Paul Millsap has made it pretty clear that he is going to opt out of his $21.5M player option for next season; this should surprise no one. He has also made statements that indicate that he has some amount of serious interest in returning to the Hawks and team brass has made it clear that they intend to do everything within their power to bring the four time All-Star back. But any player looking at signing, almost surely in Millsap’s case, the last significant contract of his NBA career is going to explore all options with the utmost care and deliberation.
Last summer free agents lucked into the most seller-friendly market maybe in the history of the league. The new TV deals the league secured pushed the salary cap to a new high. It seemed every team in the league had serious cap space with which to work and players certainly took advantage. The market this summer is very different; the number of teams who have that type of working cap space have approximately been cut in half, if not more.
So when considering what the likelihood is of Millsap resigning with the Hawks, a critical part of that projection comes down to this: is there a better situation for him with another team?
Let’s put some parameters in place about what qualifies as a “better situation”. Here is the criteria I used for this analysis:
- The team has the cap space or a reasonable path to the cap space to make a near max offer (starting at least at $32M in the first season of the contract)
- The team has a moderate amount of credibility as a contender to very likely advance at least past the first round in the playoffs next season (so no Nets, Kings, Magic, etc.)
- The team is a reasonable positional fit; Millsap would be the unquestioned starter a the power forward position
- There is at least a reasonable amount of stability within the organization, the ownership group, the front office and the coaching staff
Teams that are potential immediate fits
The Rockets had a very successful regular season (55-27, 3rd seed in Western Conference) and looked to be one of the more credible threats to the Golden State Warriors in the post-season. Eventually they flamed out in ugly fashion losing by nearly 40 points in a close out situation in game 6 at home to a Spurs team that was playing without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. Still they have very upper tier talent secured for the immediate and longer term but clearly need to add at least one more significant piece to take themselves seriously as a contender.
The Rockets have a solid and very affordable starting center in Clint Capela, although he needs help when going up against the more physical bigs in the league. The power forward position was primarily manned last season by Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. They will certainly explore the market to bolster their front court prior to considering bringing back unrestricted free agent Nene, who could be seriously contemplating retirement just as he did last summer. Sam Dekker could be a contributor at the position in the future, but should be viewed as a rotation player next season at best.
Outside of the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, no team takes themselves more seriously as a potential contender than do the Rockets. They don’t have the projected working cap space to make a near max offer to Millsap but there is not a more creative GM in the league than Daryl Morey. Moving Ariza and Lou Williams in a trade (both very realistic possibilities) would get them in the neighborhood of having the cap room with which to work as to make a potential offer.
In reflecting on how the playoffs ended for the Rockets it seems pretty obvious to me that they will be a serious player in the Millsap market. They struggled to identify a credible way to play with a small line-up when match ups dictated it. Millsap’s ability to play comfortably at the center position on both ends of the court might mean he is the ideal solution for a Rockets team looking to get to the next level.
The Celtics are in position to put themselves into play with just about any free agent they want. They have the financial and roster flexibility and the assets to go in any direction they want. They might also be the only team that doesn’t have to commit to a single direction; they could continue playing for short-term success while also building towards future contention.
And there is not a team with more obvious positional need than the Celtics. Former Atlanta Hawk Al Horford is secured for at least 2 more seasons, but Boston could move on from nearly every other center or power forward on the roster this summer. Kelly Olynyk is heading into restricted free agency. Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko are heading into unrestricted free agency. Tyler Zeller and Jordan Mickey have non-guaranteed contracts for next season. And Jae Crowder has one of the most team friendly contracts in the entire league.
Millsap certainly should not expect to be the Celtics first priority this summer. Gordon Heyward is very likely to be their first free agent target. And despite landing the first overall pick the upcoming draft (which they are unlikely to trade in my opinion) they still have the assets to use in a potential effort to acquire either Jimmy Butler or Paul George via trade even without including the top overall pick.
But the gap between them and the Cavaliers, which is becoming increasingly obvious as each games progresses in their current match up (through 2 games as this is being written) in the Eastern Conference finals, might be significant enough that they may chose to focus only on players, for example, that are no more than 27 years of age. The result would be them having no interest in Millsap and a potentially serious consideration of trading All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas as he approaches the final year of his contract.
My assessment is that the status of their current playoff match up with the Cavaliers makes them less of a player, than the Rockets for example, is any scenario that would see them investing in a player that does not project to be a likely contributor to a contending team at least 3 years down the road. But they still have the option to explore some nearer term improvements without sacrificing any aspect of their future.
The Jazz took maybe the biggest step forward of any team in the league during the 2016-17 season. They broke the 50 win barrier and qualified for the playoffs for the first time since getting swept by the Spurs in the 2012 playoffs. They knocked off an ambitious Los Angeles Clippers team in the first round of this season’s playoffs before becoming just another sweep casualty, it would appear, of the Warriors as they head towards a likely 3rd consecutive finals appearance. The Jazz showed the seriousness with which they take their immediate future last summer by adding veterans George Hill (via trade), and Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw (via free agency). Millsap played his first 7 seasons of his career with Utah.
The Jazz, of course, first have to deal with unrestricted free agent Gordon Hayward. If he opts to sign elsewhere the Jazz will have to take a step back and reassess their situation completely before considering any serious commitments. Assuming Hayward’s return, the Jazz have a pretty capable front court and some outstanding questions in their back court. So on the surface this might not seems like much of a fit.
But it could be that the Jazz saw just enough in Dante Exum, the 21-year-old former number 5 overall draft pick, at the end of the season and the playoffs such that they choose to not invest in approximately $25M or more (per season) to bring back the veteran point guard they acquired last season, Hill. If so, the Jazz could see Millsap as another potential veteran to get them to yet another level next season.
Making the room for a potential contract offer to Millsap would mean not bringing back Diaw (non-guaranteed contract for next season) and probably moving current starting power forward Derrick Favors in a trade (a realistic possibility) . It would almost certainly require them to move guard Alec Burks who is still owed more than $22M over the next two seasons, which could be a challenge. But might there be a team in the league willing to take on that contract if the Jazz would also include Trey Lyles in a potential deal? I think that could be a possibility.
Teams that could talk themselves into a potential Millsap offer
The Bucks are also seen as an up and coming team in the league and have an emerging young star to build around in the form of first time All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who might now be the only player in the league, not named Lebron James, that can play any position on any possession on both ends of the court. Should Greg Monroe (likely) and/or Spencer Hawes (unlikely) opt out of their respective player options for next season the Bucks will need to add to their front court and could consider the veteran Millsap the player that could help them get to the next level.
If Hawes does not opt out, the Bucks would likely have to move either John Henson (almost impossible without attaching draft assets) or Nirza Teletovic (more realistic) in a trade as to create the space to make an offer to Millsap. But by far most importantly, it would mean punting any cap room to work with as to explore a possible contract extension with Jabari Parker, the young talented forward who will not return to action (because of injury) until after the deadline to agree to such an extention.
The Pacers very well could be in panic mode and might be forced into taking what might be an otherwise inadvisable risk as to try to put a team around Paul George as he enters his last season prior to unrestricted free agency. Reportedly George has his eyes set on the Los Angeles Lakers.
In this scenario, offering Millsap might create a financial constraint around acquiring a good enough point guard to improve the team or simply forcing them to use Bird rights to bring Jeff Teague back to play at the position. But when comparing their level of competitiveness in their sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers in the first round, an average margin of loss of just 4 points, to how the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have fared, they could see this a potential path to be a serious enough contender next season to take the risk as to try and hang on to George.
Teams that would need another piece before Millsap would even consider an offer
The Heat have the championship pedigree and the organizational stability to potentially put themselves in play. And they have a few solid core pieces that helped them achieve much higher than expected results this season. It not hard to see them as a team that could aim for 50 wins and a top 4 seed in the Eastern Conference next season. But it would require them to add a player of at least Gordon Hayward’s caliber for the possibility of an agreement to make sense for either the Millsap or the Heat.
Mark Cuban’s team always prefer to be in win now mode. They helped Harrison Barnes take a significant step forward last season; if they add one of the better free agent point guards on the market (George Hill?) and can retain Nerlens Noel and convince free agent targets that he can be the starting center on a contending team, they could make a run at Millsap.
I don’t think that Dirk Nowitzki would move to the bench for just anyone, but he is probably only good for 50 regular season games or so at this point and Millsap might be one of only a few handful of players in the league that is respected enough to see Dirk but into a move such as this.
So, there you have it. There are a number of teams that anyone would have to admit would be better competitive fits for Millsap in the immediate future, but the Rockets seem to be the only obvious pursuer. But he is the type of rare combination of talent, experience and character that will cause potentially every team on this list to at least consider a path that might lead to asking for a meeting. And when meetings are held, almost anything becomes a possibility.