Moments after he wrapped up the most important hot streak of his life to lift his reeling Denver Nuggets to a critical Game 2 victory against the San Antonio Spurs, Jamal Murray was asked about Paul Millsap, his 34-year-old Sherpa of a teammate. As the question was delivered, Murray slowly shook his head before eight genuine words tumbled out of his mouth.
“He’s the MVP of our team right now,” Murray told NBATV’s Dennis Scott.
The Game 2 performance was pitch-perfect Paul Millsap. He finished with 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds, battling foul trouble as admirably as he did LaMarcus Aldridge. Denver outscored San Antonio by a game-high 25 points in the 30 minutes he was on the court. He touched the ball 30 times, only four more than Mason Plumlee, who logged 10 fewer minutes. While Murray put on a show down the stretch, Millsap was a bystander, idly standing in the corner.
Instead of taking over, Millsap maximized every opportunity in a way that showed an understanding of the moment. Even after it became clear that nobody on the Spurs could guard him, Millsap was content ceding his own advantage to younger teammates, the ones Denver can’t advance without. He showed maturity and professionalism. He showed talent, selflessness, and big-picture consideration. He showed exactly what the Nuggets need at this stage in their life cycle: someone willing and able to relinquish the floor while still dominating in his own way.
The least appreciated power forward of his generation has never been less appreciated than right now. As Nikola Jokic’s MVP case was made throughout the regular season, Millsap was forgotten in a conversation that attributed Denver’s success to Jokic, then Murray, then the talented collection of wings and guards who fill out Mike Malone’s rotation. If you didn’t watch a Nuggets game for two weeks, you’d forget Millsap existed, let alone that he is their starting power forward and highest-paid player.
Millsap’s made zero all-star appearances since he ventured West on a three-year, $90 million deal in July 2017, but all he’s done since is turn an aspirational organization’s dreams into reality. The Nuggets won 54 games this season, outscoring opponents by a team-high 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Millsap on the court. (He missed 12 games and Denver only won five of them.) His efficiency differential — the per-100 possessions margin his team outscores their opponent with him on the floor vs. him on the bench — was not only Denver’s best, but also one of the highest marks in the entire league.
Even more striking were his on/off numbers with Jokic in particular. When Denver’s all-star center was on the court without Millsap, the Nuggets only outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions. When Millsap was on the court without Jokic, Denver’s defense was best in the league by a wide margin, and its overall point differential stayed above +8. To boot, Millsap finished 16th in Real Plus-Minus this season, sandwiched between Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving. (Last year he was 72nd, and in his final season with the Atlanta Hawks, he ranked 14th.)
He’s also aggressively blasé about his business, with no highlight reels for the same reason nobody wants to watch a show where people construct IKEA furniture. There are no signature moves or, if we’re being honest, memorable moments.
But all that’s fine. Millsap knows exactly what he is, a skill in and of itself. He’s methodically gray, and has used that pencil-pushing predictability to attack the Spurs with a decisiveness that beats double-teams and timely help rotations.
He doesn’t really need much help from his teammates, either. Only 65 percent of his baskets per assisted this season — same as Anthony Davis and one point lower than Karl-Anthony Towns. He gets the job done with straightforward efficiency. There are no wasted dribbles, and everything serves a purpose.
You don’t think of Millsap as a fast player, for good reason. His shot release is a third of a second slower than Kyle Korver’s, per Kirk Goldsberry’s new book Sprawlball, which is not a small deal in basketball terms. But in tight spaces, he is lightning, be it to strip a guard on defense or draw a foul on offense. Aside from a mid-career adoption of the three-point shot and disregard for long two-point jumpers, Millsap has never felt a need to reinvent himself. The majority of his game is timelessly substantive and useful. He’s in no rush to modernize.
Defensively, he’s smart, nimble, and brick solid. Test Millsap head on and there’s a good chance you will lose. He’s also one of the reasons the Nuggets are so comfortable with their aggressive pick-and-roll scheme, with the lumbering Jokic dancing on the perimeter. Even though Millsap is undersized as a rim protector, he knows when to be in the paint and when to scurry back out to the perimeter. He is adept at risk mitigation in physical form.
Meanwhile, bunnies, like the one Marco Belinelli falls into below, aren’t an option when he’s on the court. See how Torrey Craig is too worried about his own man (Rudy Gay) in the opposite corner to slide a few feet over and force Belinelli to either kick the ball or finish over the top? That never happens when Millsap is in the game.
Millsap has a $30 million team option on his contract next season. That’s a lot of money for someone who turns 35 next February and didn’t even average 13 points and eight rebounds this season.
But the Nuggets would be foolish to decline it unless they are replacing it with some kind of longterm agreement. For an organization that’s driving fast and wild in a treacherous Western Conference, Millsap is their seatbelt. When (not if) Denver establishes itself as a premier NBA franchise, Millsap’s footprint will be a humongous reason why, even if he’ll never get the credit he deserves.