The Denver Nuggets Have a Small-Ball Option in Paul Millsap
The small-ball revolution has been developing for several seasons, with the 2018 NBA Playoffs representing somewhat of a tipping point. With the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors battling it out with small lineups in the Western Conference Finals, it was clear that in order to compete with the best, teams were going to have to identify a lineup that maximized floor-spacing and defensive versatility.
P.J. Tucker played just two percent of his total minutes at center during the 2017-2018 regular season. In the playoffs, that number jumped up to 19 percent as he became Houston’s de-facto backup center. In the first three seasons after Steve Kerr took over as head coach of the Warriors, Draymond Green played over 30 percent of his playoff minutes at center, a significant increase from his minute distribution during the regular season.
As the Denver Nuggets continue their playoff run, it will be useful to have a readily-available counter to those successful small lineups. Enter Paul Millsap. The team’s most-established player with plenty of playoff experience may find himself in a different role come late April and May. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has seldom-used small lineups with Millsap at center over the past two seasons, as the combination of Millsap’s injuries and the value that Mason Plumlee provides at center has made it less of a need to rely on small-ball lineups.
"I'm absolutely comfortable playing small,” said Millsap, who is participating in his tenth playoff run. “I feel like I'm a guy that can play any position and guard any position."
Over the past two seasons, Millsap has been used at center for just 228 total possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. In a limited sample size of 131 possessions so far this season, lineups with Millsap at center have thrived offensively, posting an offensive rating of 113.7. That offensive rating would rank fifth in the league if translated over the course of the entire season. The strong offensive performance is a result of incredible shooting around the rim, as lineups with Millsap at the five have shot 82 percent at the rim this season, which ranks in the 100th percentile.
While the small-ball lineups have struggled defensively this season, there is good reason to believe that when paired with Denver’s other backcourt starters, Millsap can anchor a defense for stretches of a game. If paired with Gary Harris and Torrey Craig, lineups with Millsap at center should thrive defensively with several points of attack to slow down opposing offenses.
"(Paul) has just been so steady on both ends,” Plumlee said. “He's made plays on defense and it just seems like he's always causing problems. Whether it's deflections, taking charges, rebounding at a high level. He's playing great and has really taken us to a new level.”
While Millsap has seldom played at center since joining the Nuggets, there is a larger sample of him playing at the five when he was with the Atlanta Hawks. Back in the 2016-2017 season, Millsap played 450 possessions at center, with those lineups posting a +3.6-net rating. During the 2015-16 season, lineups with Millsap at center posted a defensive rating of 96.6, which ranked in the 98th percentile. Finally, small lineups with the four-time All-Star had a +9.7-net rating during the 2014-15 campaign, as they had success on both ends of the floor.
Millsap has the ideal skillset to play center in these smaller lineups, especially when matched up against Tucker or Green. On defense, Millsap can switch and guard multiple positions, and when combined with his strong defensive awareness and mobility, he can cause havoc for opposing offenses. On the other end of the floor, Millsap can knock down 3-pointers and move the ball around, allowing for Denver’s free-flowing, high-powered offense to continue running at a smooth rate.
In the clip below, Millsap protected the rim after recognizing Danilo Gallinari’s drive to towards the basket. Millsap blocked the shot before he led a transition opportunity with the ball in his hands, showcasing his versatility on both ends of the floor.
When the Nuggets defeated the Rockets in early February, Millsap saw some time at center to counter Houston’s smaller lineups. During a key stretch in the second quarter, Millsap defended the rim by blocking Kenneth Faried’s dunk attempt, creating a fast break opportunity for the Nuggets that ended in a dunk from Malik Beasley.
Against the Hawks in November, Millsap expertly defended the pick-and-roll before getting the steal. The 34-year-old followed up the impressive defensive play by initiating the offense and eventually knocked down a short jumper, another indication of the value Millsap can provide on both ends of the floor.
As several Nuggets players go through their first playoff experience, Millsap is a reliable veteran to help guide the experience.
"Paul is that glue guy on-and-off the court,” Jamal Murray said. “On the court, he pushes us, he talks to us the most as a veteran. He's one of those guys that always has the right thing to say, so guys look forward to hearing him talk."
On the court, Millsap is tasked with anchoring Denver’s defense. Whether that is against a traditional opponent or when he plays at center, Millsap’s versatility on both ends of the floor could serve as a stabilizing presence for the Nuggets throughout the playoffs.