Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Millsap takes step toward free agency, and it might be for the best


Paul Millsap will not opt in for the final season of his contract, and this might be a good time to prepare yourself for another departure.

The Hawks' best player, who would have earned $21.472 million next season, will become an unrestricted free agent. This had been anticipated for more than a year, was reaffirmed by Millsap the day after the Hawks' were eliminated from the playoffs by Washington and kinda, has sort of became official. Millsap has informed the Hawks of his intention not to pick up the player option of his contract next season, although technically he has until June 23 to do so. The story, first reported by Yahoo, has been confirmed by the Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore.

Hawks owner Tony Ressler said he will make "every effort imaginable" to keep Millsap. But it should be noted he said that in the same interview he said coach and president Mike Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox would be retained as his two heads of basketball operations. Two weeks later, Budenholzer stepped down under pressure from his executive position, and Wilcox was bumped down to a"special adviser" role. Wilcox wasn't even among Hawks' representatives at the recent scouting combine.

So, no -- I'm not assuming the Hawks will give Millsap a five-year max contract ("Bird" rights) based on Ressler's past comments. Nor should they. Here are my thoughts on Millsap's potential future with the Hawks or elsewhere:

From the Hawks' perspective: It makes no sense to give Millsap, who is 32 years old, a five-year max deal that would total about $205 million. The Hawks would be paying more than $47 million in the final year of a deal to a 37-year-old player. I'm not sure maxing Millsap for four years ($152 million) is even a good idea.

The Hawks' need a major rebuild. They have two other major financial commitments on the roster: Dwight Howard (two years and $47 million remaining) and Kent Bazemore (three years and more than $54 million left). Bazemore is still young and athletic, so he might be trade-able, but the Hawks would not get equal value because he hasn't lived up to the contract to this point. Keeping him seems the smarter move here, unless it's for a starting-caliber player. Moving Howard would be extremely difficult because he's mostly just a rebounder at this stage of his career. To give Millsap even a four-year deal at the max would hamstring the Hawks in the salary cap, if both Howard and Bazemore also are kept.

If Howard or Bazemore would be dealt, keeping Millsap makes some sense. But even then, what is the Hawks' realistic upside next season? The offseason hasn't started yet, but any general manager who takes over likely will look at this roster and understand major change is needed. Committing long-term financially to an older player takes away roster flexibility.

This all gets back to what has been said and written several times before: The Hawks should have traded Millsap last summer or before the trade deadline to acquire assets for him. Because now they risk losing him for nothing -- just like Al Horford.

From Millsap's perspective: He said he loves playing for Budenholzer, likes Atlanta and wants to remain a Hawk. On some level, all of that may be true. But Horford said the same stuff last year.

Horford could've remained with the Hawks, and he might've even been leaning that way. But when the team decided to sign Howard, Horford realized the situation he would be coming back to and looked elsewhere. He took less money to sign with Boston, which finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference and is in the conference finals against Cleveland.

It's rare for players to leave money on the table, particularly when they know it's going to be the last big contract of their career. But Horford wanted to win, and Millsap wants to win. Millsap will have no shortage of suitors in free agency, some closer to contending for a title than the Hawks.  For him to stay, he's going to have to hear convincing arguments from Ressler and the Hawks' new general manager about their plans for the organization for him to stay. But if wants to contend for a title soon, staying might not be his best option.

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.