When Paul Millsap signed a two-year, $19 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks prior to the 2013-2014 season, it was universally seen as a steal for the organization. In the same breath, the acquisition was viewed positively through the prism of attracting a very good, but not great, player at a very reasonable contract, rather than a move that would transform the roster due to Millsap’s individual ability.
Fast-forward more than two years, and Paul Millsap is the best player on the roster for a team that is projected to finish with homecourt advantage in the 2016 NBA Playoffs after winning 60 games the previous season.
Yes, Al Horford is seen by most as the "cornerstone" of the Hawks roster, and that is perfectly fair given his longevity with the organization and high-level play. If asked to pick the "best" player on the roster, inserting Horford’s name would be perfectly fair, but at least in terms of the 2015-2016 season, Millsap and his newly-minted three-year, $60.2 million contract would be the correct answer.
Another question centered on Millsap, though, is his place among the best players in the Eastern Conference and, on cue, that discussion revolves around selection to the All-Star team.
Millsap has been selected to the past two All-Star games as a reserve for the Eastern Conference, and that coincides with his arrival in Atlanta. To be blunt, his inclusion in the 2016 edition is a virtual no-brainer at this point, as Millsap is averaging 18.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals for the playoff-bound Hawks. However, there is something to debate concerning Millsap and an appearance in Toronto in February.
Should he start for the East?
At face value, many will see this as a ridiculous premise and, given that the starters are chosen through fan voting, Millsap has no chance of actually cracking that lineup. Still, a deeper dive into the numbers suggests that it is not crazy in the slightest to suggest that the former Louisiana Tech and Utah Jazz standout deserves real consideration.
Given that the NBA has transitioned to a format that includes two backcourt and three frontcourt players, there are two "locks" for inclusion for the Eastern frontcourt. LeBron James remains in the discussion as one of the best players in the world, and he captains what is easily the best team in the conference in Cleveland. Next to LeBron, Indiana’s Paul George has returned as a full-blown two-way standout for the Pacers, transforming a roster that appeared bound for the lottery and carrying Frank Vogel and company to what appears to be a likely playoff run.
With that out of the way, here are the candidates for the third slot in the non-Millsap division, with the caveat that Jimmy Butler should be considered a perimeter player:
Chris Bosh – Bosh, like Millsap, is an example of a player who performs at a higher level than his "traditional" stats would indicate. He is averaging a highly respectable 19.1 points and 8.0 rebounds per game on the season, and with 47/39/81 shooting splits, Bosh acquires those numbers quite efficiently. For my money, he remains the best player on the Miami roster, and as a two-way player, there are only a handful of more dependable frontcourt options in the league.
Carmelo Anthony – It hasn’t been the most explosive statistical season for Anthony, but that doesn’t mean he’s playing poorly. Anthony is putting together his lowest scoring average (21.7 per game) since 2004-2005, but New York is playing much better basketball this season, and the improvement can at least be partially tied to Anthony’s play. He is flashing a willingness to pass and facilitate effectively while playing largely adequate defense and Anthony certainly fits the "best player on a possible playoff team" label.
Andre Drummond – This is Millsap’s biggest obstacle in my mind, as Drummond’s numbers are preposterous. The big man leads the NBA (not just the East) in rebounding at 15.6 per game, and Drummond throws in 18.1 points per game for good measure. The knock, at least in my mind, is that Drummond somehow isn’t particularly efficient, as his 52.9% field goal percentage lags behind what it is perceived to be, and Drummond’s free throw woes (36.2%) are well-documented.
As for Millsap, the profile speaks for itself. The talented power forward (23.13) trails only Drummond (23.67) in PER among the legitimate candidates, and Millsap trails only Bosh in Win Shares. Beyond that, Paul Millsap ranks behind only Draymond Green among all power forwards in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric, and that places him 7th in the statistic in the entire league, soundly ahead of all other candidates. That is, of course, only one statistic, but the balance of the argument is that Millsap’s advanced metrics are excellent.
It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that any of the Drummond-Anthony-Bosh trio should be inserted as an All-Star starter ahead of Paul Millsap. What isn’t crazy, though, is that Millsap’s profile compares quite favorably to all three of the competitors, and if the season ended today, my completely fictional "pick" would be a coin-flip between Millsap and Drummond for the final starting nod.
Somebody alert the voting public.