For more than a year, the Denver Nuggets were desperate to add a star player — not just for the basketball boost, but also to inspire a fan base that ranks among the league’s most tepid. They tried to sign Dwyane Wade, offering a crazy overpay that was even richer than what he got from the Chicago Bulls last year. Before that, they had shown interest in DeMarcus Cousins. They tried on Jimmy Butler. Around the draft, they looked to get Kevin Love. The Nuggets scheduled a meeting with Blake Griffin, knowing they would probably just be used as leverage.
Finally, after so many tries in the box, they connected on a home run Sunday night, when they secured a deal with Paul Millsap on a three-year contract worth up to $90 million, with the third year a team option.
And this very well could be worth the wait, considering Millsap fits what they have on the roster better than Wade, Cousins, Love or Griffin. As a versatile power forward who can play inside and out, he’s a near-perfect fit to use alongside center Nikola Jokic, who really is the team’s franchise player. Perhaps more importantly, Millsap is a strong defensive player who is an expert in pick-and-roll work and team defense. The Nuggets were atrocious on defense last season, at times driving coach Mike Malone to the brink. They were still almost .500, which indicates just how badly they needed a difference-maker such as Millsap and how his arrival could help to quickly turn fortunes.
The Nuggets have a glut of interesting young players, thanks to some terrific drafting from team president Tim Connelly over the past few years. Beyond Jokic, a steal in the second round, the Nuggets have Gary Harris and Jamal Murray as perimeter prospects. Juan Hernangomez and Emmanuel Mudiay also have potential. But Denver badly needed the infusion that a star such as Millsap can deliver.
Just where this will leave the Nuggets in the Western Conference is debatable. In the arms race this offseason, this still ranks behind what the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves have achieved. But making the playoffs, even as the No. 8 seed, is very important to the Nuggets and especially their ownership. And Millsap gives them a real chance to do so.
After years of paltry payroll, this move also signals a major investment from the Kroenke family, the owners who run the team on a tight budget, by NBA standards. Both Jokic and Harris are headed for new contracts next year, and they’re going to be pricey. But the Kroenkes protected themselves by getting a team option on the third season, which is prudent when signing a 32-year-old in Millsap. It also is an indication that Millsap didn’t have much of a market at this price point.
The Phoenix Suns had a meeting with Millsap but punted when they saw they couldn’t compete in the West anyway, and the Timberwolves bowed out of the game when they used their free-agency space on Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. The Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile, seemed willing to let Millsap leave for nothing and start a rebuild, though it’s possible a sign-and-trade arrangement could still be worked out — as the Nuggets now have a bunch of power forwards, and the Hawks have $30 million in cap space and the need for someone to play the position. The Sacramento Kings were lurking too, but the Nuggets represent a much better option for Millsap.
Whether Millsap’s best basketball is ahead of him is fair to question. But he has plenty left in the tank, and his skill set should make Denver feel pretty good about this addition.
It also should provide some excitement to the fan base.