Toward the end of last season, Chauncey Billups said Paul Millsap needed to tell Nikola Jokic to act as the leader of the Denver Nuggets.
Billups played for the Nuggets as well and during the TV broadcast, he said that when he was traded to the team, he had a similar conversation with Carmelo Anthony. Much like Millsap, who enjoyed a solid career before arriving in Denver, Billups knew he had to defer to the team’s young star.
Zach Lowe reported that as the team aimed for a spot in the postseason, that exact conversation happened between Millsap and Jokic (via ESPN):
“Paul Millsap approached Jokic and told him to seize control of the offense, team sources say. Jokic started shooting more, while still dishing his usual number of assists.”
Lowe had earlier described this interaction as one to help Jokic take over as “the undisputed alpha dog position” for the Nuggets.
This was likely due to the fact that during the first four contests Millsap played after returning from injury, Jokic averaged just 6.7 field goal attempts per game. Jokic had just seven total shots in the first halves of those appearances.
Around this time, Millsap told reporters that Jokic needed to be far more aggressive. He described the young star as the “engine” of the team. Jokic, in turn, noticeably increased his field goal attempts per game around this time.
He averaged 11.8 FGA per game until March 7, 2018 — which ranked third on the team. However, after that, he led the team with 16.4 FGA per game. New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis was the only center who had more field goal attempts after March 7.
With the increased trust, Jokic also became more effective from three-point range. He shot 48.1 percent from long distance during that stretch, after shooting just 36.8 percent beforehand. Only one player in the NBA was more accurate with as many attempts from three (Detroit’s Anthony Tolliver).
Millsap recently spoke at Media Day about the inspirational conversations he’s had with Jokic (via SB Nation):
“The ball is going to find you and you’re the guy who is going to make the plays. When you do that, everybody around you gets better, you make everybody else better. Those are the conversations that we have… When he plays at that aggression level that we know he can play at, he’s getting a triple-double every night.”
While it was a small sample size, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 32.7 points per 100 possessions when their expected starting lineup for this season was on the court last year.
They’ll have other interesting rotation options if rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. and veteran guard Isaiah Thomas – who wereboth added this offseason – can return from their injuries and play well.
With Millsap willing to defer to Jokic (and not the other way around), the big man can take the next step in his development on offense and reach his full potential. Jokic is one of the most interesting playmakers in the game given his size, and with his new role defined next to a former All-Star like Millsap, Denver is in a good situation moving forward.