The Hawks big man is available, and he’s the exact piece Toronto needs to contend.
Let the trade rumors commence! We’re about six weeks from the NBA’s February 23rd trade deadline and some of the names being tossed around are legitimate franchise-changing talents. The Dallas Mavericks will likely part ways with Andrew Bogut. Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor both have one foot out the door in Philadelphia. And according to Ric Bucher, the Chicago Bulls are even shopping Jimmy Butler. Yes, that Jimmy Butler.
Yet the name generating the most buzz is Paul Millsap, who can (and will) opt out of his current deal in the summer. On Monday, Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein reported that the Atlanta Hawks are fielding trade proposals for the 31-year-old power forward, along with fellow veterans Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver. Obviously, given Korver’s move to Cleveland, the report is true. This is big. Unless the Butler rumor has traction, Millsap is the best player publicly on the trade market since Kevin Love in 2014.
Atlanta’s sudden about-face could not have happened at a better time for Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri. Toronto is 24-11, with a better point differential than Cleveland, and DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are playing the best basketball of their respective careers. The Raptors have never been a bigger threat to the Cavs, against whom they’ve lost three times in extremely tight games. Still, the prevailing wisdom is that Toronto is one piece away from the NBA’s uppermost echelon. Enter Millsap, a three-time all-star averaging 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists per game.
Toronto’s usual starting lineup features unheralded rookie Pascal Siakam at power forward. That same starting lineup has a -6.1 net rating per 100 possessions. -6.1 isn’t just mediocre; it’s plain bad. The Raptors literally start every game at a disadvantage, which makes their 24-11 record even more impressive. When Patrick Patterson replaces Siakam, the team’s net rating skyrockets to +26.8. So why doesn’t Patterson just start? Well, head coach Dwayne Casey could do that. Few would argue against it. But Patterson is shooting just 36.5% from the field, and as serviceable as he is, he’s not going to win the East for the Raptors. Millsap, on the other hand…
By offensive rating, the Raptors have the one of the best offenses ever. So long as Lowry and DeRozan are sinking shots, that side of the ball is covered. Defensively, however, Toronto ranks 17th in the league, a rating which Millsap would almost certainly improve. Voted onto the All-NBA Defensive Second Team last season, Millsap is one of the rare bigs who can scoot his feet on the perimeter and also bang down low. Against the Cavs, that means covering LeBron in a pinch and battling Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson on the block.
Without Millsap on the floor this season, the Hawks defensive rating is a team worst 107.5. When he returns to the court, that number drops to 99.7. At just 6’8,” he isn’t a traditional rim protector, which isn’t ideal next to a ground-bound center in Jonas Valanciunas. But Millsap compensates for his lack of vertical intimidation with his speedy hands. Since coming to Atlanta, he’s swiped 1.8 steals per game – the most of any big man over the same time span. Blocking shots is awesome, but stealing the ball before shots can even go up works just as well.
On offense, the Raptors don’t need much help. But Millsap’s ability to score and facilitate would be a welcome addition to any team. His all-around style includes spot-up shooting, smooth post moves, and a lethal face up game:
Click here to see all of Millsap’s 32 points against the Spurs.
Lowry and DeRozan dominate the ball, but three stars is always better than two. Millsap’s shooting ability – even if mostly theoretical at 32.2% from three – would provide spacing for the guards to drive. Meanwhile, his inside game gives the perimeter-oriented Raptors an alternative scoring option. Most of all, the acquisition of Millsap would eliminate a cushy hiding spot for opposing defenders. Siakam and Patterson aren’t difficult covers, so teams can easily stash limited defenders like Kevin Love on those guys. Against Millsap, however, Love’s slow feet and so-so length would be exploited, giving the Raptors a key area to attack in the playoffs.
So could the Raptors pull this trade off? Pretty easily, in fact. As Rohan Nadkarni of Sports Illustrated points out, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson form an ideal starting point for trade talks. Both players – in addition to being quality pieces – are on the type of cheapo pre-cap-spike contracts that are both valuable and movable. Add in Jakob Poeltl and Bruno Caboclo, and the Raptors could even snag Thabo Sefolosha as a 3-and-D replacement for Ross.
This trade isn’t foolproof. Losing Ross, the team’s top bench scorer, would deprive Toronto of some offensive juice and floor spacing. Norman Powell and Sefolosha could help compensate for his loss, but dumping shooters, especially young shooters on bargain deals, is always painful.
The greater concern, however, is Millsap’s impending free agency. He’ll be 32 in the summer, and committing big money to an aging player is risky, but if Millsap is just a rental, the loss of Ross and some young assets would be a tough pill to swallow. Still, Toronto has become a legitimate free agent destination. It has a successful franchise, a vibrant metropolis, and Drake, which is cool, I guess. Crucially, the Raptors would get Millsap’s Bird rights, giving them free reign to offer him more years – and more money – than any other team can.
Ultimately though, the future should be of secondary importance to Raptors brass. With Millsap, the Raptors still wouldn’t be better than the Cavs, but they would have enough firepower to press for the top seed in the East, rumble into the Conference Finals, and compete. This same team pushed Cleveland to six games last year; Millsap is the type of all-star caliber player who could get the Raptors into an “anything-can-happen” Game 7.
Maybe Toronto’s front office is satisfied with the team’s position and doesn’t want to take on the risk of a big trade. The Raptors are really good, and Ujiri and Casey have landed on something special. But having the ability to contend for a title is incredibly rare in pro basketball, and declining the chance to contend in favor of safe, risk-averse choices is almost blasphemous. Lowry is 31, DeRozan is in his prime, and this team’s window is now. Acquiring Millsap can’t guarantee Toronto a ring or even a Finals appearance – not even close – but you have to buy a ticket to win the lottery.
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