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Forward Thinking: Paul Millsap, Immediate Reward, Long-Term Difficulties

For the Wolves, the “forward” position is the most likely to see a change in the 2017 offseason. Paul Millsap is one of the options on the unrestricted free agent market.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

At Tom Thibodeau’s end of season press conference, the final question he answered was, “What is the most important thing this team needs to add?”

The Wolves chief decision maker was to the point, “shot blocking, a wing defender, and then the shooting. We’ve got to add more shooting.”

In Minnesota, the game plan for the off-season is clear—add defense and shooting. But checking all of those boxes with one two-way star is easier said then done.

Since 2014, 20 different players have made the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team or Second Team. Of those 20 players, there appear to be three archetypes: wing defenders who can’t shoot (think, Tony Allen), wing defenders who can shoot but do not block shots (think, Avery Bradley), or behemoths who block shots but only dunk on offense (think, Andrew Bogut). There is, however, a fourth archetype that is an amalgamation of the three. This grouping is limited to defensive players who can scat along the perimeter, be the pillar of their team’s rim defense while also having the ability to shoot threes. Of the 20 All-Defense players, three statistically fits this archetype—Draymond Green, Serge Ibaka, and Paul Millsap. That’s it. Green, Ibaka, and Millsap are the only three to have made an All-Defensive team, averaged 1 or more block per 36 minutes, and shot 33 percent from three.

Green is under contract through 2020 and Ibaka is set to re-sign with the Toronto Raptors. If it is Thibodeau’s goal to check all three boxes—shot blocking, wing defense, and shooting—in one fell swoop, Millsap is the only option on the unrestricted free agent market.

In many ways, Millsap is the free agency dream. Not only his skill set but also his leadership ability and positional fit are near perfect for the Wolves. But that is all before remembering the ephemeral nature of basketball productivity. The Hawks power forward is 32-years-old, and that is an issue.

The Downside of Paul Millsap

Because I am in love with Millsap, I will first accentuate how this dream could fast turn nightmare. The easiest way to do so is to point out just how massive a maximum contract—which he will almost certainly receive—would be.

Price Tag of a Paul Millsap Max Contract w/ Wolves

Year Max Contract w/ Wolves
Year Max Contract w/ Wolves
2017-18 $35,700,000
2018-19 $37,485,000
2019-20 $39,270,000
2020-21 $41,055,000
Four-Year Contract Total $153,510,000

Millsap will be 33, 34, 35, and 36 during each of those years. So, yes, Millsap would be making over $41 million as a 36-year-old. That is not good, and maybe awful. Making matters worse is the idea that the beginning of the next decade is the Wolves theoretical “window.” In 2020-21, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine will be 26-years-old and Karl-Anthony Towns will be 25. To have $41 million—34-ish percent of the salary cap—dedicated to Millsap would lead to zero additional cap space considering the contracts of Wiggins, LaVine, and Towns—about $25 million, each—will be in full swing. If the Wolves max Millsap, it will be him, the baby big three, and the 2020 versions of Zaza Pachulia and David West rounding out the rotation.

On top of the simple financial commitment, there is that question of Millsap’s ability to produce on the wrong side of his 30s. These days, if you have a player 35-or-older you are getting one of three things;

  1. A team Dad (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, James Jones)
  2. A specific skill role player (Tony Allen, Kyle Korver, Jamal Crawford)
  3. A guy who has to save “it” for the postseason (Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Manu Ginobili, Zach Randolph)

There is a real chance that by the end of Millsap’s contract he is some mixture of Dad bod (Paul Pierce), injured (Dirk Nowitzki), or just tired (Boris Diaw). And maybe that is enough—given the Wolves youth—to ignore the idea of signing him. But oh boy, the first two years would be so sweet.

Signing Paul Millsap = Playoff Basketball

Hello Minnesota, my name is Paul. If you would please remove your winter jacket, mittens, and seasonal depression it is I who will take you to the playoffs.

If the Wolves sign Paul Millsap, they are going to the playoffs next season. Again, the fit is soooo nice. It need not be said that the power forward position in Minnesota has been precarious since the departure of Kevin Love. Towns' front court partners have been Nemanja Bjelica, Adreian Payne, Kevin Garnett, and, of course, Gorgui Dieng. Mostly Dieng, actually. In 2016-17, Towns was flanked by Dieng for 71.2 percent of his 3030 minutes. While Dieng has proven to be a master of little things, he only takes the Wolves so far.

The biggest issues with the Towns-Dieng pairing (on the offensive end) is the lane clogging and Dieng’s inability to stretch the floor to the perimeter. Quite simply, Dieng is often in the way.

Millsap on Offense

This would change with Millsap. Dieng is a player who gravitates towards the paint as his own archetype is that of a center, an issue as the de facto power forward. By existing in the restricted area, at best Dieng is blocking a clear path to the bucket for Towns and at worst bringing his defender towards Towns for what is essentially a double-team.

Ideally, in the above play, Towns should shoot that three but if he opts to penetrate the Wolves would like Dieng to space out of the lane, along the baseline, and towards the corner three. This something Dieng has not (yet) proven he is equipped to do. This past season, Dieng shot 32 corner threes, 4.8 percent of his total shot attempts.

Initially, I thought Millsap would easily slide into the corner, but that (surprising to me) has not been his game. In a search for a play similar to the above clip—with, maybe, Al Horford penetrating and Millsap flaring to the corner—I came up blank. I figured Millsap (stretch-4 aficionado) would have no shortage of canned corner threes, but instead came to the realization that he does not shoot corner threes.

Over the past three seasons, Millsap has only shot 135 corner threes. That is only 4.5 percent of his total field goal attempts. Yes, that means he shoots fewer corner threes than Dieng as a percentage of his total attempts. But wait, Towns and Millsap could simply flip offensive roles in that action. Millsap in the Towns spot and Towns in the Dieng spot.

That is exactly what the Hawks did with Horford. The pick and pops were the most common action that freed Millsap for threes while in Atlanta. While he may not have been hucking from the corner, Millsap did fire up plenty of threes from above-the-break (top of the key) while in a Hawks jersey.

While Towns proved capable of shooting and penetrating from the perimeter, his greatest effectiveness has and likely will continue to come from the restricted area. After the All-Star break this season, Towns shot 72.2 percent from the restricted area on 7.8 field goal attempts per game. Making him a higher volume version of DeAndre Jordan—which is great. Inverting Towns into the paint more often and using Millsap on the perimeter gives the inside-out threat the Towns and Dieng pairing could never achieve.

Fear not, Millsap’s presence on the perimeter would not depress Towns’ floor stretching ability. The pick and pops are but one action. In Horford’s last season in Atlanta (alongside Millsap), he shot 3.5 threes per 36 minutes. This past season, Towns shot 3.3 threes per 36 minutes. There’s not only room for more threes in the Wolves offense, it is a necessity as the Wolves shot the least threes in the NBA last season. Millsap would not only shoot more threes himself but could also free Towns to increase his volume from deep.

Millsap proved, for years, he can not only exist but thrive next to a stretchier big but this season he also adapted to an offense that was less pick-and-pop centric. In 2016-17 (without Horford), the Hawks featured a back-to-the-basket center in Dwight Howard. It is not only the Hawks system that is to thank for rejuvenating Howard but also the presence of his front court partner. Millsap would be helpful to any offense through his versatility.

Millsap’s ability to shoot threes would be nowhere near his best contribution to the Wolves. More important than knocking down threes (which Millsap is only okay at, 33.5 percent since 2013) is the idea that he is a threat from deep. Opponents gravitate towards Millsap on the perimeter and contest his threes. As a counter, Millsap has developed a nasty pump-and-go game that he uses when defenders over-pursue, not only from the perimeter but also the mid-range.

(Please come to Minnesota, Paul. Bjelly will forgive you.)

Millsap makes up for any lack of speed in penetrations by pushing his dribble out ahead of him and past his defender. Couple this with a magnetic draw between his sternum and the rim and Millsap’s off the bounce game causes defenses serious issues.

‘Sup Giannis?

Dunks are great but are only one part of Millsap’s offensive attack. His scores most often accentuate his strength that creates space between himself and the defender allowing him to finish near the rim or the ability to get off effective jumpers, floaters, and hooks. Millsap is simply a dynamo when his body is moving towards the rim on the offensive end.

But that’s only one end of the floor.

Millsap on Defense

Millsap is probably most attractive and impactful in his defense, but his best skill on D is not as clear as some of the other best defenders in the league. He does not have the massive hands of Kawhi Leonard, the demonstrative tenacity of Draymond Green, or the height and length that accentuate shot rejections a la DeAndre Jordan. Millsap is instead the player who does so many things it appears as if he may be doing nothing at all. In understanding Millsap’s defensive value the microscope must be taken out.

Instead, you have to look more closely to undertand Millsap’s merit. For me, Millsap does four things that stick out.

  1. Shot Blocking- Two-foot leaper with hands high before jumping.
  2. Active Hands- Frequent tie-ups and deflections.
  3. Perimeter Defense- Quick enough feet with length that leads to shot contests.
  4. Help Defender- Effectively leaves man to play passing lane or contest shot.

Shot Blocking

A year ago—his best defensive season, still flanked by Horford—Millsap had the second-highest block percentage in the NBA among non-centers, only trailing Serge Ibaka. The typical profile of a shot blocker is a seven-footer with a sky-scraping standing reach, Millsap does not fit that mold. At the NBA Draft Combine in 2006, Millsap measured 6’6.25” without shoes. This leads to the question, how does he block shots?

Millsap’s shot blocking style is crafty and unique. While defending in the paint, he almost always keeps his elbows at shoulder level in an effort to make up for his lacking height. In spite of the inherent awkwardness of keeping his arms raised high, Millsap is shockingly capable of rising up to meet the shot attempt.

Being a two-foot jumper helps. (One-foot jumpers are slower jumpers as they typically have a swaying motion that precedes their leap.) Millsap’s high hands, two-foot jump, and 7’2” wingspan allow him to contest with relative ease.

The shot can come from inside the paint or through penetration from the perimeter, Millsap stays squared with his man and focused on the shot’s release point. If Millsap is in the area he is contesting the shot; he’s a consistent shot contester.

Active Hands

It’s almost as if his opponents don’t think he can reach. There is something almost confusing about a 7’2” wingspan protruding from a stocky 6’7” body. Also, much like Millsap’s engagement on a shot attempt, he always seems keenly aware of the ball’s location. Hesitate for a second and he is poking it away or tying you up for a jump ball. To do this without fouling is one-part impressive and two-parts super annoying for opponents.

Perimeter Defense

I’m not sure what is more impressive, being able to switch up a position to check Dwight Howard in the post or slide down to lock Jabari Parker on the wing. Millsap is agile enough on the perimeter to stay with wings and even if they are quicker his wingspan comes back into the mix to contest high.

Here, against Parker, he not only stays in front but beats Jabari to the spot, causing him to hesitate and time to expire. If Millsap came to the Wolves, he would arguably be the best defender of every position one through five.

Help Defender

Off the ball, Millsap is equally intent on following the ball as he is to the location of his man. Always sticking to the simple concept of ball-you-man, Millsap shades towards the ball when the reward outweighs the risk. Here, against the Knicks and Melo, he knows what Anthony often does from that range—shoot or penetrate. As soon as Anthony takes an attack dribble into the paint (passing on the jumper), Millsap slides to the paint himself.

This defensive feel and confidence Millsap has would be welcome on a team that often plays defense in fear of messing up. Here, in a similar Anthony isolation, this time against the Wolves, Wiggins starts by shading to the lane for help but by the time Anthony has taken his attack dribble, Wiggins (and all of his teammates) have retreated to their man—completely out of the painted area. That timing and distance makes the help a second late and leads to a layup.

Much like a single defensive possession, signing Millsap is a reward versus risk proposition. The risk is well defined as Millsap will almost certainly begin to tail off on his next contract that will (at some point) overpay him. But the reward is palpable.

For me, signing Millsap is more of a big picture question. How important is being competitive these next two seasons—my line of demarcation on Millsap positive value—given the Wolves youth and the presence of the Warriors juggernaut?

Mentioning the Warriors is not to suggest the Wolves are a legitimate contender if they sign Millsap but Golden State’s mere existence has to lead any team to ask themselves, what’s the point of focusing on anything other than development until 2020?

But maybe signing Millsap is not only a step forward in the wins column (and into the playoffs) but also a move that fosters holistic development. No matter where you fall on the Dieng spectrum of love-to-hate, it is definitive that in ways he holds back Towns through his square shape as a center being hammered into a circular power forward hole. For me, Millsap undeniably helps Towns not to mention the trickle down effect the presence of a veteran player who actually cares about defense would have on the other young pups.

Signing Millsap is a few steps forward only to side-step (at best) down the road. Paul Millsap is the dream, but maybe only a short-sighted reverie.