Paul Millsap is going to bring a wide range of valuable traits to the Denver Nuggets, but the most important is his ability to change the identity of the Nuggets on the defensive end.
"Hopefully my defensive impact will help this team out a lot," Millsap said. "That is one thing that we are striving to get better at is definitely on the defensive end.”
No question, Denver needs to improve its defense; Millsap knows, his teammates know, the front office knows, and head coach Michael Malone knows.
"He (Millsap) was a second team all-defense player a few years ago. High IQ. When I met with him in Atlanta and we had dinner we talked defense and what his preferences are. He said it that day. He is a guy who is going to show all of our young players the right way to do things, to be defensive minded, and there needs to be a buy-in," Malone said. "Offensively we were terrific. If we want to take a jump in a very talented Western Conference our biggest improvement needs to be on the defensive end of the floor. Paul has shown not only that he can do it physically but mentally, and from a leadership and communication standpoint, he is going to help a lot in that area."
Not only does Millsap change Denver's defense, he is he arguably the best fit along side Nikola Jokic. But Millsap also represents a defensive path for the young core of Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Jokic to follow. There is no better defensive and veteran presence for the Nuggets to bring in to lead this young roster for now and for the future.
Making up for Jokic's defensive issues
As Denver continues to build around Jokic, they need to find players who make up for his defensive shortcomings.
Look below how Millsap is able to switch three separate times in the single defensive possession, including one premature switch to get Malcolm Delaney off of Greg Monroe, who eventually gets his shot blocked by Millsap at the rim.
Millsap was able to block that shot with no rim protection behind him after switching from Jabari Parker to Matthew Dellavedova before rotating down to block Monroe's shot. Millsap is able to single-handedly save defensive possessions and will be asked to do so many times this year for the Nuggets.
Also, note that nowhere in that defensive sequence by Millsap was there a need for freakish athleticism or elite quickness. That is just a combination of awareness of who is doing what on the court combined with elite positional understanding, things Jokic can learn to do himself over time
Playing fundamentally sound defense can be accomplished in many ways but Jokic's best shot at becoming a passable defender is to refine his ability to play positional defense in the way that Millsap does. Jokic's basketball IQ allows him to compete positionally and defend opponents' offensive sets before they come to fruition.
Learning to deny passes into the post, keeping opposing bigs from gaining deep position, and Jokic using his incredible hand-eye coordination to swipe at the ball before players have a chance to get a shot up are all things that Jokic can learn to do to elevate his overall effectiveness on the defensive end of the court. These are also skills Millsap already has and uses at an elite level.
Millsap also can do a lot of other things that are needed to make up for Jokic's defensive inability - like providing weak-side rim protection.
Denver has had a complete lack of rim protection the past two seasons and the addition of Millsap is an immediate upgrade in that area. What is even better is that Millsap is used to protecting the rim from the power forward position and has the patience to go with impeccable timing to help deter shots when off-ball.
It is Millsap's awareness that allows him to be so effective when blocking shots on the weak side. In the clip below, Millsap understands that Korver is on an island against Kyle Lowry with no help available to get the ball out of Lowry's hands. Millsap's focus is already on that mismatch and the second that Lowry gets by Korver, Millsap is already stepping up to block the shot.
Not only does Millsap have the timing and instincts to protect the rim from the weak side but hunts down opportunities to do so. Millsap's basketball IQ is so advanced that he is able to see plays happen before they do like he does below.
Millsap knows that Austin Rivers tends to get tunnel vision when he gets the ball in his hands and patiently waits for him to make his move before destroying his shot at the rim. Even though he has his sight set on stepping up to contest River's shot, Millsap is still in position to recover and close out on J.J. Redick, who is in the corner behind him.
Not only does Millsap stylistically fit alongside Jokic but he also is a map or sorts to transforming Jokic into a functional defender.
Protecting the rim
Millsap is an underrated rim protector. He is not a protector in the way that he strikes fear into any opponent who dares venture into the painted area but he will make teams pay for not finishing strong or going up softly. It is Millsap's combination of timing, court awareness, and elite basketball IQ that allows him to block shots in almost any situation and Denver is desperately in need of someone who can help protect the rim.
Look at the video below. Millsap is eyeing Rajon Rondo the entire length of the court but is still staying connected to Taj Gibson. Once he gets to the rim ahead of both Rondo and Gibson he seals Gibson, Millsap keeps his far shoulder open to have the mobility to protect the rim if needed and as Rondo approaches the rim Millsap rises up to deny the shot.
Again, in the clip below, Millsap uses his superior understanding to protect the rim. You can see Millsap look over to Courtney Lee being defended by Tim Hardaway Jr., whose name does not exactly carry heavy weight on denfese. Understanding that Lee can get by Hardaway with or without the ball in his hands means it is that mismatch that has Millsap's focus.
As you see, Millsap is able to roatate over early to push Lee off of his straight line trajectory to the rim and blocks Lee's shot as he fades to the other side of the backboard. Not only is Millsap's timing impressive but his ability to get off of the ground quickly is one of the more underrated aspects of his athletic talents.
Millsap gets the majority of his blocks by being more intelligent than most everyone on the court but he can also lock players up one-on-one or chasedown opponenets in transtion and come away victorious at the rim.
Millsap is not the same athlete he once was but will still surprise people with his vertical ability when he has a full head of steam behind him as he shows in this chasedown block on Nik Staukas.
Being able to catch up to a guard in transtion, time the block, and rise up for a rejection of that caliber is no easy task.
This time Millsap showcases his ability to take on Elfrid Payton in mid-transtion at full speed. Not only does Millsap recognize that there is no one to stop the ball and defend the point of attack but he also knows that he is stuck on an isalnd with four Orlando Magic players outside of the three-point line.
Millsap settles into a stance, keeps his feet moving, and is able to push Payton away from the rim and block his shot.
Millsap's basketball intelligence is so fantastic that he can scan the floor once and understand every matchup around him and where the mismatch lies. He sees plays three steps before they happen and that is what gives him validity as a shot blocker.
Look at how he sizes up Derrick Rose mono y mono and is able to use the court spacing and positioning to block his shot. Millsap already understands that there is no one occupying the bottom corner of the court so as long as he forces Rose to the middle of the court he will have help. Once Millsap baits Rose into the paint he also refuses to leave his feet. This allows Millsap to stay on Roses right hip and block the shot without even jumping.
It is the intelligence that Millsap plays with that allows him to be so impacting on defense. That level of awareness and basketball IQ will be a huge addition to a Nuggets team that is still largely unproven and young defenders that need guidance.
Bring more aggression on defense
What really can alter the way Denver plays defense is the tenacity and aggression that Millsap plays with. Pairing him with Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, and a defensively motivated Jamal Murray is seemingly leading to Denver playing a much more aggressive style of defense according to head coach Michael Malone.
"Defensively, the one thing I like about Paul, his preference is to be a little bit more aggressive," Malone said. "That is something that we spent a lot of time on, as a coaching staff, this summer. "
This is significantly more substantial then it appears at face value. It has been a Denver Nuggets special to try and force turnovers to quicken the pace of the game and force teams into exhausting but running them off of the court. Playing more aggressively on defense will help force more turnovers and speed up the overall pace of the game, which favors the Nuggets.
With Millsap in the fold, look for a lot more plays like the one above. Denver will be starting three players who are above average on defense in Chandler, Millsap, and Harris, any of whom can switch onto multiple positions. That luxury allows Denver to play a much more aggressive style defensively.
The reason that Millsap is so effective forcing turnovers is the elite nature of his hand speed. He is able to swipe at the ball for steals constantly without fouling. Millsap's ability to block shots largely comes from him swiping at the ball as opponents gather to take a shot.
Denver was third-worst in all of basketball in terms of accumulating steals with just 6.9 per game. Forcing more turnovers will not just take possessions away from the oppositions, but will also help Denver continue get more and more great shots. Millsap should help in a massive way.
Millsap's quick hands make him a terror when defending on the perimeter, often leading to steals and easy buckets on the other end of the floor, as seen below.
Millsap should bring a renewed vigor and sense of urgency on the defensive end. His tenacity paired with fundamental understanding of its importance will not just be a welcomed sight but could be an inspiration to younger teammates. The Nuggets know they need to change their defensive ways. Signing Millsap is a monumental step in that direction.
"What we did last year did not work," Malone said. "We have to get better and we have to change things. We are going to look to be a lot more aggressive next year across the board, especially in the pick and rolls, and I think that also fits into what Paul is most comfortable doing."
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