Paul Millsap spent four seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. He made the Eastern Conference All-Star team in every one of them, and helped lead the Hawks to the playoffs after each of them. He served as one of the linchpins of a defense that ranked among the NBA’s six best in each of them, and one of the driving forces behind the best season in franchise history, a 60-win campaign that ended in the Eastern Conference finals at the hands of LeBron James.
He was the last man standing from that group, the standard-bearer for a period marked by one soaring peak and two subsequent years of frustrating decline, culminating in a first-round exit this postseason as he prepared to enter unrestricted free agency. He’s since left the market, agreeing to terms Sunday on a three-year, $90 million deal to join the Denver Nuggets, a deal that looks to be a great fit for both player and team.
It’s a very rich offer, though, one that far exceeded the Hawks’ offer of … zero dollars.
Millsap told Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday that the decision to head to Colorado was “pretty simple,” in part because new Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk never made an offer for him to stay:
“Denver, they came and they’ve been wanting me for years. They made that known. The presentation that they gave me, it felt comfortable, it felt real. At the end of the day it was going to be the team that I felt most comfortable with and Atlanta. Atlanta decided to go another direction. They didn’t want to make an offer. So it was pretty simple. Denver was the team.”
The Hawks were in touch will Millsap during the free-agent period. The Nuggets came to Atlanta to make their pitch on Saturday. The acceptance came a day later.
That the Hawks didn’t at least put in a bid marks a stark departure from the stance publicly taken by team owner Tony Ressler during Atlanta’s opening-round playoff serires against the Washington Wizards:
“We love Paul Millsap,” Ressler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. “We are trying to re-sign him. We want him to stay here. We think he is a really special player and a special person that we want on our team and in our locker room and we are going to make every effort imaginable to keep him.”
So, what changed between the end of April and the start of July? Let’s see:
• The Hawks lost that playoff series in six games;
• Millsap opted out of the final year of his contract to enter unrestricted free agency as arguably the top power forward on the market;
• And — this is the big one — the Hawks hired Schlenk, a former front-office executive with the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, to be their new general manager, replacing former top decision-maker Wes Wilcox.
Only a couple of weeks after taking the job, Schlenk — looking at the prospect of spending Ressler’s money on luxury-tax payments just to lock up the core of a team that went 43-39 and lacked a compelling path to significant and sustainable improvement — clearly pumped the brakes on that “every effort imaginable” talk.
“We are going to make Paul our best offer,” Schlenk said, according to Vivlamore. “Will he have better offers? I don’t know. Do we want to keep Paul? Sure. I said last week, if you are building a team with all the things I’ve said, Paul checks all those boxes. He’s a hard-worker. He’s a good guy. He’s high-character. Skilled. He does all that stuff. We’d like to have him. The reality is, he might get better offers than we can make him.”
One week later, Schlenk ship out starting center and top 2016 free-agent acquistion Dwight Howard for what (with all due respect to Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee) can charitably be described as an uninspiring return. The move suggested that the new personnel chief intended to begin a rebuilding effort in earnest. Not even making that “best offer” to retain Millsap — a five-year maximum-salaried contract worth more than $200 million, years and money that only Atlanta could have put on the table — or anything even close to it, or anything at all, removes all doubt from the proceedings.
New GM Travis Schlenk has made it clear: Right now, he wants nothing to do with big, long term contracts. https://t.co/peSgf8tIL3
— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixYS) July 3, 2017
In the big picture, Schlenk’s decision makes sense. Even with Millsap, and even in a depleted East, the Hawks’ ceiling over the next couple of years was probably nothing more than flirting with 45 wins and a middle-of-the-pack playoff spot, with no real path to return to legitimate contention at the top of the conference. Making the playoffs isn’t nothing, of course, but Ressler didn’t hire Schlenk away from the Bay to just formalize a process of keeping the Hawks running in place.
Atlanta brought in an exec with championship pedigree to try to reproduce championship results. It was exceedingly unlikely that the Hawks were going to get them now by paying nine figures (or close to it) to keep Millsap in town through his age-35 season. Instead, he’ll let Millsap walk, wait for the free agency market to settle after its heady opening days, and open up loads of salary cap space to use, whether by spending it on offer sheets for restricted free agents he might like or using it to facilitate salary dumps for teams looking to get their own breathing room under the cap, at the price of young players or future draft assets. This is how rebuilds start. It’s not fun, but eventually, you have to eat your vegetables.
Millsap gets that. He told Vivlamore he wasn’t surprised that the Hawks never set any terms in front of him. Still, he couldn’t help but feel a little crestfallen by the way his time in Georgia ended:
“Definitely disappointing,” he said. “I thought I meant a bit more than that to them. But it is what it is. I’m happy with the decision I’ve made. I’m happy with the team I’m with. I’m ready to get it going with them.”
Making $90 million to line up next to budding star Nikola Jokic on a team with designs on making the Western Conference playoffs for the first time in four years certainly isn’t the worst alternative Millsap could have. Especially since staying put wasn’t an option.
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