The Denver Nuggets lost a tight 122-120 battle to the Los Angeles Clippers last night, but there was nevertheless plenty for Denver fans to be encouraged about, as one of their top weapons returned from injury and was ready to contribute. After missing 44 games with a wrist injury, power forward Paul Millsap played 23 minutes Tuesday night, posting nine points (4-of-10 shooting, one three-pointer), seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and a steal. There was some rust on the 33-year-old power forward, as he also racked up four personal fouls and three turnovers, but Millsap still provided plenty of hope for the outlook of the Nuggets' season.
The Nuggets currently sit at ninth place in the Western Conference with a 33-28 record, putting them on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Even if they manage to squeeze into the postseason as the seventh or eighth seed, they'd still be staring down a series with the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors, which would be likely to result in a quick playoff exit for Denver.
What is worth considering, however, is that the Nuggets are still just 3.5 games behind the third-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves with 23 games left to play. Below the Rockets and Warriors, the Western Conference playoff picture is so jumbled that any team can shoot up or plummet down the standings over the course of just a few games. With the Nuggets' youth keeping them in the postseason hunt, the return of Millsap could be the boon they need to climb the rankings down the stretch of the regular season.
On the season, the Nuggets have a win percentage of 52.5, but when Millsap plays more than 23 minutes (he's only been held under that mark in the game in which he was injured and his first game back from the injury), the team is 9-6, giving it a win percentage of 60. Obviously, Millsap's sample size with his new team is small, but we're talking about one of the few veteran presences on a young team and a player who can make his presence felt in a variety of ways.
The only former All-Star on the Nuggets roster, Millsap has made a living of stuffing the box score. His point totals don't often pop off the page, but he is a reliable scorer who can get the ball in the hoop in a number of ways—banging inside, stretching the defense out to the three-point line (he's averaged 1.0 three per game since leaving the Utah Jazz for the Atlanta Hawks in 2013), and getting to the free-throw line (5.1 free throws per game since 2013). He hits the boards hard at 6-foot-8 (8.2 rebounds per game since leaving Utah), is a great playmaker at his position (3.3 assists), and racks up defensive stats (1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks).
In a sense, Millsap is much like a veteran version of Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic, who is turning into a triple-double machine at the age of 23. Once Millsap's conditioning is back up to par, he'll be slotted in alongside Jokic in the starting lineup, creating one of the more dynamic frontcourts in the NBA.
When looking at the Nuggets roster on paper, one thing stands out as a potential flaw—inexperience. Youth can certainly be a great quality to have on your side in the NBA, but when a team is contending for a playoff spot, it's nice to have at least a couple of contributing players who can act as veteran mentors for the young talent. The Nuggets, however, have just one player over the age of 28 who has played more than 17 games this season (Wilson Chandler, 30 years old). The average age of the Nuggets' top eight players in games played is 24. As a point of reference, the Rockets' top eight players in games played are an average of 30 years old, while the Warriors' number is at 29.5.
A 12-year NBA veteran and four-time All-Star, Millsap can provide on-court leadership now that he's returned from his injury. His addition to a roster that has won seven of its last 10 games should be enough to propel the team into a playoff spot, at which point Millsap's postseason experience will be crucial as his young teammates learn to prepare for what many refer to as “the second season.” With exciting young players like Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Will Barton, the Nuggets have a ton of raw talent, and Millsap could help act as the glue that brings it all together.
A loss to the Clippers—who are currently one spot ahead of the ninth-seeded Nuggets in the standings—certainly stings a bit, but Millsap's encouraging play could very well allow this Denver team to take its game to the next level. If Millsap's return can propel the Nuggets into one of the middle playoff seeds, allowing them to avoid a first-round meeting with Houston or Golden State, we could even see this team in an exciting playoff battle with a chance to get its first series win since 2009.