When we talk about the best power forwards in the league, we often hear names like Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love among others. However, one player is repeatedly overlooked (even though he was selected as an All-Star three times). That player is Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks.
To be clear, Millsap is recognized by many as being a solid or very good all around player. But that sells Millsap short of what he has turned himself into over the last few seasons. He has become one of the best two-way power forwards in the entire league and the best player on the Hawks.
At age 31 and after agreeing to a three-year, $59 million contract to stay in Atlanta, it would have been easy – even expected – for Millsap to be content with his current skill level and nightly production. But instead of settling, Millsap continued improving his all-around game this season and as a result just put together the best overall season of his 10-year career.
This season, Millsap averaged 17.1 points, nine rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks per game, while shooting 47 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from beyond the arc. Those per game statistics are all either career-high figures or near career-highs. Millsap’s shooting percentages did slip this season, which is just about the only thing to knock him for.
But Millsap’s impact for the Hawks goes beyond his box score numbers. He teamed up with Al Horford to make one of the best frontcourt duos in the entire NBA. Both Millsap and Horford have the skill to score from the perimeter, in the post and driving to the basket, while also making creative and accurate passes to teammates for open looks.
Millsap’s three-point percentage took a significant dip this season, but opponents still respected his and Horford’s jumpers enough that Atlanta’s wings often had space to cut through the lane for easy layups. In most games, Millsap would feed cutters in the lane either for an easy layup or a foul that resulted in free throws. Millsap may not be Kevin Love or Ryan Anderson when it comes to three-point efficiency, but that doesn’t prevent him from spreading the court and picking apart opponents with his underrated passing.
However, more important than their combined offense is their impressive defensive impact. Millsap and Horford aren’t the most mobile big men in the NBA, but they are quick enough to aggressively trap opposing ball-handlers on the perimeter, while rotating back to their original defensive assignment. This defensive dynamic is a major part of what allowed the Hawks to put together the second-best defense in the league, holding opponents to just 98.8 points per 100 possessions.
The Hawks’ aggressive defense is high risk, high reward and requires intelligent players to execute it effectively. Throughout his career, Millsap has morphed himself into one of the smarter and best all-round defenders at power forward. He is effective at funneling opposing ball-handlers into traps and into the corners, limiting their options. He also does a great job of rotating back to his original opponent and then patrolling the paint and the rim the way a free safety patrols defensively in football.
Millsap ranked third this season in blocks among power forwards, falling behind only Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka. More significantly, Millsap alters a ton of shots each game, which is detailed in Nylon Calculus’ rim protection metrics.
In addition to his rim protection, Millsap has some of the best hands for a big man in the NBA today.
“Paul just has a great feel for it,” Kyle Korver said in April. “He’s probably the best big in the league as far as being able to strip down and get steals. It’s tough when a guard is coming off a pick-and-roll, and you’ve got someone way up in there slapping down at the ball. That’s a big part of our defense.”
Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has similar things to say about Millsap.
“He’s amazing on the perimeter with his hands,” Budenholzer said. “It’s just one of his best weapons. We do a few things on activity with hands, and we teach a little bit, but it’s 99.9 percent him and his natural instincts.”
Millsap often disrupts pocket passes and other passes in tight quarters that most other power forwards outside of Draymond Green wouldn’t even swipe at. He also makes it difficult for opposing big men to post him up by using his long wingspan and skilled hands to swipe at the ball several times. This helps Millsap offset the fact that he is somewhat undersized at power forward and is usually guarding bigger opponents in the post. However, like Green, Millsap uses his strength and low center of gravity to hold his ground while swiping at the ball, frustrating the opposing big man and luring them into a rushed shot.
Millsap recently explained why he focuses so much on swiping at the ball against post players.
“It’s something that I learned in the NBA,” Millsap said. “When you get to the NBA and you’re [6’8] going up against guys that are 7’0, you’re not going to be able to block their shot every time, so you try to get it low when they bring it down. It’s all about being smart and using what you have.”
Between his improved shooting, rebounding, passing, defensive instincts and feel for the game, Millsap has gradually turned himself into one of the best overall power forwards in the NBA. He receives credit and recognition, but not nearly as much as he should.
Draymond Green is rightfully considered one of the best two defenders in the NBA for being able to trap ball-handlers, switch onto centers and protect the rim, which Millsap can do as well (just not quite as effectively). Blake Griffin receives a ton of credit for being one of the best playmaking power forwards in the league, though Millsap isn’t too far off (though his assists generally aren’t quite as highlight worthy as Griffin’s). Serge Ibaka and Anthony Davis are often credited for their ability to alter shots at the rim, but Millsap isn’t far off in terms of rim protection either.
The Atlanta Hawks enter this offseason coming off another disappointing postseason and have a lot of questions to answer regarding their roster. Whatever path the Hawks take this offseason, they should value Millsap for what he is, which is one of the best overall power forwards and one of the most underrated star players in the NBA today.
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