As the frenzy that accompanies the NBA trade deadline begins yet again, the Atlanta Hawks find themselves right at the center of speculation and trade rumors this season. Starting from an initial report by ESPN’s Chris Haynes that Paul Millsap plans to opt out of his contract after this season, rumors of a trade involving the 31-year-old forward began on New Year’s Day and threatened to loom over the team until the February 23rd trade deadline. Following up on this story, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein reported early last week that the Hawks were wary of the report that Millsap intends to opt out and are considering trade offers from other teams for the versatile all-star.
Considering the salary cap boom and new CBA, it was no giant leap to conclude that Millsap decided to opt out of his contract this summer and walk away from Atlanta. Trade rumors being what they are, Chris Vivlamore from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution disputed the initial opting out report as “[s]imply not true.” Setting aside whether the initial report about Millsap’s intent to opt out is true or not, most reports about the situation confirmed that Millsap was not being shopped actively at that time and the Hawks were taking trade offers as part of usual business for this time of year. While speculation spread quickly and several teams were linked to the rumors, there was no real information about a trade and plenty of room for doubt.
So far this season, Millsap is averaging a near career-best 17.8 points per game in addition to per game averages of 8.6 boards, 1.6 steals, 0.9 blocks, and a career-best 3.7 assists. Paul Millsap greatly impacts what the Hawks do on the floor on both offense and defense and to move him for little immediate return would signal that Atlanta is tearing the team down. Thanks to a 6 game winning streak, Atlanta’s record currently sits at 21-16, which is good enough for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta has been shown to be overmatched by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and thus not a realistic threat to make it out of the East, but the Hawks are still a playoff team who want to engage and grow their fanbase. Trading Millsap and starting a rebuild is a threat to the progress the franchise has made the last 3 three seasons. For these reasons, I thought a Millsap trade was very unlikely.
And then Atlanta traded sharpshooter Kyle Korver to Cleveland on Saturday, and uncertainty again reigns supreme. Together, Millsap and Korver were the last remaining starters from the Hawks 60-win season in 2014-15. Korver was an integral weapon in the Hawks offense as an elite threat from behind the arc. Notably, Korver set a new NBA record for consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer at 127 games (later broken by Steph Curry in 2016) during his season second with Atlanta. Even without shooting, Korver was frequently used off-the-ball to bend and warp opponents’ defenses to create shots for other Hawks.
There are many who cite the trade as proof that Atlanta is going into rebuild mode and will certainly trade Millsap. It makes sense as a first move into turning over the roster. With a rebuild on the horizon, Millsap would have no incentive to stay season and thus should be traded before he could opt out.
After Korver’s trade was made official on Saturday, head coach (and President of Basketball Operations) Mike Budenholzer downplayed the significance of the trade in relation to other possible trades before the February 23rd trade deadline. Per AJC’s Chris Vivlamore, when questioned about the Korver trade having a wider meaning for the team’s plans, Budenholzer said “I don’t think there should be any assumptions made about anything.” His comments do nothing to quiet the uncertainty or give us clues about what will happen next; however, I think Budenholzer’s answer reveals that the Hawks are not in a panic and will not look to sell at the first opportunity.
For argument’s sake, let’s defy Coach Bud and make some big picture assumptions. As I see it right now, the Hawks now have three basic trajectories: 1) tear it down for assets via trade and tank for draft position, 2) keep it together, go as far as they can, and retool via draft and free agency, or 3) be patient, work on trade(s) that give flexibility and punt this season if needed.
If Atlanta goes for a full rebuild, Millsap will be traded and other players already connected to trade rumors, like Thabo Sefolosha, would go on the trading block as well. The team would tank for a lottery pick this season and likely stay very low in the standings for another 2-3 seasons (at least). While bottoming out for three or more seasons is undesirable, Atlanta has all of their own first round picks, plus two more first round picks (Minnesota and Cleveland) that would likely be conveyed by the 2019 draft. All of that being said: the rebuild option is dangerous. Atlanta already has trouble attracting free agents and a tear-down will scare away the most prized free agents for the next few seasons. A full tank-and-rebuild strategy will also hurt the team’s attempts to continue growing its fanbase. Atlanta’s fans do not have the faith and patience that Philadelphia’s fans (for the most part) demonstrated under Sam Hinkie.
Let’s suppose the Korver trade is the biggest move the Hawks make. Atlanta gained a first round draft pick that presumably will convey in 2019 and will be in the 20-30th range. Maybe Mike Dunleavy proves useful off the bench or in another minor trade. Paul Millsap is not traded and the team will very likely stay in the playoff hunt and, because Eastern conference, may go back to the second round. This is the least risky path. It’s not very exciting, but it will not alienate the fanbase nor will it harm the team’s reputation with free agents. And while Millsap could still opt out and leave, it is probably the best option to retain Millsap for next season. The danger of this path is that it flirts with the dreaded treadmill of mediocrity.
What if the Hawks decide to split the difference? Let’s say that instead of a full rebuild, Atlanta avoids committing to a plan to either rebuild or stand pat, and decides instead to be patient and flexible. The Hawks front office would weigh the options and look for a trade that keeps them competitive for next season and beyond. Going this route, the Hawks are free to consider a Millsap trade that would hurt their outlook for this season’s playoff, land a lottery or near lottery pick, fill in any gaps during free-agency, and move back to contention in 2017-2018. In this case, a larger trade involving Millsap or at least other players is probable. And if no viable trades materialize, then this path ends in the same place as the plan to keep the team together.
I think this is the best path for Atlanta to take, but it’s easy for me to advocate for a strategy that requires such a delicate balance. I am not accountable. A plan requiring patience and flexibility is a tough sell when jobs and reputations are on the line and so much of what is and is not done comes under intense media scrutiny. But consider that Atlanta has worked hard to build their team culture and develop a successful, winning team. Only if the front office and coaching positions were under fire from ownership would it make sense to make a hasty “win now” type trade or blow it all up for a rebuild.
I choose to interpret Budenholzer’s ‘make no assumptions’ answer regarding the Korver trade not as executive-speak meant to dodge the question or disguise the team’s future intentions, but as an honest answer. If the Hawks plan to be patient and take only the best opportunity they are presented with, then a Millsap trade remains probable, but not inevitable.