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Are These the Last Days of Paul Millsap in Atlanta?

Our daily look at the NBA’s best players of the night considers Atlanta’s star after his name hit the rumor mill

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.

King of the Court: Paul Millsap

This is how Atlanta started 2017:

On New Year’s Day, the Falcons beat the Saints at the Georgia Dome, securing the NFC’s 2-seed, and the Hawks scooted past the Spurs at Philips Arena 114–112 in overtime, giving coach Mike Budenholzer his first career victory over his mentor (and former boss) Gregg Popovich.

The victory, the third in a row for the Hawks, brought the team to 18–16, placing them second for takeoff in the Eastern Conference runway traffic jam of Charlotte, Washington, Milwaukee, Indiana, New York, and Chicago (though the latter seems primed for a systemic meltdown any day now).

The Philips crowd was awesome, Dennis Schröder handed out late Christmas gifts of high blood pressure and heart palpitations due to his decision-making, there was some deep-space Kyle Korver action, and Tim Hardaway Jr. tied his career high with 29 points and totally spun out this kid with his barrage of late-game 3s:

And then there was Paul Millsap. There is always Paul Millsap. Through the rise and fall of that 2014–15, 19-wins-in-a-row cult team, through the last days of the Al Horford administration, to … whatever this Dwight-Dennis Hawks team is, Millsap has been there, averaging around 17 a game, playing two or three positions, guarding just as many, grabbing boards, and acting, along with Korver, as a kind of institutional memory to help the new Hawks retain some of the selfless malleability of the very recent Hawks.

On Sunday, Millsap was the best version of himself. Few NBA players can lead the break, snuff out a David Lee shot at the rim, drill a 3 from the top of the key, or take Pau Gasol on the left block with a collection of low-post moves that belong in a museum alongside some Cons hi-tops and a Moses Malone Ten Commandments poster like Millsap can. And what’s so great about Millsap is how regularly he is the best version of himself. He had 32 points, including Atlanta’s final six points of the third and first 11 points of the fourth. He also hit three 3-pointers and grabbed 13 boards.

There are a lot of mirror images between the Spurs and Hawks — the occasionally reckless Euro point guard (Dennis, Tony Parker), the sharp-shooting 2-guard (Korver, Danny Green), the collection of journeymen and bargains playing above their initial professional projections (Dewayne Dedmon, Jonathon Simmons, Mike Muscala, Kent Bazemore). But Millsap can be any Spur at any given moment. He can conjure LaMarcus Aldridge’s midrange silkiness, Kawhi Leonard’s stout defense, and Gasol’s post playmaking. Millsap’s utility is his gift and his curse.

In November, Danny Chau observed how the face of the Hawks was Millsap, an anonymous star. Now it seems like that could change.

The joy of the Hawks’ victory was tempered by an ESPN report that Millsap would be opting out at the end of the season, and so to avoid losing their All-Star forward for nothing (as they had with Horford), the Hawks had “begun listening” to trade offers.

Hawks play-by-play man Bob Rathbun called Millsap “The Anchorman” Sunday night, and he obviously meant it as a compliment, but anchors also keep you rooted to one place. Atlanta is stuck in a midconference no-man’s-land, and Millsap is frankly the team’s only tradable asset. A trip to the playoffs and a subsequent second-round exit doesn’t get the Hawks anywhere. And if Millsap walks for nothing after the season, they are screwed. They need to get what they can for Millsap, no matter how much it hurts to rip the Band-Aid off.

Every fake trade story starts with Boston, and a Horford-Millsap reunion under Brad Stevens, with Isaiah Thomas doing doughnuts in the parking lot, sounds like a lot of fun. But one of my New Year’s resolutions is to stop making Boston the first button I hit on the Trade Machine.

What about Millsap to Toronto for Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross, and Jakob Poeltl? How great would a Big Three of Millsap, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry be against the Cavs? The Raptors could spread the floor around Jonas Valanciunas, and Millsap would link back up with DeMarre Carroll to form a misery-inducing defensive duo. If that team were healthy and hot, it could push Cleveland.

If boosting an Eastern Conference competitor is too much for Atlanta to swallow, there are Western Conference partners like Denver or even Millsap’s old team, Utah, who might have the pieces to make a deal work, but the problem with trading for Millsap is re-signing him. I’m sure New Orleans would love to bring him back to his home state, but Bud would have to love Buddy Hield for that to work.

Millsap is going to be a free agent, and so are the Hawks. This is the rub with competing in the NBA without generational talent. You are hoping you’re good enough to take advantage of an opportunity. The window for this version of the Hawks is closing. The franchise needs to decide what it wants to be, and how to become that. The only way to do so is to lose its cornerstone. They don’t call it rebuilding for nothing.

Runner-up: C.J. McCollum

[Whispers so that no one in Portland, and especially my coworker Molly McHugh, can hear me.] I kind of like the Blazers without Damian Lillard. I know that’s unfair to Dame, but his ankle injury allowed the Blazers to shake things up after losing seven of eight. McCollum started at point guard Sunday night and had a career-high 43 in a 95–89 win against the Wolves.