The last remaining member of the 60 win Atlanta Hawks team in 2014-2015 season is Paul Millsap. The 2006 Draft second round pick’s career has been as surprising as the free flowing side that swept through the Eastern Conference in LeBron James’ first season back in Cleveland Cavaliers.
Well the statement might not entirely be true if other members of the team are considered. Coach Mike Budenholzer was at the helm when the surprise surge from the Hawks caught everyone out and landed the side the first spot in the Eastern Conference.
Budenholzer would go on to win Coach of the Year despite a disappointing Eastern finals showdown against the Cavs. Atlanta had a good thing going on during this period and the positive effects of the wins spewed off the court. For the first time in a long while, four members on the same team were voted into the All Star game. Point Guard Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Millsap and Al Horford featured in the Game matching the likes of the 2011 Boston Celtics who had Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, recently retired Paul Pierce and Ray Allen voted into the game.
The Celtics big rival, Los Angeles Lakers, did same in the late 90’s with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal leading the line. As sharply as the OKC Thunder triumvirate of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook went down with only the latter remaining, Atlanta’s quartet broke up as quickly as it ascended the conference standings.
Teague got shipped to Indiana Pacers with a tough free agency coming up, Korver joined Cleveland Cavaliers for pretty much the same reason and Horford spurned the team for a legit title chance with Boston Celtics and DeMarre Carroll-the only man missing from Atlanta’s All-Star crew a few seasons ago, signed a bumper deal worth $15 million a year with Toronto Raptors. Millsap’s fate could have steered in that direction had Hawks management traded his expiring contract with his lucrative unrestricted free agency coming up. Dealing one of the best players in the league was sure to bring back loads of players, draft picks and even cash considerations in return. However, management gambled and decided to let Millsap play the season and make his choice in the offseason. There is a section that believe some members of the Atlanta hierarchy wanted to make the trade while another block opposed it.
Budenholzer’s dropping of the President of Basketball Operations role is believed to be as a result of the strife with General Manager Wes Wilcox. So after falling flat quite frankly to Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs, Millsap has to make his decision; a decision sure to affect the next step of his career no doubt but his decision will affect the club’s direction. From a financial standpoint, Atlanta is in the best position than any suitor thanks to the NBA’s skewed negotiations that tilt heavily towards teams particularly mid and small market ones, to retain talent. Millsap can sign a larger deal if he declines to activates his player option on the last year of his contract which is due to pay him $21 million.
However, at 32 and despite being one of the top performers in the league, Millsap just has a conference finals appearance on his CV. Players at Millsap’s spot like Kyle Lowry, are bound to prioritize the chances of winning a title in free agency. With King James and the Cavs locked in on the East’s crown there is little chance to win a title in the few elite years Millsap has left in the tank. Chicago Bulls is a logical option to contain Millsap’s expected steep pay rise due to the below market deals for Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo should they pick his contract up for next season. Indiana is a good look and Millsap will be a huge upgrade on Thaddeus Young but with Paul George in a similar situation as the former Utah Jazz big man, nothing is guaranteed.
The Clippers look like an ideal fit financially and play wise considering he is a better option than the relatively playoff inexperienced and oft injured Blake Griffin. Conversely, could Millsap’s presence heal the Clippers out of the mental blockade to get past Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets? For Atlanta, Millsap’s departure is bound to hurl the side out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007 as his loss could be the start of a rebuild for a side that even with Millsap is not good enough to compete among the elite. Should he move, Atlanta will have Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway lead the next wave of Hawks with Taurean Prince and DeAndre Beambry.
The likes of Dwight Howard, Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Dunleavy are expected to leave with Millsap’s presence a key reason for their stay in the southern city. Whatever Atlanta has planned for next season, they will have to wait for Paul Millsap’s decision.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter