Michael Malone compares the Denver Nuggets ’ new post tandem of Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap to a budding romance.
“They’re probably on the second or third date, trying to get comfortable,” the Nuggets’ coach quipped. “Still holding hands.”
This appears to be a terrific NBA match between Millsap, the proven All-Star signed this summer as a free agent to the richest contract in Nuggets’ history, and Jokic, the young Serbian aiming to build on a breakout season. This formidable inside duo is a major reason why the Nuggets are widely projected to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
But as Wednesday’s season opener at Utah approaches, Jokic and Millsap are still learning how to occupy the floor together.
“You see signs of it (working), you see glimpses,” Malone said. “But it’s nowhere near being, ‘They’ve got it. They’ve figured it out.’
“And that probably won’t happen for a couple months, to be honest.”
Jokic’s and Millsap’s similar playing style is, oddly enough, why it’s also taking them time to gel. They are both unselfish big men, crafty facilitators in the post who should thrive in the Nuggets’ free-flowing offense that was one of the NBA’s most potent last season. They can rack up points and rebounds inside, as well as fire shots from beyond the 3-point line. They are both viewed as reliable options to turn to at crunch time.
Yet both players are used to coming to the top of the key early in an offensive set, then expecting to distribute or shoot. That natural tendency can crowd the middle and disrupt the guards’ opportunities to drive and kick, or leave the Nuggets without a big man down low.
“Somebody has to sacrifice,” Malone said, “and get to the rim and roll hard. … It’s just a matter of getting those guys to understand where and when to pick their spots.”
Jokic and Millsap are more than willing to make the effort. Jokic respected Millsap’s longevity and success well before they became teammates. Millsap was initially impressed with Jokic’s patience with the ball in his hands, waiting for a cutter before firing off a nifty pass.
Last season, Millsap averaged 18.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game with 19 double-doubles, which helped him land a three-year, $90 million contract with Denver. Jokic, meanwhile, averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game with six triple-doubles, a rare feat for a center.
“He’s definitely a big part of why I came here,” Millsap said of Jokic. “The things that he’s able to do I think will help my game. And I think the things that I’m able to do and the experience I have, I think I’ll be able to help his game.”
Though Millsap is far from a boisterous leader, he’s already had an impact on Jokic.
Jokic marvels at how Millsap “knows exactly what to do in every moment when he’s playing.” Perhaps Millsap’s prominence on the defensive end is rubbing off on Jokic, whose energy while aggressively defending the pick-and-roll has caught Malone’s attention. Millsap’s presence is also expected to ease some of the offensive pressure on Jokic, who was the focal point for the Nuggets’ up-tempo system last season.
“Sometimes, it’s gonna probably be a relief for (Jokic),” Malone said. “If we’re coming down every time and I’m playing through you and you gotta make a play, that becomes taxing.”
Malone said the Jokic-Millsap pairing was “off-kilter” in last week’s preseason finale against Oklahoma City, that they “were in each other’s way a lot.” But Millsap is not panicking, because there’s no true way to simulate the intensity of a regular-season game.
Millsap can also draw on past experience, as he went through similar initial growing pains with Al Horford with the Atlanta Hawks. They eventually built a chemistry that helped push the Hawks to three consecutive playoff appearances, before Horford signed with the Boston Celtics as one of last summer’s most coveted free agents.
“Just don’t press,” Millsap said of what he learned playing alongside Horford. “It’s gonna happen. I think guys get caught up into ‘We’ve got to do this right now.’ Things don’t work that way. We’ve just got to be patient with it.”
Barring injury or foul trouble, Malone plans to have Jokic and/or Millsap on the floor at the same time all season.
And, by April, the Nuggets hope the budding partnership between Jokic and Millsap propels Denver back into the playoffs.
“You throw in a player like Paul Millsap into the mix,” Malone said, “we feel we’ve gotten a piece that can hopefully push us over the edge.”
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