Paul Millsap, the NBA’s Brawny Pearl
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.
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