Was Paul Millsap a disappointment in his initial season in Denver? I tend to support whoever is wearing the Nuggets uniform, so Millsap automatically gets positive feedback in my eyes.
Unfortunately, my fandom isn’t factual and $20 million is a steep price for 14, 6 and 3. Particularly given the overload of cheap, young talent that Denver has at the power forward position.
The thing about this Nuggets iteration, though, is that it’s about pieces. The puzzle centers (pun!) around Jokic and the other players either fit that mold or they do not. Millsap is a necessary piece for this season and possibly next (Denver has a team option after this season). Nikola is the oldest of The Core at 23. Will Barton, the Nuggets wild-card, jack-of-all-trades is just 25. Millsap represents the result of continued hard work and improvement. He is a stabilizing force on the floor. He doesn’t make flashy plays but he also doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He also is the highest-profile free-agent signing for Denver since Kenyon Martin. A signal that Denver is back in the pool of desired destinations.
Clearly, judgement must be restrained considering Millsap’s wrist injury. Recall the Nuggets eight games leading to the Millsap injury, they were 6-2 with a clunker loss to Portland and a close game with Golden State in which the Warriors pulled away late. The Nuggets were rising and playing their best ball of the season. Post-injury, it took a while and a Jokic swoon to fully reintegrate Millsap. In the late charge the Nuggets made for the eighth seed, Millsap was integral and productive but showed obvious signs that his wrist was still an issue.
By the time Millsap’s contract is up with Denver, whether after this season or next, the Nuggets should have solidified into the team that will challenge for West supremacy. It is specifically why he signed here and injury aside, he is doing that job.
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Beyond Millsap, there are a bevy of talented but underperforming bodies at the four.
Trey Lyles, the smooth Kentucky product showed tantalizing upside during Millsap’s injury. Ideally, Lyles seizes the backup spot and continues his growth. For a decent period of time, Lyles was a top-10 three-point percentage guy for Denver. His shot cooled but that potential combined with busy hands defensively and a knack for rebounding have set expectations for the fourth year pro. A side note with Lyles, his Kentucky squad, which went 31-0 in 2014-15 had Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Devin Booker and Lyles among its starting five.
Tyler Lydon, the 24th pick in last year’s draft recovered from a knee injury. Currently Lydon’s claim-to-fame, professionally, is his inclusion in the much-maligned (by Denver fans) Donovan Mitchell trade with Utah. Lydon has a nice stroke from deep and I believe could even fit a Danilo Gallinari-type small forward mold.
Darrell Arthur has opted-in to his final contracted season with Denver. It’s unclear what role the team envisions for Arthur. He appears productive, when he plays but his minutes in 2017-18 were limited to 140 for the entire season.
Perhaps the most intriguing player at the position is second-round pick Jarred Vanderbilt. The former Kentucky Wildcat and McDonald’s All-American was among the nation’s most sought-after players coming out of Victory Prep in Houston. A lingering foot injury issue raises questions but like first-round draft mate Michael Porter, Jr., the reward outweighs the risk. Comparisons to the Pistons’ Dennis Rodman and the Warriors Draymond Green make Vanderbilt a prime candidate for Millsap’s tutelage. Athleticism and toughness, things you can’t coach, appear to be part of the young man’s DNA. Vanderbilt should be the player we’ve always wanted Kenneth Faried to be.