To say that no one saw the Hawks coming would be an understatement. Atlanta was supposed to be the fifth seed in the East, below the Cavaliers, Raptors, Wizards and Bulls. Mediocrity has been associated with the Hawks for so long that it became expected of them.
Needless to say, that perception is disappearing as the team has grabbed hold to the best record in the conference while steamrolling opponents. Coach Mike Budenholzer gets the most credit for the transformation, with the improved Jeff Teague and the returning Al Horford following closely. Kyle Korver’s record-breaking shooting gets a lot of deserved attention as well. With only so much praise to go around, the player that is not receiving the recognition he should get is one of the league’s most underrated stars, Paul Millsap.
It’s easy to balk at the idea of Millsap as anything other than a good complementary player. He doesn’t do one thing at an elite level, he’s not a primary scorer and he doesn’t produce as many highlights as other players. Yet only three other stars average 15+ points, 7+ rebounds and 3+ assists in the entire league: DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol. Obviously Millsap is a step below those guys since he’s not his team’s offensive hub, but what he surrenders in dominance he gets back in versatility.
Millsap ranks 11th in the league in steals per game, trailing only combo forward Thaddeus Young among players that could be considered big men. He’s converting 34 percent of his three-pointers, only a shade below the league average of 35 percent, despite averaging over three outside shots per game. Millsap combines the traits we usually associate with elite big men with guard qualities that make him one of the most unique players in the game and perhaps the biggest reason for the Hawks’ success.
Atlanta doesn’t have a rim protector. Millsap doesn’t help there, as the inability to protect the paint is by far his biggest flaw. At 6-feet-7 and with a good, but not great, wingspan and hops, Millsap is not much of a shot blocking threat. The other bigs in the Hawks’ roster are similarly challenged, with Al Horford as the best of the bunch without approaching the elite. To make up for it, Atlanta needs to prevent opposing players from getting to the rim. Pick and roll defense is especially important since there’s no one in the back line that can erase any mistakes. So it’s imperative they don’t let a guards get to the paint after turning the corner or allow a clear pass to the dive man. Millsap is fantastic at preventing both.
Here he is stopping Manu Ginobili:
And here he is forcing Lou Williams into a turnover as he looks to pass:
Coupled with his above-average man defense and his excellent floor awareness, those attributes make Millsap a plus on the defensive end even if he doesn’t offer the type of deterrence on drives as other traditional big men do. As a result, the Hawks’ defense is better with Millsap on the court than off.
Offensively, Millsap’s impact is even more significant. Not only do his steals often fuel the Hawks’ fastbreak attack (Atlanta gets 2.4 more fastbreak points per game with Millsap on the court than off) but his ability to play inside and out makes him a match up nightmare for most teams. Few players can be a threat to shoot, drive and post up and Millsap is one of them. He’s an above-average finisher at the rim despite the inches he gives up and his passing makes it impossible to overhelp on him without paying the price.
Millsap’s 10.8 points created by assists per 48 minutes ranks him close to Marc Gasol (11.8) and Tim Duncan (11.7) and ahead of Pau Gasol (9.1), all considered among the best passing big men on the game today. With him playing next to another terrific passing big man like Al Horford, the Hawks are often unstoppable, as everyone on the floor can shoot, drive and pass. In many ways, Millsap’s game mirrors the Hawks’: unselfish, versatile and precise. He’s a perfect fit in Atlanta. Which makes the fact that he’s in the last year of his contract all the more intriguing.
Reports recently surfaced indicating the Hawks offered Millsap a longer contract when they first signed him in 2013. Millsap declined, wanting to have the opportunity to get one last big deal when he was 30. Clearly the Hawks value Millsap greatly and will surely look to bring him back. Millsap has been comfortable in Atlanta, as they have given him the opportunity to win as well as to showcase his game for that last big payday. Common sense indicated that he will be back in Atlanta last season. But things don’t always play out rationally in the NBA.
What if the Knicks come calling? Millsap would fit perfectly next to Carmelo Anthony. San Antonio could have cap space and is the blueprint for what’s going on in Atlanta, so the fit would be great. If the Hawks don’t get to the conference finals — an unlikely but possible result — Millsap would be reckless to not explore his options. The same applies to the Hawks. If there’s even a chance Marc Gasol considers them in free agency, they have to pursue him even if it hurts their chances of re-signing Millsap. And if a desperate team drives his price tag significantly, the Hawks could value flexibility over fit and go for a similar player commanding a smaller salary, like Draymond Green or Thaddeus Young. Adding a true, rim-protecting center like DeAndre Jordan or Robin Lopez to finally move Al Horford to power forward should be a possibility as well.
As compelling as those future scenarios are, the present is more enjoyable. The perfect match that the Hawks and Millsap represent is one of the best and most underrated story lines of the season. It’s a reminder that sometimes players can continue to grow and with the right fit, become stars for winning teams despite being unheralded throughout. Millsap will receive the biggest confirmation of his value in the form of a huge contract in the offseason. He’s also finally getting the recognition he deserves from an adoring Hawks fanbase and the NBA public at large. It’s about time.