Paul Millsap, the Denver Nuggets’ starting power forward and arguably the most significant free agent signing in franchise history, will undergo surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist that could sideline the 32-year-old for three months, according to multiple reports.
Millsap injured his wrist during the first quarter of Sunday’s 18-point loss in Los Angeles to the Lakers. He tried to play through the pain, but the 12-year pro went to the Nuggets’ locker room accompanied by head athletic trainer Dan Shimensky midway through the quarter and was ruled out of the rest of the game.
Millsap flew to Denver Monday where team doctors examined his wrist and determined the need for surgery.
Losing Millsap, who the Nuggets signed to a lucrative three-year $90 million contract this summer, who’s never played less than 69 games in a full-length NBA season to a freak injury like this is an unlucky and potentially catastrophic blow to Denver’s outlook this year.
The Nuggets can survive because of their frontcourt depth with Mason Plumlee, Kenneth Faried, Trey Lyles and smallball lineups that will involve Wilson Chandler and Juancho Hernangomez. But Denver’s defensive makeover this offseason and progress on that end of the floor through 17 games started with Millsap.
That’s where he’ll be missed most.
The Nuggets knew they needed a jump in defensive production this season after finishing 29th in defensive efficiency a year ago, so Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone and his staff hunkered down this offseason to craft a more aggressive scheme similar to the one Millsap played in Atlanta and a style that aligned with his basketball IQ and savvy on the floor.
Millsap’s impact had been greater than expected throughout the first quarter of the NBA season, and Denver shot up all the way to the 17th-best defense in the league through Monday’s slate of games. The Nuggets counted on Millsap to help change their defensive identity and culture, and so far, it looked like the organization was making progress in that regard.
But without Millsap, that notion will be tested.
With Millsap sidelined, Denver will return to the foundation of their success from a year ago. Faried, who started in Millsap’s place on Monday in Sacramento, will likely stick to the Nuggets’ first five full-time. Denver will try to re-create the magic that Faried and Nikola Jokic discovered last season alongside each other in the frontcourt.
“I think we know each other,” Jokic said of the pairing earlier this season. “I know what to expect of him and he knows what to expect from me so just teammate stuff. I think we want to play with each other and he helps me a lot and I help him a lot. It just pops sometimes, that happened last year.”
While there was an adjustment period this year when incorporating Millsap alongside Jokic, and the two had actually been developing an encouraging amount of chemistry over Denver’s latest stretch of games, Faried and Jokic hit it off immediately last season.
In the 479 minutes that Faried and Jokic shared the floor during the 2016-17 season, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 119 points. That two-man combination was the best on Denver’s roster and rivaled some of the best two-man pairings throughout the entire league.
“We play off each other. He likes to pick-and-pop sometimes. I can pick-and-pop but I like to roll more to the basket,” Faried said of playing with Jokic. “So he can find me rolling and he likes to find that pass, throwing the lob or getting an extra pass and having someone else throw the shuffle pass, and I’m able to finish over the top of people.”
With Faried and Jokic on the floor together, the Nuggets averaged 121.0 points per 100 possessions last season meaning when those two shared the court, Denver played like the league’s most efficient offense. In 98 minutes this season, the Nuggets are outscoring opponents by 13 points with Faried and Jokic playing together.
That same magic has been there in spurts this season. Faried still has the gravity around the rim to keep defenders’ attention, which opens up more driving lanes and space for Denver to operate on offense and his athleticism will allow the Nuggets to get out on the break and run more often. This season, Denver is the sixth-most efficient team in transition, per CleaningTheGlass.com, and are averaging the second-most transition points per game behind Golden State.
Expect Denver’s points per game in transition along with their pace to climb without Millsap.
Denver will likely look to rediscover their smallball success from a year ago as well. With Millsap in tow and Faried and Plumlee lingering in the Nuggets’ frontcourt, power forward minutes for Chandler were nearly eliminated this season. The four is where Chandler prefers to play and where he feels most comfortable and Millsap’s absence will allow him more minutes at power forward.
Last season, some of Denver’s most efficient lineups came with Danilo Gallinari and Chandler occupying the two forward spots. Expect Hernangomez to play the Gallinari role for moving forward.
You could actually see the Nuggets’ offense improve without Millsap, but make no mistake about it, the result will be a net-negative considering what Denver will lose on defense.
The Nuggets’ cluttered rotation that’s seen Faried take a 50 percent cut in minutes this season and Plumlee go from playing six minutes in Portland to 19 minutes against New Orleans and 30 minutes in Los Angeles will also get some clarity without Millsap. Malone was faced with the difficult task of playing four big men this season and the number of bigs in his rotation could drop to three without Millsap and nine players altogether — a number Denver’s coach has referenced on multiple occasions when asked what his ideal rotation would look like.
Injuries to Rudy Gobert in Utah, Mike Conley in Memphis and Patrick Beverley and Gallinari in Los Angeles have already left three Western Conference franchises with playoff hopes reeling and wondering if they will sink or swim before the quarter-pole of the NBA season has hit, much like this injury might do in Denver.
Millsap could return around February’s All-Star break and jumpstart Denver’s defense just in time for a stretch run. The Nuggets are just hoping they can keep their heads above water until then.