Paul Millsap spent the first seven years of his career with the Utah Jazz, quietly becoming one of the NBA's best offensive frontcourt players. He can pull a plodding defender out to the perimeter or take advantage of his size, speed and post proficiency around the rim. But he largely did so without any recognition in a small market.
That's changed this year, sort of. The Atlanta Hawks signed him over the summer with the expectation of featuring one of the NBA's most versatile big man pairings, lining him up alongside Al Horford, but injuries put that vision on hold. Nevertheless, Millsap is averaging a career-high 17.6 points per game and was named to an All-Star team for the first time in his career, thrusting his game into the national spotlight.
The change of scenery didn't hurt him. After spending time playing alongside Al Jefferson, Millsap split up with his former frontcourt running mate. Jefferson joined the Bobcats and the team looks prepared to make a return to the playoffs. The Hawks are the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and are doing it after letting Josh Smith walk as a free agent and without franchise big man Horford.
Millsap is doing the heavy carrying in Atlanta now. He's averaging 18.7 points and 8.1 rebounds since Horford was sidelined for the season with a pectoral injury, leading the team in each category. If Atlanta is able to land in the playoffs while moving on entirely from the Joe Johnson and Josh Smith era, it will, surprisingly, be on Millsap's shoulders.
It's the consistency in his game that made him an attractive option to Atlanta last summer. He's good for 17 points, close to 10 rebounds and a couple assists on any given night against any team. The threat of his inside-out play that can open up the floor for Atlanta's perimeter threat, Kyle Korver. Signing Millsap to a two-year, $19 million contract looks like a brilliant move now. The team didn't lock up gobs of salary over a long period and added an All-Star player for $9.5 million per year.
That's what made Millsap and Atlanta a good fit. Both are steady: The Hawks have made the playoffs in six straight seasons and will likely make it seven when this season ends. Both were ready for a fresh start: The Hawks have been stripping down the roster since Danny Ferry became general manager. First-time head coach Mike Budenholzer was given a known quantity in Millsap to work with while the team continues to transition. Atlanta was smart to stay away from long-term money, and Millsap has the opportunity to prove he can fit anywhere he goes.
The unfortunate thing for the Hawks is they will have to wait another year to know what could have been. Korver is one of the NBA's best catch-and-shoot threats and is shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the arc. Lou Williams is finally back after missing most of last season and the start of this season with a torn ACL, but he's struggled to regain his old form. Jeff Teague continues to find his way as a starting point guard in the NBA, and while he's scoring at a career-high level, the increased responsibility without Horford has led to a drop in his field goal percentage.
Would the Hawks be far above their 25-26 record if Horford were around? Definitely. Does that mean Millsap isn't cut out to be a key player for the franchise? Absolutely not. His all-around play is likely the only reason the Hawks have stayed floating in a chaotic year as a rookie head coach tries to piece it all together.
Sure, the team isn't glamorous and isn't viewed as a title contender. That's not a knock on Millsap, who is in the process of carrying the surprising Hawks into the playoffs. An All-Star nod in the East is the recognition he deserves for an excellent season.