The Denver Nuggets have one of the NBA’s best young cores in Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, but they needed to get better on defense and needed a win-now type of player in order to help them take the next step to become a playoff team again. The Nuggets found that player in signing Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million contract after his market was far more tepid than he anticipated. It's a low risk move for a perfect fit.
There is a good chance the decline of Millsap has already begun with his steady PER since the age of 25 dipping down to 17.8 in his Year-31 season. Millsap couldn’t get to the bucket as easily and settled for more long jumpers. But he still ranked 14th in the NBA in Real Plus Minus last season as he remains one of the game’s most sound defensive players.
Millsap should enjoy a reasonable amount of longevity and a gradual decline as we’ve seen from someone like David West, but the Nuggets’ mitigated their exposure to that by only guaranteeing the first two seasons. Millsap’s passing and intelligent defense should hold up but his dip in three-point shooting these past two seasons sobers up that projection, as does the fact that the entire reason he dropped to the second round in the first place was due to being an undersized power forward. Millsap still shot it well from the corner and they at least need him to knock down those shots to give Jokic space.
This move would feel a whole lot better if Millsap was three or four years younger since he’s such as perfect fit beside Jokic and you’d like to see that combo extended with Millsap operating off the ball as his own secondary focal point. But the Nuggets are about to get expensive and this was their last meaningful chance at cap space as Jokic is likely to be re-signed next offseason on a max contract as a restricted free agent.
Denver also concurrently pursued a trade for Kevin Love, but Millsap is a far better fit due to his superior defense and obviously didn’t cost them anything in terms of trade pieces. Last season, they pursued Dwyane Wade with their cap space and ask the Bulls how much they're enjoying paying Year 2 of that deal.
The Nuggets now have more work to do in balancing out their roster with an excess of power forwards and combo forwards. Denver just added Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon on draft night for example. It makes even less sense now to re-sign Miles Plumlee as it was to include a first round pick with Jusuf Nurkic for him in February.
The Western Conference is a death trap and the Nuggets may not even make the playoffs with this move, but they’re certainly giving themselves an excellent chance.
Grade for Nuggets: A
The annual average was there for Millsap, but he only gets two guaranteed seasons, which was not what he was anticipating when entering free agency. Millsap surely would have been maxed out last summer, but there was far fewer teams with space and even fewer GMs prepared to commit long-term to a 32-year-old.
Millsap did well in terms of fit and challenge, but he continues to just miss the type of paydays that merit his talent. It began in 2009 when the Jazz matched Millsap’s four-year, $32 million offer sheet in restricted free agency with the Blazers, then he only received a two-year, $19 million deal with the Hawks, and finally a three-year, $59 million deal in 2015 that fortunately for him contained a player option for 17-18 to get this contract.
Grade for Paul Millsap: C+
And just like that, the January 2015 Eastern Conference Players of the Month are all out of Atlanta. It is a rather unceremonious end for a team that won a lot of games and energized a long dormant fan base.
Even last season, the Hawks’ five-man lineup of Millsap, Dwight Howard, Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha ranked third in the NBA amongst five-man lineups in Net Rating at +27.3. Atlanta remained a very good regular season team that was repeatedly proven incapable of playing better in the playoffs no matter how many times they shuffled their core. The fact that they routinely remained so good during the regular season ultimately led them to not trade Millsap as an expiring contract and recoup a first rounder before he inevitably walked in free agency the way they did for Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, but not for Al Horford, DeMarre Carroll or Josh Smith before that.
As soon as Travis Schlenk was hired as general manager, there was little ambiguity in his comments that he had no interest in re-signing Millsap. Even without the front office changes, it was hard to envision Millsap re-signing. The only thing worse than not getting any draft picks back for a player in his 30s on a team not going anywhere is re-signing him to a four-year or five-year deal.
The Hawks will likely pivot towards taking on bad contracts in exchange for assets the way the Nets have in recent seasons, and the Jazz before that.
Grade for Hawks: C-