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How the Nuggets can survive Paul Millsap’s absence

Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Paul Millsap came to Denver as one of the NBA's ironmen, playing in 837 of a possible 886 games spanning from his rookie year in Utah to his 11th professional season, when Millsap was selected to his fourth straight All-Star game as an Atlanta Hawk. But with time and age comes wear and tear, and even for some of the game's most rugged players injuries.

Millsap hurt his wrist on a fluke play during a fateful L.A. night last November and missed Denver's next 44 games. He only ended up appearing in 24 games during his first season in a Nuggets' uniform after suffering what was the first significant injury of his career. Just 18 days removed from the one-year anniversary of that injury, Denver's bruising power forward went to the hardwood again. This time it's a broken toe on Millsap's right foot.

Millsap joins Will Barton (hip/core), and Gary Harris (hip), who are both being evaluated on a week-to-week basis and may not return until late December or early January, Isaiah Thomas (hip) and rookies Michael Porter Jr. (back) and Jarred Vanderbilt (foot) on the Nuggets' high-profile injury report. Together, those six are combining to make over $62 million this season and account for more than 50 percent of Denver's total payroll.

There's no clear timetable as of now for just how many games Millsap might miss. One-time Nugget Danilo Gallinari broke his toe shortly after arriving in Denver from New York as a key component of the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade and was sidelined for around three weeks. Gallinari missed eight games.

The Nuggets will miss Millsap dearly, no matter how long he's out. But Denver can survive, just as the Nuggets have done already this season on their way to the top of the Western Conference.

Who starts?

Millsap has started every game for Denver this season, but the Nuggets dealt with his absence last year. Denver went 24-20 without Millsap in 2017-18, and over the 45 games that he was not a part of Denver's starting lineup, the Nuggets rotated through every option available to them. Denver either went small with Wilson Chandler at power forward next to Nikola Jokic, or big with Mason Plumlee and Jokic playing alongside one another.

Going All-In on Offense

Juancho Hernangomez is this season's version of Chandler. At 6-foot-9, Hernangomez has the size to slide down to power forward and the skill to still stretch the floor from beyond the three-point arc. Since he entered the starting lineup 13 games ago at small forward, the Nuggets are the league's third-best three-point shooting team. On the season, Hernangomez is shooting a blistering 45.5 percent from beyond the arc on 3.7 attempts per game. The Spaniard has also played the four before. In fact, it's his more natural position.

If Denver places a priority on keeping its offensive rhythm intact, it could start a smaller frontline with Hernangomez and Jokic next to Jamal Murray, Torrey Craig and guard Malik Beasley. Craig has recently started in Harris' place while Beasley has been a super sub for the Nuggets as of late, playing a leading role on Denver's second unit. Across 25 games, Beasley is shooting 41.2 percent from three, and over his last 10 matchups, he's up above 50 percent from distance.

Just 22 year old and blessed with a gorgeous jump shot, Beasley is a promising two-way wing with loads of upside. An elevation into Denver's starting lineup could serve as a launching pad for the rest of his career. Beasley is one of the Nuggets better perimeter defenders too.

Prioritizing Defense

Another option for the Nuggets in their starting lineup, and one they had some success with last season, is Plumlee. In the 487 minutes that Plumlee and Jokic played alongside one another last year, Denver outscored its opponent by 72 points, while sporting an efficient 107.7 Offensive Rating and 100.9 Defensive Rating.

It's deja vu for Denver this season. In a limited sample size of 20 minutes, Denver has outscored its opponent 48-28 when Plumlee and Jokic have shared the floor. The Nuggets have registered that impressive differential by putting their opposition in a straight jacket on defense, allowing an average of 50 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.

Plumlee has been the most valuable defender on the Nuggets' second unit this season, and Denver is giving up just 97.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, good for the team's top Defensive Rating. He could help Denver keep some semblance of its defensive-first mindset.

Keeping it Traditional

Trey Lyles was the biggest benefactor of Millsap's absence last season. Lyles averaged 27.5 minutes per game in December and a similar amount in January with Millsap out, up from the 12.5 per game he logged in November. Those two months were also the best two months of Lyles' NBA career. With more minutes, Lyles' scoring average shot up to around 14.5 points per game. He shot better than 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three in December and January last year.

Lyles is averaging around 20 minutes per game this season but hasn't found that same rhythm with his jumper. He's shooting under 27.8 percent from three and has struggled at the line, hitting just 65.6 percent of his free-throws. Perhaps more minutes lead to a more consistent rhythm for Lyles, who without Millsap could be called on to play some small ball center too.

The Wildcard

How integral has backup point guard Monte Morris been to Denver's early-season success? Morris has the Nuggets' third-best Net Rating, has handed out 96 assists to only 15 turnovers this season (he leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio) and is Denver's second-best three-point shooter on the year, knocking down 42.3 percent of his long-range attempts.

Morris has logged a bunch of successful minutes next to Murray as well; Denver has a 6.7 Net Rating (108.1 Offensive Rating, 101.4 Defensive Rating) when Murray and Morris share the court. Without Millsap, Harris and Barton, three starters who were all penciled in for at least around 30 minutes per game this season, it's all hands on deck for Denver over the next month. Nothing is off the table if the losses start to pile up.

Can Denver maintain its top-5 defense...and top-10 offense?

The Nuggets' remarkable defensive turnaround has been a complete team effort that's required everyone the Nuggets' roster — from Murray and Jokic to Morris and Beasley — to buy in on that end of the floor. Yet the bulk of the credit goes to Millsap's defensive leadership and moxie for Denver's top-five defense, which is holding its opponent to 5.4 points per 100 possessions and 4.7 points per game less than last season.

It's easy to forget that Millsap has emerged as a reliable offensive option too over the last month too. Ever since a 112-110 home defeat at the hands of the Nets in early November, Millsap is Denver's third-leading scorer, averaging 15.0 points on 53.1 percent shooting from the field and 44.1 percent from three, 6.9 rebounds 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. Millsap is also posting the highest True Shooting Percentage of his career.

The Nuggets should be OK offensively without Millsap, thanks to Hernangomez, Beasley and Morris, who have all emerged as reliable options this season. Plumlee, who's shooting an elite 70 percent at the rim this season, which places him in the 90th percentile among all bigs, has been a positive offensive contributor on Denver's bench unit too. But the Nuggets will still miss Millsap's shotmaking, especially early in first quarters. The Nuggets typically prefer to feed Millsap on one of the game's first few possessions and get him a couple early offensive looks. He's the Nuggets' third-leading first-quarter scorer on the season behind Jokic and Harris.

While Millsap was a focal point late in fourth quarters last season and at times earlier this year, that duty has largely been turned over to Murray. In Denver's first three games of its current road trip — close wins over the Trail Blazers, Raptors and Magic — Millsap attempted just five fourth-quarter field goals.

Defensively is where Denver will miss its traffic cop the most. Millsap is first on the Nuggets in steals (34) and blocks (28), second on the team in deflections, and he's contested a team-high 245 shots this season, a testament to not only how often Millsap guards the opposing team's top shotmaker but also how frequently he is rotating over from the weak side to provide help.

Through the rest of December, Denver plays five times at home, hosting Memphis, Oklahoma City, Toronto, Dallas and San Antonio. On the road, the Nuggets face the Hawks, Clippers and Spurs. All nine of those games could come without Millsap, Harris and Barton.

It wasn't a friendly end to 2018 with Millsap. It won't be one without him either. However, Denver should be able to tread water in the turbulent Western Conference thanks to its depth and emerge in January with a healthier rotation.

Until then, it's next man up.



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