One name that constantly crops up around here as the start of free agency nears is Paul Millsap. The big man for the Utah Jazz will be a restricted free agent Wednesday, and fans have long wanted the Thunder to take a chance on the 6-foot-8 forward out of Louisiana Tech. A potential pairing of Millsap and the Thunder has made national headlines Monday morning because of mentions here and here, suggesting the Thunder might make a run at him.
It’s an easy connection to make. Millsap, with his rebounding and interior defense, fits the Thunder’s most pressing needs. Assistant general manager Troy Weaver is also a former director of player personnel with the Jazz and is more familiar with Millsap than most. Add to that, Millsap is one of the best up-and-coming big men in the league after a breakout season in 2008-09 as a result of Jazz starter Carlos Boozer’s injury woes. Millsap averaged 13.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 steals, all career-highs. He also connected on career-highs of 69.9 percent from the free throw line and 53.4 percent from the field in 30.1 minutes per game.
And so there are reasons to believe the Thunder will make a run and Millsap, but there are also some that suggest OKC won’t.
Why it makes sense: He’s young. Millsap just turned 24 in February, meaning he’d fit right in with the long-term approach the Thunder is taking by accumulating youth. General manager Sam Presti is dead set on acquiring a group of players who can grow together and sustain success. Millsap would fit that bill wonderfully.
He fits a need. Millsap is an energy guy who will do the dirty work on the glass and play solid defense in the post. He’s also a team player. He doesn’t need or desire the ball to try to be a scorer, which won’t take opportunities away from Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Russell Westbrrook, Nenad Krstic and James Harden. At the same time, as evidenced by his 13.5-point average on a loaded Jazz team, Millsap can put the ball in the hole, either when called upon or through hustling for garbage buckets. His rebounding skills would also protect Krstic, who struggles to rebound consistently to say the least. Krstic averaged only 5.5 rebounds, fewer than Nick Collison (6.9), Jeff Green (6.7) and Kevin Durant (6.5). With a bruiser like Millsap, Krstic could concentrate on doing what he does best, hitting the 17-footer out of pick-and-pop plays with Russell Westbrook.
OKC can outbid Utah at a discounted rate. The Jazz have some tough decisions to make this summer on Millsap, Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. It’s unlikely Utah can keep all of three. The Thunder, as it tried to do last summer with restricted free agent C.J. Miles, could set the bar at a more reasonable height than what Millsap could normally command on the open market, but a level the Jazz would be hard-pressed to reach and match nonetheless. What that figure would be is the unknown, as Millsap has emerged as one of the hottest commodities available. But OKC does have a bit of an upper hand. In addition to Utah’s cap concerns, Detroit, Memphis, Atlanta, Portland, Toronto and Minnesota are the only other teams that have ample cap space to also make a run at Millsap. And only a few seem to have enough interest/need for Millsap to open up the checkbook for him.
Why it doesn’t make sense: He almost certainly will come with a hefty price tag. If Millsap really is looking to bring home a shiny new $65 million contract this summer, chances are you can forget the Thunder’s logo being attached to it. As Mike Baldwin laid out today, Presti will be cautious in his approach to free agency this summer. Oklahoma City still could be more than $11 million below the salary cap after signing this year’s draft picks. But the Thunder is trying to save room to re-sign Kevin Durant and Jeff Green to contract extensions two years from now, not have a $12 million burden on the books by then for a role player. (Keep in mind Westbrook will be up for an extension the following year, and now the Thunder might have to give Harden a good amount of coin the year after that as well depending on how his first four years play out.)
He’ll create a logjam. Where will Millsap play? The Thunder isn’t really worried about positions right now. The team is playing Green out of his customary small forward position at power forward just to get him the most minutes as possible. But acquiring Millsap will either move Green to the bench (highly unlikely) or mean Millsap will continue coming off the bench (making him one of the league’s most expensive reserves). Add to that, Green already plays 37 minutes, mainly at power forward, and Durant plays 39 per game, mostly at small forward. There is little wiggle room in the rotation at those positions (unless you want to move Durant back to shooting guard, Green back to small forward and cut off minutes for Thabo Sefolosha and third overall pick Harden. Again, highly unlikely). The Thunder also has Nick Collison already coming off the bench at power forward/center and last year’s 29th overall pick, D.J. White, in the fold as well. Power forwards Serge Ibaka and DeVon Hardin are in the pipeline but aren’t likely to command minutes next season if they are on the roster. But the fact that they’re in the pipeline is reason enough to pass on using a significant amount of cap space on another power forward. Millsap would take away minutes from Ibaka, White and, to a lesser extent, Harden, and impede their development whenever it is that they’re ready to contribute.
The question you have to ask is does Millsap fit with the Thunder both short term and long term? The answer seems to be no. With Joe Smith gone and Malik Rose and Robert Swift likely gone as well, Millsap could come in and add relief on the interior immediately as Green’s backup at power forward alongside Collison as the backup center. But how much would that backup tandem cost? Collison is already owed $13 million over the next two seasons. And in the long term, when Ibaka and White are ready to contribute, where would that leave Millsap? And where would that leave the Thunder’s financial state?
It’s possible the Thunder thinks Millsap is worth the gamble, which then begs the question how good is this guy right now in the organization’s mind and how much better does the Thunder think he can be?
We’ll find out the answer soon enough.