As crazy as it sounds, Paul Millsap is the only full time starter remaining from the Atlanta Hawks run to the conference finals in 2015. When the Hawks dealt Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this year many felt it was the sign of a tear down and that Millsap would be quick to follow. Surprisingly though the Hawks made an about face, likely realizing that they couldn’t get the value they wanted for Millsap, and committed to making the playoffs, ultimately holding onto their best player for the remainder of the season.
Fresh off a first round loss to the Washington Wizards though, the Hawks are at a crossroads. A first round exit just highlights what is already becoming painfully obvious: the Hawks roster is stuck in NBA purgatory: good enough to get into the postseason, not nearly good enough to be an actual threat to make the finals. More often that not that is a recipe for a rebuild, even if its a minor one, and generally that means you don’t bring back your high priced, aging stars. With a relatively small amount of money committed long term, the Hawks could very well go their separate ways with Millsap this season as they look towards a long term plan for success.
Millsap is a cagey veteran who has been expanding his game for eleven seasons. Because of this he’s developed into a superb inside out player on offense and one of the most effective defenders as well. His offensive game is pretty much everything you would want from a power forward. He has the strength to be able to play in the post and his quickness, particularly his foot speed, down low gives him the advantage against slower defenders, making it easy for him to utilize a number of post moves to get around the defender for an easy shot at the rim. He is also an effective screener who has both the ability to roll to the basket or pop for a jumpshot. In fact his pull up jumpshot is one of the better ones out there and not just among power forwards. Milsap shot 44.4% on pull ups last season, which is good for eleventh among all players who took at least two pull up jumpers a game and played for at least half the games in the season. Among forwards, only Tobias Harris shot a better percentage on such attempts. That range stretches out to the three point line as well, where Millsap shot 31% on 3.5 attempts a game.
Defensively Millsap is also one of the top players in the league. Ironically though, you won’t find him near the top of the leaderboard in defensive rebounds, steals or blocks, the three basic stats most synonymous with defense. No, where Milsap’s effectiveness on defense shows up in the stat sheet is in defensive win shares, defensive rating and defensive field goal percentage (though the last of those did dwindle a bit this year). He doesn’t have incredible length or athleticism so his defense comes from pure positioning, IQ and effort. He also has the benefit of being strong enough to not get bullied in the post, but quick enough to defend out to the perimeter. Simply put Millsap excels at defense because he gives it the proper amount of attention and execution. Take the video below for an example. In this match up against one of the better post players in the league in Lamarcus Aldridge, Millsap more than holds his own. Notice how everything is contested, how he repeatedly denies Aldridge from getting position beneath the basket and how he is quick enough to deny Aldridge from driving to the basket as well.
The fit is tremendous in terms of skill, system and shoring up an area of need. Millsap, like many of the other free agent profiles so far, would instantly become the best defender on the Denver Nuggets roster. He also plays the power forward position which is probably the position that makes the most sense to upgrade (that or small forward). With no clear player of the future at that spot Millsap could slide into the starting lineup fairly easy, especially if the Nuggets let some of their other forwards go.
Millsap also would provide some of that veteran leadership that has been so lacking in Denver. Not only does he have the benefit of being an eleven year veteran (nine of which resulted in a postseason birth), but he’s also one of the best players on the court, an aspect that was missing from this years leader in the locker room Jameer Nelson. However, Millsap’s age is also what hurts his fit in Denver as well. At 32 years old he’s headed to the down turn of his career meanwhile the majority of the Nuggets core is still a few years away from hitting their prime meaning that by the time Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are out dominating the league, Millsap could have fallen off significantly.
And that’s where a deal for Millsap gets tricky. Despite his 11 years, he’s only managed to get to a conference finals once in his career and with the Nuggets not only still trying to figure out how to get back to the playoffs, but also when they do still have the Golden State Warriors in their way, it’s not likely that Millsap will view them as a good spot to go to chase a ring, which has to at least be partly his motivation with wherever he signs. The Nuggets also still have Kenneth Faried, Juancho Hernangomez, Darrell Arthur and Wilson Chandler under contract, all of whom could fight for minutes at the four next year. Adding Millsap to the mix solves the issue of who is the de facto starter, but then there are four guys (two of whom are strictly power forwards) vying for those backup minutes. With the crowded rotation becoming an issue last season, adding Millsap would almost certainly mean having to unload two of those other four guys to make it work.
This is the other complication, with Millsap’s tenure in the league and also his high level of play, he’s got the ability to make some crazy cash. In fact, if Atlanta wanted to (they won’t, but they could) they could give him the largest contract the league has ever seen a la Mike Conley with the Memphis Grizzlies last offseason. It’s not likely Millsap will get the max, just because paying him over $35 million a season is insane. However, some other contracts handed out to power forward types last season can provide some context:
Al Jefferson - 3 years, $30 million
Bismack Biyombo - 4 years, $72 million
Marvin Williams - 4 years, $54.5 million
Ryan Anderson - 4 years, $80 million
Al Horford - 4 years, $113 million
So more or less the moral of the story here is the NBA was all over the board as far as big man compensation last year (also Al Jefferson should fire his agent). Horford got a max deal from the Boston Celtics but I don’t think Millsap gets a max offer, not even from a team outside Atlanta who can only offer a 4 year deal like the Celtics did with Horford. The cost is still just too great, no matter how good he may be. However, on the same token, he’s definitely worth more than Anderson, the second highest earner on the list. A fair bet for Millsap’s contract given his earning power and age is probably in the 3 year $80 million area, or about $27 million per season. That’s an amount the Nuggets can offer, and three years is about the ideal length.
Money won’t be an issue with any Nuggets free agent target, just as it wasn’t last year. However, also like last season what could very well happen is Denver simply is unable to woo a star player like Millsap when competing with other larger markets and/or more competitive rosters. What is far more likely is that Millsap won’t really be looking at cashing in and will be more focused on winning a title. There’s an argument Tim Connelly and company can make in regards to that, discussing how Millsap pairs with Jokic and then the team is really just one other big piece away from making a run and has all the assets to go out and acquire said piece. Realistically though, the Nuggets just don’t have the here and now when it comes to talking about making a finals run. Millsap seems far more likely to latch on to a team like the Boston Celtics that not only has talent and money, but also plays in the east where LeBron James gets older by the day. There’s also the possibility he goes full David West and takes way less money to be on a team with a shot at a title, if that’s the case then the Houston Rockets could also make a compelling case. Still, the number of teams with loads of cash is dwindling and the Nuggets are one of the more attractive rosters among the teams who do have money to spend so I’d put the likelihood of Millsap wearing a Nuggets uniform next season at 25%.