It feels strange and just a tad hyperbolic to call Paul Millsap a flawless basketball player, but in so many ways it's perfectly reasonable.
Few players exhibit his versatile balance on offense and defense, and an even smaller number are able to maintain such all-around consistency. Millsap does it all, and on the occasion of his 30th birthday, it's worth noting he's doing it at age when most NBA careers begin to plateau. In short, he's a rarity – a brawny pearl of a player. And he thinks he can still get better.
"The sky is still the limit," the Atlanta Hawks forward says at the end of a recent practice. "I feel I can continue to grow as a player. I have a long time to continue to progress with my shooting, continue to keep my ball handling tight, continue to stay in shape. You know, all of it. I'm not going to pinpoint one thing, because I've worked hard to try to have all aspects of my game be pretty good. I want to grow everywhere."
But despite all the success this two-time All-Star's experienced over the past few years, his upcoming unrestricted free agency remains a tantalizing mystery. At 30 years old, this will likely be Millsap's final and largest payday, and numerous questions surround what type of offers he'll receive on the open market.
Given the distinct on-court growth we've seen over the past two seasons, it's fair to ask whether he's the critical piece that helps make everything in Atlanta flow so smoothly, or merely a product of his environment. Furthermore, will Millsap stay in Atlanta on a long-term deal, or forgo his current winning environment in favor of (possibly) more money elsewhere? Is he worth a max contract?
When asked whether Atlanta's charitable playing style will have any impact on one of the biggest decisions he'll ever make, Millsap does not hesitate. "Absolutely. One of the few things we talked about [two summers ago] was going to an unselfish team. Having the opportunity to play for a good coach, with an unselfish mentality. And that's one of the selling points for me."
The argument for not breaking the bank to sign Millsap is simple: He's not young, doesn't dominate in any one particular area and is traditionally undersized for the power forward position. (Millsap is 6-foot-8, shorter than Danny Granger and Corey Brewer.) He's far too good for the "glue guy" label, but calling him a superstar would be a stretch. So, what's going to happen?
For potential suitors outside Atlanta, it will be a matter of weighing the undeniably positive effects Mike Budenholzer's system – and talented Hawks teammates – have had against Millsap's standalone talent. Basketball is a team game, and the spacing provided by Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, Al Horford and the cast of snipers Atlanta deploys can't be replicated by many teams:
Look at the attention Korver gets after shaking Bradley Beal along the baseline. Nene drops a few steps to bump Korver off his line, leaving Millsap wide open for an uncontested gimme. Plays like this aren't uncommon, which makes weighing Millsap in a vacuum both necessary and impossible. (Would Millsap be an All-Star this season if he played for, say, the Charlotte Hornets?)
He spent the first seven years of his career with the Utah Jazz as a perpetually underrated rock, reliable in all facets. But in Atlanta – operating within a self-sacrificing system founded on ball-movement, 3-point shooting and the continuous hunt for a more advantageous look at the basket – Millsap has blossomed into a matchup nightmare.
Without losing any of the interior toughness cultivated under Jerry Sloan, Millsap mounted a 3-point cannon onto his shoulder and was unleashed as one of basketball's most devastating all-around weapons. Today, he has no major weaknesses, only good skills he's trying to make great.
"[Atlanta's] helped out a lot," Millsap says. "Our offense is predicated on making basketball plays on top of basketball plays. I'm able to showcase my skill level. Dribble, pass, shoot. And I'm able to space the floor a lot more."
The Hawks are the most altruistic team in the league this season, but would that be the case if Millsap wasn't there? According to ESPN's Real Plus-Minus stat, Millsap's impact has been more positive than Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph and LaMarcus Aldridge. (This figure takes into account "teammates, opponents and additional factors.")
Atlanta outscores opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions when Millsap plays, and just 1.2 points when he sits. In layman's terms, they function as the second most efficient offense in basketball with him on the court, and eighth worst when he's off it. And just to show how well-rounded he's been, the only other players averaging at least 17 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists per game right now are Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins.
Despite having a shot that winds up slow, like a crank, Millsap still makes 35 percent of his threes, a number that prevents opponents from leaving him wide open (especially in the corner). But slapping the "stretch four" label on his forehead doesn't do justice to everything else that makes him so wonderful. Just about half of all Millsap's points come in the paint. He's a maestro down there, strong as a bull, but also capable of navigating through taller trees with ball fakes and deceptive post moves.
How many players his size can spread the floor, create open shots off penetration, execute a perfect Euro-step and rebound the crap out of the ball? He's a perfect tool for the modern game. Just look at this athleticism!
On defense, Millsap is as effective on the low block as he is scampering around the perimeter. He's not long enough to protect the rim, but he's physical, can move bodies down low and has a penchant for blowing up handoffs and pick-and-rolls as they happen. His hands flick like a snake's tongue.
Millsap is smart and fast enough to help teammates who get beat off the dribble, then teleport back to his own assignment before serious damage is done. He's a big reason why the Hawks have maintained a top-five defense through most of this season, despite lacking customary rim protection – they currently rank 25th in opposing field goal percentage at the rim, per SportVU. But they play smart, don't foul and everyone holds everyone else accountable. There's real trust in Atlanta.
"Coming into this season we wanted to be a good defensive team," Millsap says. "I'm not surprised about it because we have guys out there who are able to guard guys. We play good team defense and we help each other."
All this is to say that if the Hawks want to maintain their status as a title contender in the years ahead they can't afford to let Millsap go. Unfortunately, they only have his Early Bird Rights, meaning they can only re-sign him to a four-year deal (as opposed to five) with a 7.5 percent annual increase. That contract would start at about $16.6 million, ultimately paying nearly $74 million in total.
But if bigger fish like Aldridge and Gasol stay with their respective teams, it'll be interesting to see who throws bags of cash in Millsap's direction. The San Antonio Spurs (if Tim Duncan retires), New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers (probably not, but they have as much cap space as anyone), Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons are a handful of teams who could slide a max contract under Millsap's nose.
And the standard four-year max those teams can offer is about $5.5 million more than what Atlanta can spend using the Early Bird Exception. In other words, the Hawks don't hold a financial edge to maintain their own free agent.
If Millsap leaves, it'll be fascinating to watch him adapt to a different system with different teammates, under a new coach in a new city. Would Millsap continue to shine like the brawny pearl he's become, or will murky waters limit his luster? The Hawks can only hope those questions are never answered.