The Hawks emerged as NBA darlings during a 60-win 2014-15 campaign. Their entire starting five shared Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors in January of that season, and four of them earned All-Star Game invites the following month. Just two short years later, they all could be gone.
After losing DeMarre Carroll and Al Horford in free agency each of the past two summers, the Hawks have freed up their phone lines to listen to trade offers for their impending free agents, including former All-Stars Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst.
For what it’s worth, intrepid Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Chris Vivlamore tempered those trade talks, noting the Hawks may be fielding calls but “are not close to trading Millsap at this point.”
Even a month away from his 32nd birthday, Millsap is the real prize. As many big names have done to cash in on soaring salary cap figures the last two years, he plans to decline a $21.5 million player option for 2017-18 and opt out of his current contract this coming July, ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported, and that appears to be the impetus for accepting trade calls for the three-time All-Star and others.
Atlanta Hawks power forward Paul Millsap to opt out at end of season to become an unrestricted free agent, league sources told ESPN.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) January 1, 2017
Millsap is averaging 17.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals per game this season, comparable numbers to those that made him one of the game’s most versatile big men and an All-Star ever since he left the Utah Jazz for Atlanta in 2013 free agency. Also a two-time All-Defensive Second Team selection during his tenure on the Hawks, he developed into arguably the best of Atlanta’s quartet of not-quite-superstars. Following the team’s dream 2014-15 regular season, Millsap signed a three-year, $60 million extension, with an option on the third year, and now he reportedly plans to use it to follow former teammates Carroll, Horford and Jeff Teague to different NBA cities.
Millsap would join longtime teammates Korver and Thabo Sefolosha, in addition to fellow frontcourt mainstays Tiago Splitter, Mike Scott and Kris Humphries, as unrestricted free agents in July 2017, and a Hawks franchise that has fallen from winning 19 straight games at this time two years ago to barely staying above .500 this season can ill afford to lose more players of value in free agency this summer.
In a league starved for solid wing play on both sides of the ball, Korver’s prolific three-point shooting and Sefolosha’s defensive pressure — even at their advanced ages — would be attractive trade chips.
But at what price?
The Hawks were notoriously stingy when talking trades about Horford and fellow former All-Star Jeff Teague leading up to the trade deadline last season, asking “sky-high” prices for each, according to The Vertical’s Chris Mannix. They lost Horford to the Boston Celtics in free agency and ultimately dealt Teague in a three-team, draft-day deal that netted them No. 12 overall pick Taurean Prince in return.
Purely from a talent standpoint, it stands to reason Millsap holds greater value than Teague, but the latter had a year left on his deal at the time of his trade and the former is a three-month rental at this point. In order to give up anything of real consequence for Millsap, a team would require reassurance he will re-sign, and that’s no guarantee in a market full of franchises that can offer a four-year, $160 million max deal to the 11-year veteran in July. The Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns, who reportedly offered players and picks for Millsap over the summer, will dial those offers back six months later.
The Toronto Raptors are among potential Millsap suitors, per ESPN, but would they part with anything more than one of two later first-round picks (their own and another from the Los Angeles Clippers) and expiring contracts for a 32-year-old, soon-to-be free agent? Seems doubtful, and the return for Korver, Sefolosha and others will be decreasingly attractive. But if the Hawks don’t want to risk losing any or all of them in free agency again, this is the reality a perennially middling franchise faces.
Not exactly a top free-agent destination, Atlanta has done well to fill the voids left by Carroll and Teague with promising backups Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder in addition to replacing Horford with Dwight Howard — signing each of them to $70 million contracts this past offseason — but those moves have hindered the versatility and depth that made the Hawks so dangerous two years ago.
Three straight wins, including an overtime one against the San Antonio Spurs on New Year’s Day, moved them above .500 for the first time since November, but on the season they’ve looked less like the 2014-15 roster that made Atlanta’s first conference finals appearance in more than 40 years and more like the team that’s been stuck between 37-48 wins for a decade without much to show for it.
Losing Millsap, Korver and/or Sefolosha, among others, won’t do anything to instill confidence the Hawks could reach 60 wins again anytime soon, but the goal now is to land picks and players in return that will form the foundation of the organization’s next dream season. The Hawks have always had to execute perfectly, both on the court and in the front office, to compete, and this time is no different.
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