When the Atlanta Hawks signed veteran power forward Paul Millsap to a two-year deal worth $19 million this offseason, they were applauded for finding a great value in a setting that rarely provides such a thing.
Normally, outside of the truly elite players, free agency is all about veteran players commanding bloated contracts that have the potential to kill cap flexibility. It's a minefield for any franchise trying to hit the reset button, but Hawks general manager Danny Ferry decided to enter the fray anyway.
When Ferry emerged with Millsap, one of the most highly regarded forwards in the league, it was a surprise. Everything about the deal was a surprise, really. The short length of the deal and the thrifty dollar amount per season were unexpected, of course, but so was the team.
The Hawks were supposed to be in a full-blown rebuild, and Millsap was supposed to take his talents to a real contender if he wasn't getting a megadeal like former frontcourt mate Al Jefferson got in Charlotte.
To say that the arrangement has worked out well for both Millsap and the Hawks would be a major understatement. Millsap is enjoying the best season of his eight-year career and is playing like an All-Star big man, averaging a career-high 17.8 points with 8.2 rebounds and three assists a game to boot.
The Hawks, meanwhile, are still holding on to a high seed in the Eastern Conference, even without the services of star center Al Horford, who is out for the season.
The knee-jerk reaction to this is that Atlanta's current success is actually hindering its future growth, mainly because that's what happened during the Joe Johnson era. That couldn't be less true, though. Atlanta actually has the right to swap first-round picks with the Brooklyn Nets this season, ironically enough, because of the Johnson trade.
The Nets are starting to pull it together, but there seems to be a decent chance that the Hawks finish with a better record or are at least in the ballpark of where Brooklyn ends up on the year. If Brooklyn were a juggernaut, perhaps we'd view things differently, but they aren't.
And while Millsap was brought in to help the Hawks win games, he was also signed to be a valuable trade asset that could net Atlanta future assets. Through half of the season, there's no question that Millsap's value on the trade market has increased. The only question is whether Atlanta can or should look to deal him now.
There's certainly an argument that Millsap should stay for at least the rest of the year. At 28, he's young enough to be a piece for the future, and his skills have been maximized by head coach Mike Budenholzer's system. Why not reap the benefits of having Millsap on a contract well below his worth for at least another year?
Of course, it's about more than just the tangible value that can be measured through Millsap's player efficiency rating of 20.3 compared to his contract, or any other metrics.
With Horford out, Millsap has taken on new responsibilities, as Budenholzer explained to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
Paul, his effort, his leadership, I wish they could put a leadership column on our stat sheet because tonight when we got down it was Paul who pulled them together and kept our group together. All the other (stats) are great and we appreciate the rebounds and the blocks but it’s his leadership. Our group needs that going forward.
While sometimes it's easy to view players simply as movable assets or just names attached to numbers and salaries, that doesn't account for nearly the whole picture. Ferry and Budenholzer are trying to establish a culture similar to what they enjoyed in San Antonio, and Millsap is playing a big role in that.
Few players in the league play with the kind of sustained energy and effort that Millsap does. Losing Horford should have killed Atlanta's season, but Millsap put the Hawks on his back with his consistent scoring and hustle plays.
Players understand it's a business, but what does it say if you trade your leader who has done everything asked of him and more? There's a reason why the Spurs have gone longer than all other 29 teams without making a trade. Continuity is important, but so is accountability. It's a two-way street.
The decision to trade Millsap or keep him isn't an easy one, but these are good problems for Ferry to have. Millsap has far exceeded expectations, and given the circumstances, so have the Hawks. We'll see if both parties can keep holding up their ends of the deal.