The Atlanta Hawks received heaps of praise for signing Paul Millsap to a two year, $19 million deal over the last offseason, but it's hard to imagine that anyone thought that the deal would turn out this well.
With Al Horford injured, Millsap has been by far the Hawks' best player this season, and he's more than proven that he should factor into Atlanta's future plans.
Millsap has always been a very good—and puzzlingly underrated—two-way player. He has one of the most versatile offensive games in the league, and he's similarly flexible on the defensive end. But what's really cemented his value in Atlanta is a new addition: his three-point shot.
Millsap shot 36 percent from three in the regular season and took 212 shots from behind the arc, nearly twice as many as he took in the last seven years total. Statisticians have always maintained that bigs who hit mid-range jumpers at a high clip should trade in many of those shots for threes, and Millsap's season shows why that's the case.
Millsap's newfound shooting ability has changed how opponents have to (or at the very least should) defend the Hawks.
Teams typically defend pick-and-rolls by either aggressively hedging on the ball-handler or dropping a big back in an attempt to force opponents into tough mid-range shots. The problem with both strategies is that they're simply not equipped to handle bigs who can hit pick-and-pop threes at a high rate.
Guys like Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Love force their defenders to abandon ball-handlers and focus on staying attached to them. Millsap doesn't draw that kind of attention, but he still bends defenses in uncomfortable ways, and the effects of that ripple throughout the Hawks' offense.
For example, Teague has done a number on the Indiana Pacers' defense in the first round of the playoffs, averaging 19.5 points and 6.5 assists per game. But if not for Millsap, that probably wouldn't be the case.
Millsap forces bigs like West or Roy Hibbert to take a few steps out of the lane, and Teague is more than quick enough to take advantage of that. Teague is shooting 63 percent at the rim against Indiana—which was the league's stingiest team around the basket in the regular season—in part because the Pacers' bigs are always a step late getting to him.
Millsap's shooting has quickly made him invaluable to Atlanta. But as mentioned earlier, he also has one of the most well-rounded offensive games in the league, and the Hawks have taken full advantage of that.
Millsap does a little bit of everything for the team offensively, and he does it all pretty efficiently, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).
When Horford went down, Millsap became the Hawks' go-to pick-and-roll man, and he's done a great job of it. He's not a defense-killing roll man in the Dwight Howard mold, but few players are bigger threats when they catch the ball cleanly in the mid-range area.
Millsap's a heady passer (3.4 assists per 36 minutes this season), has shot mid-range jumpers at a decent clip in the past and is capable of catching the ball and putting it on the floor for one- or two-dribble attacks on the rim.
That all combines to put opponents in really tough spots at times. Watch how Millsap fools two Denver Nuggets players into thinking he's going to do completely different things.
JaVale McGee, fearing a pull-up jumper, leaps at Millsap, whereas Evan Fournier is so concerned with a potential kick-out to Kyle Korver that he leaves Horford alone under the basket.
Millsap's post game has been a little off-kilter this year (he's shooting 45 percent on post-ups and turning the ball over quite a bit, per Synergy), but he's still lethal when he draws a mismatch. He can overpower smaller defenders and has a bunch of quick spin moves that get him easy looks at the basket.
Despite being relatively small, he can even be a handful for the league's best defensive bigs because he has an arsenal of tricky shots that he deploys around the basket. Sweeping hooks, finger rolls, runners and floaters from a few feet out...you name it, he's got it.
That versatility stretches to the defensive end. Millsap's not an elite stopper, but most advanced metrics peg him as a very good defender. He always plays hard and has a knack for sliding into the right places.
He's quick enough to contain 3s and 4s and doesn't give up ground easily even against the league's true centers (though lineups featuring Millsap at the 5 have been roasted defensively this season, per 82games.com).
All of that gives the Hawks a lot of interesting lineup flexibility. Atlanta has used Millsap almost exclusively at the 4 this season, per 82games.com, but he's also had a little burn at the 5 and played spot minutes at the 3 when he was with the Utah Jazz.
The Hawks have the potential to throw out some really whacky stuff in the future, like small lineups featuring shooters and Millsap at the 5 or a super big Millsap-Horford-Pero Antic frontcourt that wouldn't sacrifice any spacing on the offensive end.
Thanks to his emerging three-point shot, Millsap is likely to command more than $9.5 million a year after his current deal is up. Luckily, the Hawks' cap situation opens up quite a bit in 2015-16, per ShamSports.com, and barring some kind of blockbuster trade or free-agency opening, they should make the move to invest in No. 4.
Millsap has been everything the Hawks wanted and more when they signed him, and it's thanks to his multifaceted play that they're neck and neck with the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. He can play any style of basketball and fit with virtually any combination of players.
What more could Atlanta ask for?
All stats accurate as of 4/27/2014 and courtesy of NBA.com unless specifically stated otherwise.
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