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Denver’s Playoff Breakthrough Hangs in the Balance After Losing Paul Millsap

Denver’s big free-agent signing is expected to be out for as long as three months with a wrist injury

Denver Nuggets v Utah Jazz Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Paul Millsap could miss as much as three months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist, according to The Vertical. The injury occurred in Sunday’s 18-point loss to the Lakers.

The 32-year-old Millsap, who signed a two-year, $61 million deal with Denver this past offseason, is averaging 15.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists in almost 30 minutes a game this season, his lowest in all four since the 2012-13 season—his last in Utah.

But the counting stats don’t paint the total picture of Millsap’s impact on the Nuggets so far. Millsap has a plus-4.5 net rating this season and has been an integral part of keeping the Nuggets’ high-powered offense running (108 rating, fifth in the NBA) while also lifting the defense to a respectable level (105.4, 17th best). And now that he’s had some time to mesh with Nikola Jokic, most of the Nuggets’ worst lineup combinations with over 10 minutes played don’t involve either one.

A week ago, head coach Mike Malone talked about the possibility of taking either Kenneth Faried or Mason Plumlee out of the team’s big-man rotation given the abundance of frontcourt bodies. (“If I wanted to keep people happy, I’d sell ice cream,” Malone said.)

But Malone will now likely require Faried, Plumlee, and Juancho Hernangomez to find a way to fill the void left by Millsap’s absence while keeping the team—which is currently tied for fourth in the West at 10-7—afloat.

Hernangomez, who was a plus-6 in 23 minutes of Denver’s win over Sacramento on Monday, has played only six games this season, but he’s had the most positive impact of the three (plus-10.3 net rating). Meanwhile, the Nuggets have been a minus in nearly every category when Plumlee or Faried are in the game.

The biggest burden likely falls of Jokic. Much was expected of the Joker after a breakthrough 2016-17 season, especially once Millsap arrived to shore up the frontcourt. Now the basketball-hipster icon may need to play better than ever in order to break the Nuggets’ four-year playoff drought.