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Why Won’t the Hawks Trade Paul Millsap?

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Some of the reasons why the Hawks have chosen to hold on to their star power forward

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks have defied almost all expectations for what teams in their situation should do. By trading Kyle Korver in early January they seemed to be preparing for a rebuild, but then immediately changed course by pulling Paul Millsap off the market. With Coach Budenholzer’s recent declaration that Millsap will not be traded, it seems that the door for speculation on that front is finally closed.

Regardless of how one feels about this situation, there is a legitimate argument to be made in favor of trading Millsap. However, this argument is ultimately a moot point since he will not be moved. With that in mind, here is an attempt to understand the rationale behind holding on to him at the deadline.

Staying Competitive

This is the first and most obvious reason to not trade Millsap, and it is a compelling one. The Hawks are currently in fifth place in the east, and, despite a negative point differential are in fantastic shape to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight projects Atlanta to finish in fifth place in the East, with a record of 45-37.

It is worth noting that the Hawks’ schedule gets far more difficult after the All-Star break, and will remain so until the end of the season. So while the team has a good record right now, 32-23, this projection sees them playing under .500 for the rest of the year. Given how noncompetitive most of the East is, though, this would still be enough to put Atlanta comfortably in the playoffs.

If the Hawks play the Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs, they will be clear underdogs, but will still have a legitimate chance of winning that series. With the exception of Cleveland, Atlanta would have at least a chance of beating any East team, making any decision to trade Millsap (and effectively ruin that chance) difficult. Being a mid-tier playoff team is something many franchises aspire to right now, and it is understandable that the front office would not want to jettison this status.

Avoiding a Rebuild

This reason may ultimately carry more weight than the idea of staying competitive, though it is also closely related. If the Hawks trade Millsap, they probably will miss the playoffs next season, forcing the team to confront the thorny issue of its relatively weak market. With poor attendance numbers now, one can only imagine how empty Philips Arena would be for a full season of a non-playoff team.

The idea of avoiding a rebuild for as long as possible undeniably carries weight with the Hawks front office: we saw it this summer with the multiple free agent signings. Atlanta could have easily jettisoned assets to prepare for the future, but chose to hold on to its aging core. Regardless of the merits of this mentality, it is clearly one that holds great weight for this team.

Ownership

This is a difficult reason to evaluate — and bleeds over into speculation quickly — but the ownership vetoing a Millsap trade would explain why the Hawks seemingly changed direction so quickly in early January. There are many reasons why ownership would be against trading the team’s best player, but if this indeed the case then the above reasons are probably at least partly to blame as well. The Hawks are famously tight-lipped about issues like this one though, so this reason is difficult to fully evaluate.

Conclusion

In the end, understanding why the Hawks are choosing to hold on to Millsap is far less important than the mere fact that he isn’t going anywhere. For now, that means the Hawks are a playoff team, even if they fall a spot or two in the standings in March or April. The real ramifications for this decision will be seen this summer in Millsap’s free agency.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand in all of this is that there are good arguments in favor of both keeping and trading Millsap. And regardless of which side you fall on, there is (hopefully) a definite rationale behind the decision to keep him. We just don’t know for sure what it is right now.