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Why a potential Paul Millsap departure might ultimately be better for everyone

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Short-term and long-term — Millsap’s free agency affects both for the Hawks

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

All-Star power forward Paul Millsap has enjoyed great levels of both personal and team success since he signed with Atlanta back in 2013. As well as being a treasured member of the Hawks’ 60-win season and Atlanta’s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, Millsap has made the All-Star team in all four seasons he has spent in Atlanta with the Hawks as well as making the All-NBA Defensive 2nd team in 2016.

For the last two seasons, Millsap has been the Hawks’ best player and his ability to perform at a high level on both sides of the floor every night has truly been invaluable to the Hawks in their title quest. For the second time in his tenure with the Hawks, however, Millsap is about to hit the free agency market after reportedly choosing to decline his player option for 2017-18.

It is no coincidence that Millsap is a free agent this summer of all summers — it has all been part of a carefully constructed plan. When Millsap signed his three-year extension back in 2015, he and his camp knew that the salary cap would be rising significantly in the near future, not just once but twice. If Millsap continued to play at the level he had just displayed in 2015 (or better), he would be in line for a massive, massive contract by the time he could potentially decline his player option.

As it turns out, that contract could amount to as much as $207 million over 5 years and Millsap could earn as much as $47 million in the final year of that deal. That’s a lot of money for any player and it comes at a time in Millsap’s career where the Hawks may not necessarily want to pay him that sort of money. Millsap turned 32 in February, meaning he would turn 37 during his final year of a possible five year deal. History says that players begin to decline in their as they grow into their 30’s, almost to be point of being unrecognizable by the time 37 rolls around. It’s a song and dance seen often in the NBA, one that usually doesn’t end well for the front office or the fans.

It’s understandable why the Hawks may not want to pay Millsap the max until age 37 but they may not even get the opportunity to do so. One of the benefits of being an unrestricted free agent is the freedom of choice, and Millsap will have options. He can conceivably walk away, but would this be a bad thing for the Hawks’ long-term future?

First thing’s first...

Before we go any further let me say this:

I am a HUGE Paul Millsap fan. Paul has been one of my favorite players to watch in the entire NBA over the last few seasons. Last season, he was the one player who stopped me from going insane from watching the 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks, a team I honestly couldn’t stand watching — Paul made the Hawks worth watching. I love his body of work offensively and defensively, his toughness...I could honestly go on and on.

The point to take away here is I am NOT a Paul Millsap hater. BELIEVE ME, I’d be sad as anyone to see Paul go but, for the Hawks’ long-term future, maybe it’s better if he left.

Here’s why...

On the court, the Hawks are stuck

The Hawks are caught between a rock and a hard place. They’re a pretty good/average team but not bad enough to net themselves a decent draft pick. They’re not a championship team nor look anything close to the sort. The tricky nature of their cap space, and their impending free agents this summer, means that the Hawks have zero cap space to operate with to add to their roster (unless they trade either Dwight Howard and/or Kent Bazemore).

In order to take ‘the next step’, the Hawks — barring any cap related trades — will have to rely purely on the development of their young players (Dennis Schröder, Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry) rather than adding to their squad in free agency. The Hawks also have to hope that Dwight and Paul (both now in their 30’s) don’t regress in order to have any hope of fighting for even home court advantage. That’s not going to be enough to take the Hawks into contention for the Eastern Conference where Cleveland reigns supreme and teams like Boston and Milwaukee are ever improving.

The Hawks were so bad when Paul Millsap was sidelined with injury for a spell near the end of the season and went 3-10 in his absence. Imagine a whole season of that... the Hawks would probably (to be kind) miss the playoffs and would probably be one of the worse teams in the Eastern Conference.

While that obviously wouldn’t be ideal for the fans, finishing lower in the standings would give the Hawks an opportunity to re-arm in the draft and potentially draft a player the Hawks could build around. When you’re asking questions about rebuilding, you have to go the other way too — listen to both sides of the argument. What’s the Hawks’ ceiling? What’s the best they can achieve with what they’ve got? What is Atlanta’s ceiling if Millsap returns?

If Millsap stays, Atlanta’s — probable — ceiling for the next 3-4 years is this: They’re a good/slightly above average regular season team that could make the playoffs but will ultimately lose in Round 1, maybe Round 2 if you’re lucky.

That’s not much of a ceiling.

The Hawks are stuck in no-mans-land with their current core. If Millsap walks, sure, it would be disastrous for the fans and the team on the court but it would at least give the Hawks the opportunity they need to change directions, a change that has been looming on the horizon for a while now...

The Hawks will be relieved of a guaranteed ‘future horrible’ contract

Again, it bears repeating, Paul Millsap is a fabulous player. He’s one that I admire very much and he’s going to be worth every penny of any new deal for the first year maybe even the second year of a potential extension. But the further down the road we (collectively) get in a possible four/five year extension, the more and more expensive the contract becomes and the worse it’ll get.

Millsap could potentially earn $44 and $47 million in the final two seasons of a possible 5 year deal — respectively — at ages 36 and 37. Should the salary cap hover around the $102-$105 million range, that would constitute for almost 45% of the cap. History says — especially as a big man — Millsap will have regressed significantly by that time.

Example...

At age 31 (close enough) Ray Allen averaged 26.4 points per game with the Seattle Supersonics playing 40 minutes per game. By age 37, Allen averaged 10.9 points per game coming off the bench for the Miami Heat, playing just under 26 minutes a night.

Perhaps that’s a bad example since Allen is a shooter is shooters age well in the NBA, heck, look at Jason Terry... Let’s have a look at a player more so in Millsap’s wheelhouse, and one he knew quite well. Former Hawk Elton Brand.

At age 32, Brand averaged 15 points per game, secured 8.3 rebounds per game, averaged a steal and a block, started and played 81 regular season games with the Sixers. By age 37? 4.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game in 17 games, again with the Sixers as his career ended.

The problem here speaks for itself.

Sure, it’s conceivable, like Joe Johnson before, that the Hawks trade Millsap later down the line after signing an extension, but what team will take him knowing what awaits for them in years three, four and possibly five of that contract? I’m not sure any will...

The Hawks, should they sign Millsap to the max over 5 years, will more than likely be trapped with this contract for its duration (unless they agreed to waive Millsap and stretch his contract) and this will limit what they can do in future free agencies.

Perhaps the Hawks are better off letting someone else pay Millsap this kind of money, like they did with Al Horford...

Ownership is stubborn, a Millsap departure might force a different approach

The main reason the Hawks are in this “Do we, don’t we offer the max?” situation with Millsap is because parts of the front office and ownership lacked foresight and unity.

As we’ve learned through various reports from credible sources, former Hawks GM Wes Wilcox seemed to want to trade Millsap prior to the deadline, seeing the problems down the road of signing a 32 year old to a max deal, and cashing in on what value was there before he became a free agent.

Per NBA.com’s David Aldridge, President of Basketball Operations at the time, Mike Budenholzer didn’t see eye-to-eye with Wilcox (Wilcox’s possible desire to trade away Bud’s best player probably played a part here), and owner Tony Ressler shut down any thought of trading Millsap quickly. Or, to use Ressler’s own acronym, “NFW”.

From reading various interviews and articles involving Ressler, you get the impression he’s ‘in it to win it’ and sooner rather than later.

“...we also acknowledge, at least I would argue, that we need to get better, we need to be positioning for a championship because after 50 years of not winning a championship”, Ressler said in April. “I get what the priorities have to be.”

That’s all well and good, it’s good to know your owner wants to win but when he becomes involved in basketball decisions that directly affect the club’s long term future in a negative manner it becomes...not so good.

With Paul Millsap around the Hawks are always going to be competitive, even if they’re not a particularly great team. And as long as the Hawks are somewhat competitive and fighting for the playoffs/seeding, ownership will be pushing to make moves that’ll look to make them better today more so than tomorrow.

If Millsap were to leave and pull the rug from under the Hawks in that sense, I think that the likely poor results in the season that could possibly follow Millsap’s departure would force ownership and new Hawks GM Travis Schlenk to think about the team’s direction. Toward a rebuild.

Millsap’s chance to possibly sign for a contending team

We’ve noted Millsap’s age — 32 — a number of times. He’s not getting any younger and you only need to have followed this team over the past few years to know there’s a competitive fire in Millsap. He hates losing. It drove him mad as the Hawks lost game after game in his absence.

Forget where the Hawks see themselves going forward, where does Millsap see the Hawks going forward? Does he think he can mount a legitimate title challenge with the Hawks? If not, is he willing to possibly leave money on the table in order to find the right situation where he might have a better shot of competing for a title than the Hawks?

There are teams like the Celtics and the Miami Heat who could certainly offer Millsap very interesting opportunities. Though it’s unlikely the Celtics would reunite Horford and Millsap, Miami on the other hand, in light of reports saying that the organization and Chris Bosh have agreed to part ways which would free up significant cap space for Miami, would be a very attractive prospect indeed.

If he’s offered a five year max from the Hawks, you’d have a few questions to ask him if he left that on the table and signed for four years somewhere else.

Millsap will certainly have suitors. Will they offer a better shot of competing than the Hawks? Will that be enough — in conjunction with the team’s financial offer — to sign Millsap?

Time will tell...

“You either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain”

Millsap’s possible departure might not only be better for the club and the player himself long-term but maybe for the fans too...

“You either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain”.

You might remember that quote from the Dark Knight, where Batman — before he flees the scene of the crime — goes on a monologue where he basically says you either leave when you’re popular/on top or stay around long enough for people to grow to dislike/hate you.

There’s a theme in the NBA where players are disliked because of how much money they make. Kent Bazemore, for example, was loved by most fans before he signed that $70 million extension last summer. Now, some fans have a hard time looking at Bazemore the same way because of the money he now makes, in conjunction with Baze having a tough season.

This isn’t an unfamiliar story for Hawks fans. Joe Johnson springs to mind.

Joe Johnson was a fan favorite at Philips — All-Star, scorer, clutch player and leader... But the sands began to shift in 2010 when Johnson signed a six year $119 million deal — the deal that was simply offered to him. From this moment on, things were never the same for Joe Johnson in Atlanta as the fans began to turn on him.

Though former Hawks GM Danny Ferry came in and righted that wrong — in the eyes of many — when he traded Johnson to Brooklyn in 2012, it has taken a long time for fans to come back around on Johnson, who was regularly booed upon returns to Atlanta.

In Atlanta, Joe Johnson lived long enough to become a villain. To many, his welcome was overstayed and the fan base turned on him, mostly because of the contract he earned. I would fear the same Millsap. The further he progresses down this potential extension and as Millsap regresses, as he will inevitably will, the more I fear the fans will turn on him the same way they did with Johnson.

Joe didn’t deserve that and neither does Paul.

If there was a time to say goodbye to Paul Millsap, it would be now. Paul enjoyed four great years in Atlanta, gave it his all every night and left fans with so many great memories. So long as he didn’t join the Celtics, nearly everyone would appreciate everything he did for the club and wish him well going forward. They would be sad to lose him, sure, but both parties would leave on an overall high after four great seasons.

Maybe things would be better that way, better for everyone...

In closing...

In The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, the ring-bearer, Frodo Baggins, realises he has to leave the Fellowship (his friends and protectors) in order to complete the mission of destroying The One Ring, as the ring would consume the Fellowship one by one, as it was already doing with Boromir.

There’s a scene in the film where Frodo, after escaping the clutches of Boromir after he tried to take the ring from him, meets Aragorn, who asks him where the ring is. Frodo, whose senses are on high alert, retreats to cover and tells Aragorn to stay away. Surprised, Aragorn tells Frodo he swore to protect him, to which Frodo replies “Can you protect me from yourself?”. It’s at this moment Aragorn realises what Frodo is saying and that Frodo must leave for the greater good of the mission. For the future of everyone he had to go... It pained Aragorn that he couldn’t be with Frodo to complete the mission but he knew had to let him go.

Frodo could’ve chosen to stay but things would’ve gone into decay, discord would’ve risen, the ring would’ve consumed the Fellowship one-by-one and the mission would’ve failed.

There’s a similarity to be found in Atlanta’s delicate situation with Paul Millsap.

Millsap and the Hawks could agree to continue their relationship but as time progresses things would deteriorate. From Millsap’s inevitable regression, to the Hawks’ cap flexibility — or lack thereof — in the future limiting the team to improving it, to the teams’ actual on court performances as they try to stay relevant while not being able to add talent in free agency, Millsap’s inevitable frustrations with the team as they settle into ‘no-mans-land’ and to the fans’ relationship with Millsap because of the money he might make in conjunction to the team’s struggles on the court and their struggles to add in free agency...

Perhaps, it’s better for almost everyone involved if Millsap and/or the Hawks decided to move on, even though it may hurt.

However, there’s a problem. It more than likely won’t happen. Speaking as President of Basketball Operations at the time, Mike Budenholzer said the Hawks would be “committed” to re-signing Paul. Whether that changes now that Schlenk is calling the shots remains to be seen...

The Hawks’ front office and ownership also probably feel obligated to offer Millsap the max for a few reasons:

  • If the Hawks let Millsap walk, they will have received zero compensation in return for their best player and will subject themselves to a lot of “if you were going to let him walk, why didn’t you trade him January” backlash (which would be warranted).

The Hawks should have looked to move Millsap when they originally did back (before ownership stepped in and interfered) in January, when they would’ve received at least some return. But now they’re trapped, just like they were with Joe Johnson back in 2010.

From Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo Sports’ Ball Don’t Lie Blog (2010) when the Hawks agreed to that 6 year $119 million deal with Joe Johnson:

Yes, you're backed into a corner, and you can't afford to let your best offensive player go without any proper sign-and-trade compensation. I understand that, but signing above what you originally hoped to pay only goes so far. There has to be a cutoff price, at some point, and paying Joe Johnson around $20 million in 2015-16 has to be that point. Hell, paying Joe Johnson $20 million in 2011-12 has to be that point.

Though Danny Ferry was able to find a willing trade partner to take away Joe Johnson’s contract, the same feat may not be able to be accomplished with Millsap. The Hawks are backed into a corner...

  • Ticket prices are increasing, who’s going to pay some of these incredible price increases to see a mediocre/bad team? Because that’s what the Hawks are without Millsap.

Atlanta is not New York or Los Angeles. People will pay to see the Knicks and Lakers no matter how bad the team is — they’ll still fill those arenas. But not in Atlanta. Even when the Hawks won 48 games in 2016, they ranked 22nd in average attendance per game. In 2017? 26th.

The good/bad news (depending how you see it) regarding Millsap’s future in Atlanta is that the coach is no longer also the President of Basketball Operations. That title — as well as General Manager — now belong to Travis Schlenk. Whether that means Schlenk will actually have the final say on personnel decisions remains to be seen... I can’t imagine Ressler would allow Schlenk to allow Millsap to walk but only time will tell with that choice.

A possible Paul Millsap departure from Atlanta would hurt today but — for all the reasons stated above — may ultimately lead to a better tomorrow.