Hawks coach and president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer insisted Atlanta wasn’t trading Paul Millsap, and then the impending free agent proved exactly why the team is intent on keeping him.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Budenholzer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before Monday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. “You can write that.”
Millsap responded by dropping 21 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four blocks and a pair of steals on the Blazers, including a tough left-handed runner at the buzzer that sent the game into overtime:
The Hawks scored the final 12 points of OT to keep pace with the Toronto Raptors for fourth place in the East. Atlanta is now 13-7 since trading Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a first-round pick.
A 16-16 start to the season had many wondering whether the Hawks would enter full-on rebuilding mode, and the Korver trade on Jan. 5 only fueled that speculation, especially when The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Atlanta was in talks with multiple teams about a potential Millsap deal.
A few days later, as Atlanta continued on a seven-game win streak that vaulted them back into the middle of the East playoff standings, Woj cited sources saying Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox had begun informing teams Millsap was no longer on the table, and discussion of a potential trade died down. Although, there was still some skepticism about whether that was a negotiating ploy by Wilcox.
But Budenholzer’s latest remarks suggest this is no ploy. Per the Journal-Constitution, Coach Bud told Millsap the team would not be trading him, so to change course now would mean a broken promise.
“Bud has been a man of his word,” Millsap told the AJC on Monday. “He has always shot it straight with me, always been honest with me. I take his word for what it is. It’s refreshing to know I’m not going anywhere and I’ll be on this team until the end of the year.
“Now, I’ve got to make it work. Stick to basketball and try to get wins.”
“Until the end of the year” being the operative phrase. By keeping Millsap through the Feb. 23 trade deadline, the Hawks now run the risk of the four-time All-Star opting out of his contract this summer and leaving for nothing, as Al Horford and DeMarre Carroll have done each of the last two seasons.
The Hawks are banking on the Bird Rights they hold on Millsap, which allow them to offer one more year and up to $43.68 million more than anybody else in free agency. A number of clubs will surely be interested in the 11-year veteran’s services — and might even offer a four-year, $150 million max — so it will be interesting to see if Atlanta will extend anything close to their near $200 million max in order to keep Millsap through his 37th birthday and avoid another high-priced free agent walking away.
But there should be real concern inside the Hawks organization about whether re-signing a 32-year-old Millsap is the best direction for the franchise. Atlanta plugged holes left by the departures of Jeff Teague (via trade), Horford and Carroll by signing Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and Dwight Howard for a combined $210 million, and they are no closer to the team’s historic 60-win campaign in 2014-15 than they were when the team began to fracture that starting five throughout the 2015-16 season.
Despite his typically wide-ranging contribution in Monday night’s victory, there is a ceiling for Millsap and the team employing him as the face of the franchise, and both seemed to hit their apex two years ago. By committing long-term to Millsap, Atlanta could be locking itself into also-ran status for the foreseeable future, with little cap space to add significant talent for at least the next two seasons.
You wonder whether the lack of any enticing trade offers for what could only amount to a two-month rental of Millsap led the Hawks to take their best player off the table, but considering the Orlando Magic just got a serviceable NBA player and a first-round pick for Serge Ibaka, it’s unlikely Atlanta couldn’t get something worthwhile for a perennial All-Star. By not trading Millsap, the Hawks appear to be delaying a complete rebuild around their young talent, which may be satisfactory for a team that’s made the playoffs nine straight seasons and never gotten beyond the Eastern Conference finals.
There is a third option here. The Hawks could let Millsap walk and use the cap space currently reserved for him to offer someone a max contract in free agency. But it won’t be easy to sell free agents on an Atlanta roster without Millsap or the assets they could have gotten for him in a trade.
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