Millsap’s Heavy Load Finally Take Its Toll, Now Hawks are in Real Trouble

Graham Chapple —  March 22, 2017

(stats courtesy of NBA.com)

It’s a secret to no one that Paul Millsap is absolutely key to the Atlanta Hawks and any playoff run they hope to have. But he’s had to carry a very heavy burden this season…

Paul is averaging a career-high 18.1 points per game this season but you’d know, if you’ve watched the Hawks on a regular basis this season, that Millsap is the only consistent offensive player for the Hawks. Dennis Schröder is somewhat consistent but when he’s off…he’s really off. Tim Hardaway Jr. can bring the fire but he can be a little streaky — feast or famine, to an extent. Kent Bazemore has been extremely inconsistent this season whilst Thabo Sefolosha isn’t asked to score a whole lot and has struggled shooting the ball this season. Dwight Howard, meanwhile…the less said about Dwight’s offense the better.

When the Hawks have struggled on offense in games they dial-up Paul Millsap, and he’ll — more often or not — make something happen. Whether that’s outright scoring himself, get to the free throw line or make a play for someone else…Millsap just makes things happen for the Hawks. He makes them tick.

As we know, Millsap plays more than one side of the ball unlike the Hawks’ other offensive players, like your THJ’s and Dennis Schröder’s, whose defense often leaves a lot to be desired. Paul has been tasked — and has also asked in some cases — to check the opposing team’s best small forward/power forward and even center. In a game against the New York Knicks and where Carmelo Anthony is on fire, Millsap guarded him down the stretch and did a wonderful job, coming up with multiple, huge defensive stops.

In a more recent game against the Indiana Pacers, a game where Paul George is able to have his way (34 points after three-quarters), Millsap asked to guard George in the fourth quarter. How many points did PG score in the fourth quarter? Zero. Added to this, Millsap and even effectively guarded seven footer Marc Gasol in a recent game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Millsap is one of the league’s under appreciated two-way players, but has received some of the recognition he has deserved in the form of four consecutive All-Star nods from the coaches and an All-NBA Defensive Second Team nod in 2016.

Millsap is also asked to not only excel on both sides of the ball but to do it for an average of 34 minutes every single night. In fact, since December 1st, Millsap has averaged 35 minutes per game and has regularly logged 37/38/39 minute games. Back in January, Millsap played a whopping 60 minutes in the Hawks’ 4OT victory against the New York Knicks. Only 16 players since 1983 have done that and Millsap is the oldest player to do that at age 31.

The 34.3 minutes Millsap is playing per night ties a career-high (he played the same number of minutes with the Utah Jazz in 2010-11). Why has this been the case?

I think the absence of a quality backup power forward has been key. Mike Scott gave the Hawks very good minutes at power forward with Horford at center while Millsap rested last season. That unit could hold the fort in Millsap’s absence or Horford’s absence as the case may have been. However, Bud didn’t have that for most of this season and only now does he have a truly reliable backup power forward in Ersan Ilyasova, who has been consistent since the Hawks acquired him. Hence, why Bud had to call upon Millsap a whole lot more this season compared. Also, on the offensive end, since Dwight Howard has been a downgrade from Horford, and with the Hawks needing scoring, Bud has needed to play Millsap more since, without him, the Hawks’ offense is pretty bad (we’ll get to that soon)… And unlike your LeBron’s and Kyrie’s, who play heavy minutes but are sat out of games for rest, Millsap hasn’t rested (I wouldn’t like to be the person who would tell him he’s resting…).

So, as you can see, Millsap carries a huge burden for the Hawks. And it may have finally taken its toll.

Just before the Hawks’ home game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday, Millsap was a late scratch with left knee tightness and was later ruled out for a minimum of two games. A minimum of two games, it could be even longer but we just don’t know yet.

One thing is for sure, however: Millsap’s absence has come at the wrong time of the season, not only because Milsap’s absence comes as the Hawks are currently on a three-game road trip but they’re also jostling for playoff position. Four defeats in a row (two of them in the absence of Millsap) has meant that the Hawks’ hopes for home court advantage have been crushed and now the Hawks are now looking over their shoulders at the Indiana Pacers, who the Hawks are just one game ahead of for the fifth seed.

Things don’t bode well for the Hawks if Millsap is out for an extended period of time (though coach Mike Budenholzer believes the injury is more “short term”). You need only look at the fact that the Hawks are 0-5 when Millsap has been unable to play this season to reach that conclusion. There’s also a bunch of other stats that back that up.

Because Paul is the best two-way player on this team, the offense and defense, as you could probably guess, suffers greatly.

Let’s start with the offense:

For the season, the Hawks are averaging an offensive rating of 102.6. Without Millsap, that falls to 91.8 which would be — by far — the worst in the NBA. Part of the reason for this is because the Hawks don’t score as many points in the paint (PITP) when Millsap is out of the lineup — 42.7 PITP per game for the season compared to 36.8 PITP when he doesn’t play. Another reason is that teams — when Millsap isn’t playing — only have to really worry about Dennis Schröder and the chance that THJ ignites, because that’s all the Hawks’ offense is when you take Millsap out of the equation.

It doesn’t get any prettier on the defensive end either:

For the season, the Hawks are averaging a defensive rating of 103.7. When Paul Millsap is out of the lineup that number goes up to 115.8. Opponents also have a better time of things in the paint when Millsap isn’t there to patrol it. For the season, the Hawks’ opponents are averaging 38.7 points in the paint. Without Paul, opponents score 44.8 PITP. In terms of overall opponent shooting, for the season, opponents average a field goal percentage of 44.8%. Without Millsap, that number rises to an incredible 51.4%.

Overall, the Hawks’ net rating without Paul Millsap is -24. That’s…not good.

The best matchup the Hawks can hope for in round one would be against the fourth seeded Toronto Raptors, but to secure that matchup the Hawks need to hold station as the fifth seed (as long as the Raps remain in fourth, half a game back of the Washington Wizards for the third seed). If Paul Millsap comes back soon and, most importantly, is healthy, the Hawks can definitely hold their ground. Without a healthy Millsap for the stretch run, the Hawks could be looking a lot further back than just the Indiana Pacers with 12 games remaining…

Graham Chapple

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