Why Paul Millsap is the Nuggets’ “traffic cop” and their answer to the Western Conference arms race

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LAS VEGAS — In an offseason unlike the league has ever seen, all-stars and top-tier free agents continued to take their talents to the Western Conference, adding even more landmines to an already treacherous road towards the NBA finals.

Jimmy Butler moved from Chicago to Minnesota to team up with Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and a playoff-worthy rotation. Paul George is now in Oklahoma City, and the versatile two-way wing paired with reigning NBA most valuable player Russell Westbrook has the makings of one of the best one-two punches in basketball. Chris Paul is still in the West, but now teams up with James Harden in Houston, pushing the Rockets up a rung or two closer to the Warriors’ pedestal.

But those transactions didn’t scare off fringe playoff teams like the Nuggets, Clippers, Pelicans, and Jazz, who responded with gusto to the Western Conference arms race.

Instead of buying time with young players or searching for that “generational” talent through the draft and trying to build for a day when the Warriors don’t rule “The Show,” (a term SI’s Ben Golliver coined for the Western Conference this upcoming season), front offices are beefing up their rosters and ensuring their organizations keep trending upward – even though roads to the second-round of the West playoffs look grim.

“From our standpoint, we’re just trying to make us better and worry about us,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I think a lot of teams make mistake when they are trying to match up to the Warriors more than just play. I don’t think anyone’s going to beat the Warriors playing the way the Warriors play and I think the way you do it is build your team the best way you think you can build your team.”

Say what you want about Rivers’ assertion that teams shouldn’t try to play in the same fashion as the greatest team of all-time, but the larger point he and other executives made this summer, was that here’s no time to delay making your team better. Coaches are on too short of a leash, executives have to log playoff teams on their resumes and owners have to make money. Upward momentum is important and vital to the state of a franchise.

“It’s an arms race,” Nuggets’ coach Michael Malone exclaimed outside Denver’s locker room at Cox Pavilion. “Everybody’s getting better and the fact that everybody comes West, you can’t hide from it, you can’t run from it. You have to embrace that and every night is going to be a hell of a challenge.”

Enter Paul Millsap. The Nuggets’ marquee free-agent signing this summer and Denver’s answer to Butler, Paul, George (and Ringo) and the rest of the Western Conference gauntlet.

This offseason came to such a tipping point, with two divisional opponents in Minnesota and Oklahoma City landing big-name stars that the Nuggets simply had to have Millsap. Denver needed to keep pace and push their chips into what could be the franchise’s first playoff appearance in five years.

Millsap isn’t as sexy of a name as a Butler or a George or a Blake Griffin. Maybe not as headline-grabbing as a Kevin Love or a Dwyane Wade. But Millsap, who Denver has under their control for the next three seasons, is the best fit out of all those targets that Denver flirted with over the past two years. Butler could have mucked up Denver’s flow on offense, George surely wouldn’t stay in Denver past the one season he’s under contract, Griffin is injury-prone and wouldn’t appear a great fit next to Nikola Jokic, Love wouldn’t help the Nuggets’ defense at all and Wade no longer makes sense with Gary Harris‘ emergence.

In Millsap, the Nuggets found a name player who can impact their team on and off the floor, but also address their biggest need: defense.

“What I like about Paul is that he’s a two-way player, he’s going to help us on the defensive end of the floor,” Malone said. “He’s a guy that was an NBA Second-Team all-defensive player a couple years ago and just the veteran leadership and the fact that he’s won so much on a high level, that’s going to be so important for us.”

The hope with Millsap is that he’ll help instill a defensive discipline in Denver that hasn’t been there for the past four years. The Nuggets, Kings, and Lakers are the only three teams in the league to place in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency every season over the past four seasons.

Millsap’s presence should be able to get Harris and Wilson Chandler — two plus defenders throughout their careers — back from the collective slide on the defensive end of the floor that infected all of Denver’s roster last year — or at least that’s the Nuggets’ hope.

“(Millsap) is a guy that has been on a lot of good basketball teams,” Malone said. “He’s been on a lot of teams that have gotten deep into the playoffs. 87 playoff games played I think from an experience standpoint and the fact that he’s a guy that I think will be able to communicate and help us on the defensive end, kind of be an anchor to our defense, a traffic cop, and kind of orchestrate where guys are supposed to be.”

Denver’s offense will likely take a step back next season. Jokic will be item No. 1 on opposing teams’ scouting reports and even though it might be hard to imagine, coaches across the league will surely find ways to start limiting the big man in some facets of his game. The 22-year-old will still be one of the better offensive players in the league and Denver will have another top five or 10 offense, but there will be some growing pains along the way.

Integrating Millsap, however malleable the 32-year-old may be, will be a process. Don’t expect Millsap to start at power forward and for the Nuggets to get automatically get back to the top-ranked offense that they played over the second half of last season. They can get there, but it will take 10 or 15 games. It also looks like replacing Danilo Gallinari and his 18.2 points per game will come by committee. That means counting on second-year players like Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez for consistent production.

Millsap’s introductory press conference at Montbello Rec Center on Thursday (1 p.m., Altitude/Nuggets.com), located in a neighborhood that Millsap called home as a kid, will be all about Millsap and how he can turn Denver’s defense around.

He won’t be able to do it by himself. It will take a buy-in from Harris, Chandler and the rest of the Nuggets’ roster.

“When you want to improve defensively, it starts with each individual taking on the responsibility of saying ‘I’m going to own my matchup tonight. I’m going to take my responsibility for my matchup tonight,'” Malone said. “I think Paul does that. His IQ and his experience alone are going to help us defensively.”

Millsap’s arrival signals that, while Denver has the pieces in Murray, Harris, and Jokic to contend in a post-Warriors world, they’re still pushing for a playoff spot now, continuing to build clout across the NBA while keeping their franchise trending upward in an era of Western Conference dominance.


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