cutting off-ball and receives a perfect drop pass from Millsap.
Now watch that play again and imagine how much more space there would be if you replace Howard with Jokic and Schröder with Murray. The spacing and playmaking of Millsap being inserted into the Nuggets starting five will exponentially increase the open looks that Denver will have.
Millsap isn’t just able to hit open players with pinpoint passes but can even use his passing acumen to pass players into open shots. The clip below is a perfect example of that situation.
The second Millsap receives the pass he whips his head around to survey the court. He notices that John Wall is ball-watching while Tim Hardaway Jr., who Wall is supposed to be defending, is already making eye contact with Millsap. After a simple pass fake, Millsap gets Wall to bite to his left and then hits a streaking Hardaway for an easy layup floater. What separates this pass from others is that Millsap distinctly got the ball to Hardaway’s outside shoulder to get Hardaway to slow down his cut and allowing him to take an uncontested floater and not a layup among the trees.
Now imagine it is Harris or Murray taking advantage of Wall and cutting to the rim. Not only are both plenty talented to score at the rim but both would have the awareness and vision to kick it back out to the corner to get a wide open look for three and send the defense scrambling. Denver’s offensive unselfishness combined with Millsap’s intelligent passing will lead to countless open looks.
Millsap isn’t just able to hit cutting teammates from the post either. His vision finding open shooters and being able to pass with velocity and accuracy to get the ball into the shooters hands cleanly is drastically understated.
Adding Millsap’s playmaking out of the post is going to be a lethal weapon. The spacing allowed with Jokic on the floor and playing with five shooters, including Millsap, is going to allow his playmaking shine brighter than it ever has while taking significant amounts of playmaking pressure off of the shoulders of Jokic, Murray, and Jameer Nelson.
“Jamal, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler. I think everyone is going to benefit from having a guy like Paul.,” Malone explained. “We were second in the league in assists per game last year and there is a chance that we could even improve on that with a guy like Paul in the mix.”
BEING A SECONDARY CREATOR
Jokic being the focal point of the offense provides Millsap the ability to be a secondary creator more often and further show off his vision and elite basketball IQ that make his passing so impactful.
Not to get too carried away here, but watching film of Millsap’s passing makes you occasionally wonder if he has a sixth sense or some other supernatural ability. He can be anywhere on the court and know where everyone is around him at all times. It is almost like he “feels” the court as opposed seeing it in the same way bats use sonar to “feel” what is around them. Just look at this ridiculous pass Millsap makes as he is falling out of bounds.
That level of “feel” is not coachable and only innately understood. It is like Millsap’s version of his “spider-senses” giving him an intangible edge as a distributor.
Millsap is able to use that extraordinary feel and passing creativity in half-court offensive sets as he does in the clip below.
Look at how Millsap sets the screen for a pick and roll with Dennis Schröder. Once he rolls to the rim looking to receive the pass he never actually looks into the corner but he faithfully throws a jump pass to Korver while double covered. Millsap did not need to see Korver in the corner. He already felt he was there based on the spacing of the play.
Millsap doesn’t just find open shooters either. He works them open whether on or off the ball. Look below as he comes down the court in transition at the bottom of the video.
He notices that Korver is open in the corner but cuts into the paint calling for the ball. This collapses the defense onto him as he kicks the ball back out to Korver in the corner, who hits the three. That cut into the middle of the floor was to ensure that there was not a defender able to close out on Korver’s shot by understanding his own on-court gravity.
With the unselfishness nature that Denver plays, there will be even more opportunities like the one above for Millsap. Because of his elite intelligence, there will be even more open three-pointers for the likes of Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, and Murray coming off of passes from Millsap.
That level of understanding relieves an unbelievable amount of pressure from the other playmakers on the floor. Being able to run any offensive set with Millsap and know that, even if he fails to get a good look at a shot, that the ball will still continue to whip around the court is a fantastic safety net to have in the back pocket.
Millsap’s ability to create off of secondary actions will stoke the Nuggets offensive fire to an even hotter blaze.
Millsap’s above average handles, shooting ability, and vision gives him validity as a playmaker beyond the three-point line. He always makes the right decision by using patience and, as I have stated many times, his elite basketball IQ.
That makes Millsap a threat to rise up and hit a three-pointer if not defended tightly enough, to use his handles to attack a closeout that is too overzealous, and the passing ability to slice defenses to pieces by finding teammates on the move with a live dribble.
Look at what happens when Millsap gets a good look at a three-pointer at the top of the key. Teams know that he is a good enough shooter that you have to close out hard on him or the shot is likely to fall. Millsap knows this and allows Dario Saric to leave his feet before putting the ball on the floor. Being that Millsap has a full step on Saric and is heading straight to the rim means that Robert Covington has to help down to slow Millsap’s move towards the rim. Unlucky for Covington, Millsap already knew this was going to happen and easily finds Korver for an open three in the corner.
Millsap is a master manipulator and is able to see the repercussions of each action he makes prior to the event occurring. That level of awareness allows him to bend defenses even without being an elite shooter.
Below, Millsap uses one dribble to send the defense flying and get Thabo Sefolosha a good look at a three-pointer. The impact Millsap is able to produce with that one singular dribble is because of how many separate ways he can hurt opposing defenses.
Between the time that Millsap receives the pass and swings the ball to Sefolosha, he is able to get two defenders scrambling to defend three separate Hawks players. Those small nuances of understanding how to create advantages in the half court are going to be invaluable to a young Nuggets core that may get sped up from time to time.
Regardless what situation Millsap is presented with he will always be able to find his open teammate and get the ball to him. Adding Millsap’s playmaking to the Nuggets already pass-happy and unselfish offense will seemingly make scoring, as Karnisovas so perfectly explained, easy.
While Millsap may not have blazing speed from baseline to baseline it is his understanding of pace and forethought to push the ball forward in transition by passing ahead quickly and decisively that allows him to play with a fast pace.
Millsap’s first thought in transition is to pass ahead. Look below how he fits a pass to Bazemore the second he is able to get his hands on the loose ball.
Millsap may not be as quick or agile as he once was, but his passing ability and unrelenting style of play will allow Denver to continue playing at a fast pace. Running teams out of the Pepsi Center once was a strategic advantage for Denver and adding another high-level passer to a roster full of unselfish playmakers should directly lead to quickening the pace of the game and hopefully bring back the home-court advantage that past Nuggets teams enjoyed and opponents loathed.
TURNING DEFENSE INTO OFFENSE
This is where Millsap will be able to massively impact the Nuggets’ production in ways they were not able to without him in the fold.
Look at Millsap’s tenacity on the defensive end in the video below. While spectacular, it is not his defense that is the most impressive aspect of the play.
What is impressive is the way Millsap is able to keep his dribble alive after securing the rebound and whips a left-handed pass from beyond half court to an open shooter on the opposite baseline that really stands out. That pass is unbelievably difficult and Millsap is able to pull it off with a defender draped all over him.
With the advantage of playing a mile above sea-level, being able to get out in transition is a weapon that should be utilized as often as possible. Having the passing of both Jokic and Millsap on the floor together will allow Denver to play fast without an overly athletic front court. The ball moves faster than the opponent and Denver’s front court will be able to quicken the pace of the game with their passing which will lead to even more easy buckets for Harris, Murray, and any other perimeter player that leaks out when the transition defense is sleeping.
That is not to say that Millsap is unable to push the pace with the ball in his hands. Millsap has above average handles and he pairs that skill with his spacial awareness to shred defenses in transition.
The sequence Millsap pulls off in the video is bewildering. Not only does he fight for the loose ball but also manages to out-run John Wall, arguably the fastest player in basketball, to the ball. Once he clears Wall he drives straight into the inside shoulder of Otto Porter Jr., who is the last line of defense. Once Porter commits Millsap hits Hardaway with the pass to the corner for three.
Millsap is too intelligent, too talented, too aware, and too well-rounded to not improve the Nuggets already elite offensive production. With Millsap in the fold, the Nuggets will be able to slice teams to pieces with their passing and create open shots at will while still pushing the pace at the same time.
Thanks to Millsap’s elite facilitating feel it seems that offense will just continue to become easier and easier for one of the most efficient scoring teams in the Association. That should strike fear into opposing defenses all around the league.