As I wrote this past offseason, signing Dwyane Wade in free agency would represent a seismic shift in direction for the Denver Nuggets organization. Denver would go from a rebuilding franchise with a bunch of shiny assets to a likely fixture in the Western Conference playoffs this season and an organization that could be looked at as somewhat of a logical destination for free agents this coming summer.
Trading for Paul Millsap would constitute a similar line of thinking. Millsap could represent a fast track to the postseason and a lift in national notoriety for the Nuggets, but it also comes with a lot of risks.
In a usual season, the Nuggets might have already been labeled as “sellers.” Sitting nine games under .500 nearing the halfway point of the season, playoffs would typically be a distant thought.
However, the eighth seed this year is an outlier from what it’s been in seasons past. Over the past four seasons, the eighth seed in the West has averaged 45 wins, but this year, that number looks to be trending more towards 38, or 39, according to 538.com and other projections.
It’s hard to imagine Denver pushing for Millsap if the eighth seed weren’t in play.
But with Millsap in tow, Denver is the odds-on favorite to grab the West’s last playoff spot. Millsap puts the Nuggets a tier above Sacremento, who’s also reportedly in the chase for Millsap, New Orleans, Portland, and the Lakers as long as Denver doesn’t give up the farm, which according to some reports, they likely won’t.
Playoffs aren’t a guarantee with Millsap, nothing in this league is. But the Nuggets would have the inside track to the eighth seed with Millsap, who’s regarded around the league as a great locker room personality and who’s selflessness would fit in with what Denver is building.
Sure, a playoff birth likely means a four or five-game exhibition with the Golden State Warriors, a team Denver has ironically played tough over the past two years, but a playoff series with the Warriors can do a lot for a young team that might need to see what championship basketball looks like up close and in person to fully grasp the work they need to do to get to that level.
From a pure Basketball perspective, Millsap fits with the Nuggets’ current roster better than any player they could realistically go get on the open market this summer.
He’s a pure four that can play inside and out, has been able to stretch the floor to the three-point line and can bang inside. He’d be the No. 1 scoring option for Denver who can still run things through Nikola Jokic at the three-point line, high post, or block.
Defensively, Millsap is coming off an All-Second Team defensive selection last year and can cover up a lot of Jokic’s current shortcoming on that end of the floor better than anyone in Denver. In some circumstances he can guard 1-5, can put up a fight at the rim and is a great rebounder for his size.
Millsap would obviously fit with this current roster and make the Nuggets a better team from day one, but he’d also elevate others around him. Guys enjoy playing with players like Millsap; unselfish All-Stars who can lead by example.
He’d continue to elevate the play up and down Denver’s roster.
Franchise appeal and notoriety
Signing Millsap could represent a dynamic change for the Nuggets both on the court and off it.
The Nuggets have money to spend in free agency this coming summer and currently sit roughly $10 million below the salary floor. They’d have the money to sign Millsap this summer to a max deal, (which would take up 35 percent of the cap and come in a five years and roughly $207 million), and still have money left over depending on Danilo Gallinari who could opt out of the final year of his contract.
Denver wants to be big players in free agency this coming offseason but scanning the list of soon to be free agents, it’s hard envisioning the Nuggets attracting a name bigger than Millsap. Grabbing Millsap for half a season, showcasing how he’d fit with Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and the rest of the core for a few years, even if that includes the veterans too, would be the best free agent sales pitch Denver has in their arsenal.
The Nuggets (or any team that trades for Millsap) will also be able to offer him the most money in free agency, which could be a factor for a player in his early 30’s potentially looking for his last big contract.
Much like signing Wade would have last summer, the Nuggets vault themselves into the NBA news cycle for the second-half of this season. Denver may never be a “free agent destination” and their best path to contention is either through a trade for a superstar or hope their draft picks and young assets develop over time, but Millsap could certainly be the catalyst that puts some of those wheels in motion.
Rush to relevancy
While the pro’s outweigh the con’s for trading for Millsap, the three-time All-Star doesn’t come without reservations.
The first, of course, is the fact that Millsap might only be in Denver for half a season. Millsap could very well lead Denver to the playoffs, then leave in free agency this summer.
Millsap is regarded as a team-first guy and someone who wants to win, and at 31-years-old (he turns 32 in February) you can easily see him opting to spend the tail end of his prime with a team that gives him a better chance of a championship than Denver.
Currently, it doesn’t appear that Atlanta is looking for a king’s ransom in exchange for Millsap. Reports state that the Hawks surely want at least quality one first-round pick, and when you’re putting together a package that might include Kenneth Faried and/or Jusuf Nurkic, that doesn’t seem like too much to give up for Millsap. However, two first round picks in a package should be a deal breaker.
But is the eighth seed really just a huge red herring that could ultimately derail or delay what the Nuggets are building?
Pushing for the playoffs with this team plus Millsap (if Denver doesn’t give up one of their wings in a trade), likely means we don’t know what or who Murray is heading into next year. He’s someone who could very well be the future point guard of this group and has arguably the highest ceiling on the roster, but the Nuggets won’t find out what he really can do until next season if he stays buried on the wing.
The playoffs also mean Denver would have a lower pick in this year’s draft than they would if they weren’t in a playoff race. Is a pick slightly out of the lottery and date with the Warriors worth sacrificing for a potentially higher pick in the draft?
There aren’t players like Millsap who become available often and he fits the bill of someone the Nuggets have been setting themselves up to acquire for the last couple of years. Acquiring him could signal a true change of direction in Denver, a playoff birth for the first time since the 2012-13 season, and concrete steps towards a winning culture growing inside the Nuggets’ locker room.
The Nuggets are at a crossroads of sorts, a point in time where they can change the perception of their franchise from a rebuilding one, to a playoff team. Pulling off a Millsap trade is risky, but would likely shape the franchise’s direction, for better or worse, over the next few years.