According to multiple reports, the Atlanta Hawks have begun fielding calls regarding trades for Paul Millsap. The Hawks are also willing to discuss deals for Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha. This tactic is a departure from the norm for Atlanta, but the Hawks started the process of moving towards their next iteration last offseason. The first domino to fall was Jeff Teague’s trade to Indiana, followed by Al Horford leaving town in free agency for Boston. Perhaps spurred by losing Horford for nothing, Atlanta would like to recoup value for other key players before they can join the exodus out of town.
Korver and Sefolosha are both unrestricted free agents this summer, while Millsap has a Player Option that he’s already indicated he will not exercise, making him an unrestricted free agent as well. While Millsap indicated to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he wants to say with the Hawks, Atlanta may not be willing to take that risk. In addition, is it smart for the Hawks to pony up what may be a lot of money for a player who is soon to be 32 years old?
How do the Celtics factor into all of this? The most obvious reason is that anytime an All-Star-level talent becomes available, you can expect Boston to be linked to trade talks for that player. This is driven by the Celtics’ well known desire to continue to add high-level talent and Boston’s impressive accumulation of trade assets. The Celtics can easily put together a package of young players and picks as well as expiring contracts, to entice Atlanta. The question is: Should they bother?
The Celtics’ most glaring weakness to this point in the season has been rebounding. That is painfully obvious even to the most casual of observers. Rim protection is a lesser issue, due to Horford’s better-than-expected shot blocking and solid interior defense from other players. Beyond that, the Celtics could use another scorer, ideally someone who can offer some inside/outside scoring.
Does Millsap fit any of Boston’s needs? The answer is a definitive…maybe? While he’s not an elite-level rebounder, he’s a good one. This season he’s averaging 8.2 rebounds per game, and that is in line with his career averages since becoming a full-time starter. He’s also getting those 8.2 RPG this year while playing next to an elite rebounder in Dwight Howard, who could be eating into his numbers just a bit.
How about defense—does Millsap help there? Again, maybe? After playing the last two seasons at an elite level, his defense has slipped a bit, but the Atlanta defense as a whole isn’t as strong as previous years. Millsap doesn’t really block shots, but he has been a solid interior defender who is also good in pick-and-roll coverage. He can’t drop down to defend small forwards like he used to do for long stretches, but he can switch on occasion and hold his own.
Alright, so if we don’t know if he’ll help on the boards or on defense, he must be able to help the offense if Boston wants him, right? This one is far more slanted to the “yes” side of the equation. Millsap is actually averaging the second-most PPG of his career at 17.8. His shooting percentages are down a bit, but he’s not getting the open looks he got the past couple of years. The Hawks offense has changed considerably with the addition of Howard and with Dennis Schroder as the starting point guard. The floor isn’t spaced quite as well, so Millsap isn’t seeing the room he once did. The Celtics’ offensive system actually looks a lot more like that Hawks’ old system than the current Atlanta offense does. And we all remember when he did this last year right?
So, where does this leave us? Millsap could help on the glass and on defense, and he would almost certainly help the offense, but what would it do the rest of the Celtics? Considering that he would replace Amir Johnson (who is a low-usage player on offense) in the starting lineup, everyone else would have to give up shots and touches. That probably isn’t the worst thing and could even lead to a more efficient offense overall.
It would bump Al Horford to playing center full time, but he’s essentially doing that anyway. Johnson and Horford switch defensive responsibility pending matchups, and Horford is the main interior presence on offense. Horford has waffled in the past about how much he wants to be a center, but he genuinely seemed to enjoy playing with Millsap. It is hard to see how this would be that much of a problem if Boston were to acquire Millsap.
With all of that covered, we still haven’t determined if the Celtics should trade for Millsap or not. The answer, as always, is that it depends on cost. If Boston could get him for a package of expiring contracts (at least one out of Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller has to go to match salary), a younger talent and one or more picks could be enough to get it done. It is safe to assume that Boston would take any Nets picks off the table, but the Celtics have enough others to toss one or two Atlanta’s way. As for the younger player, it would likely have to be someone along the lines of Kelly Olynyk or Terry Rozier in the deal as well. If Atlanta wanted a big that can stretch the floor, Olynyk makes sense. If they want another scoring guard, Rozier can fill that role.
If Millsap came for a package of role players and non-Nets picks, it is hard to see how Boston could turn that deal down. Does it lift them past Cleveland this year? Probably not, but it would put them in the on-deck position. If Cleveland falters or suffers a major injury, Boston would be there to jump in. For a bunch of replaceable assets, it would be hard not to take the chance, even if Millsap walked at the end of the year. If the cost is a Nets pick and/or Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are best served to wait it out and see if another, better, locked-up, true superstar shakes free later on in trade season.