Denver Nuggets’ Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green bring stability to second unit

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

There has been a lot of change for the Denver Nuggets during the second half of the 2020-21 season.

From trades that brought Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee to the Mile High City to the unfortunate injury suffered by Jamal Murray, which has altered rotations and playing time for members of the backcourt, head coach Michael Malone has had to juggle a lot of moving parts in recent weeks as the team prepares for its third-consecutive playoff appearance.

However, one area that has been stabilized throughout these evolving times has been Denver’s frontcourt rotation, which includes a fairly new pairing in Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green on the second unit.

To begin the 2020-21 campaign, Millsap served as Denver’s starting power forward, while Green settled into a hybrid second unit role where he played at both the four and five spots. Following the addition of Gordon and the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets have discovered their starting frontcourt of the present and potentially the long-term future.

As a result, Millsap and Green were asked to accept smaller roles off the bench, with extensive playing time no longer a given on a nightly basis, especially with the addition of McGee, who brings rim protection and a vertical spacing threat to the table when on the floor.

Although the results were mixed during the initial games the two forwards shared the court, the second-unit has thrived as of late, bumping the net rating of lineups with Green and Millsap together up to +11.9 points per 100 possessions.

“That second unit as a whole is playing really well,” Malone said prior to last Friday’s game against the Golden State Warriors. “Even in that Portland game, they struggled to make shots for a little while, but I loved the defense, the rebounding, and the shots we were generating were high quality looks, which is all you can ask for.”

What has fueled that success is lockdown defense, as those lineups have combined to post a 97.2 defensive rating in that small sample size, which ranks in the 100th percentile. Although these lineups have struggled to score, elite offensive rebounding (29.5 percent offensive rebound percentage) has allowed these groups to put up just enough points to get by on that end of the floor.

A recent alteration made by Malone has been to insert Michael Porter Jr. alongside Green and Millsap in the second unit, which has provided more offensive firepower. The lineup of Facundo Campazzo, PJ Dozier, Porter Jr., Green, and Millsap owns a +33.6 net rating in a limited sample size, with that group posting a 121.6 offensive rating.

A key attribute of the second-unit offense with the two veterans leading the way in the frontcourt? 3-point shooting. When Green and Millsap are sharing the court off the bench, lineups with both on the floor have attempted 42.2 percent of their total shot attempts from beyond the arc, a stark increase from Denver’s season-long 3-point attempt frequency of 35.5 percent.

An increase in 3-point shooting is nothing new for Millsap, who has continued to refine his shooting to further diversify his offensive game and provide more floor-spacing for Denver’s guards and MVP candidate, Nikola Jokić.

The four-time All-Star has attempted 36.9 percent of his shots from downtown this season, by far the highest 3-point attempt rate of his 15-year career. Now, Millsap is undergoing another evolution of his storied career as he switches to primarily playing at the center position.

“I give Paul Millsap a lot of credit,” Malone said Friday. “He was our starting power forward to begin the year and now he’s getting a lot of his minutes as a backup five.”

The 36-year-old has played 19 percent of his minutes at the five spot according to Basketball Reference, which would mark the highest percentage of his career.

Similar to the numbers on the Green/Millsap pairing, a closer look at the lineup data paints a rosy picture of Millsap’s impact in this new role. Lineups with the former second-round pick at center own a +10.3 net rating across 351 possessions this season, once again fueled by elite defense.

Those lineups have posted a 98 defensive rating this season, which not only ranks in the 100th percentile but is nearly 10 points per 100 possessions lower than the Utah Jazz's league-leading defensive rating of 107.4.

It should also be noted that the four lineups with Millsap at center that have played the most possessions this season have all come with Green alongside him at the four spot.

With both Millsap and Green thriving as pick-and-pop big men, perhaps the key adjustment has been balancing popping to the 3-point line and rolling to the rim in pick-and-roll actions.

“Paul has the ability to pick-and-pop and stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting,” Malone added. “But he’s also been mixing in rolling to the basket, which we need him to do at times as a five man.”

Yet having quality 3-point shooting from both the four and five spots can open things up for Denver’s guards and wings and pull opposing rim protectors further away from the paint. It will be a continuous adjustment for the two veteran forwards to identify the right times to space the floor and the prime opportunities to roll to the rim.

“JaMychal Green (has been) shooting the ball, defending, and when teams are switching, scoring or making the right play in the post,” Malone noted, highlighting the ability that both players have in the post to take advantage of mismatches, another key ingredient for success on the second unit.

Meanwhile, on the defensive end, having two similar-sized forwards can allow Denver to explore switching more, which has been a key ingredient for some of the most successful defenses during the playoffs in recent seasons.

Millsap showcased the value of being able to switch on certain possessions last week against the Warriors, as he matched up with several players before ultimately blocking an Andrew Wiggins shot attempt to fuel a fast break opportunity, as seen in the clip below.

One thing that is clear judging from the numbers and early results is that this second-unit frontcourt pairing has already shown that it can anchor a quality defense.

“Overall, I just like the energy that those guys are bringing to the table,” Malone said. “(Those guys are bringing) lots of positive energy and positive minutes with that second unit.”

It remains to be seen just how much run the Green/Millsap pairing will get in the playoffs, as well as what the right mix of perimeter players is to group with the two veterans.

However, both Green and Millsap have accepted these altered roles and provided Malone with a dependable frontcourt option on the second unit, which will be key come playoff time where quick adjustments and matchups can decide a game or even a series.

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