Last week Andy made a good case for signing Millsap to a $10/year extension, the best I've seen so far. (I've been asking for such a comprehensive argument and really appreciate how thorough he was.) But his case is not good enough to convince me the move is the best option for the Jazz, with one possible exception. There is one scenario in which I am fully on board signing Millsap to a $10 million per extension, and I'll outline it at the end of this post. But first, why, barring that specific scenario, the Jazz should trade Millsap before the upcoming deadline rather than resign him for $10 million per year. A lot of this will contest things Andy stated in his post, but I'll start with particulars on which we agree, as I assume most Jazz fans will as well. Any debate benefits from starting from an area where the sides can find agreement, and there are many when it comes to Paul Millsap.
Primarily, the guy legitimately is "really good." Paul is a borderline All-Star universally recognized as such, both throughout the league and by most Jazz fans. He has the stats to back that up and passes any eye test as a really good NBA pro. Add to that his grit, energy, hustle, work ethic, teamwork, age, and desirable contract, and you get a player that any team in this league would love to have on their roster. In current market value, he definitely is a $10 million/yr player and would probably be a solid deal at that rate.
But not every team would pay $10 million per through 2014 or 2015 to get him. And that is the question that currently faces the Jazz: not if he's worth the money, but whether he's worth the money right now for us. There are lots of reasons to answer "no."
Paul "the Best" Millsap
Let’s start with something we all know: Paul Millsap is not one of the best players in the league, if by "best" you mean a top ten or fifteen perennial All-Star talent. (If you mean a guy who is a borderline All-Star who has some shining stats, why not sign Jameer Nelson, who has, in fact, been an All-Star. [Please understand this is sarcasm.]) Simply stated, Paul is just not that good. "But what about those radiant +/- and WS stats?" you say? I'll be happy to make a complaint about those "all-in-one stats," even if I am the first.
Plus/minus sounds like a great numerical tool for getting a handle on how great an impact a player actually makes when on the court. As Andy wrote, "one extremely important factor in winning basketball games is scoring more than the other team." But +/- isn't as illuminating when it comes to one player's contribution to a team's ability to win games as might be assumed. For evidence, just take a more careful look at +/- for last year. As of last week, the list shows Millsap as the second best player in the league, which sounds great, but it also shows Taj Gibson as the best player in the NBA, Jameer Nelson as the seventh, Kris Humphries eighth, Robin Lopez ninth, and Danny Granger tenth. Imagine if we used +/- to select All-Stars. What a dominant starting five that would be for the All-Star game! I'm sure +/- shows us something, probably something helpful. But it does not equate to an accurate assessment of a player's overall value or talent, not even close.
Win shares isn't much better. WS shows Millsap as the league's fourteenth "best" difference maker in wins in the same way Tyson Chandler is fifth, Joakim Noah eighth, Steve Nash forty-sixth, Rajon Rondo sixty-third, DeMarcus Cousins eighty-third, Kyrie Irving eighty-sixth, and Deron Williams ninetieth. So Millsap is thirty slots better than Steve Nash, fifty better than Rajon Rondo, and nearly eighty better than Deron Williams? Not exactly.
I'm not arguing these statistics are worthless. I'm not arguing their worth at all, except to dispute they constitute anything remotely resembling a hierarchy of "good, better, and best" players. I'm confident they show Millsap is a very good player who helps the Jazz win when he's on the court, but I think that's been well-established and isn't disputed. I don't think this suggests Paul Millsap is clearly worth X amount for the Utah Jazz as currently constituted.
I've already stated I believe Millsap is well worth $10 million a year, so I won't argue against that based on the list of player salaries of other top +/- and WS performers. I will merely ask how many of these players Andy mentioned play off the bench: Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carlos Boozer, Al Jefferson, Andre Iguodala, LeMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Josh Smith, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Joakim Noah, Marcin Gortat, James Harden, Blake Griffin, Greg Monroe, Ryan Anderson, and Taj Gibson? By my count, the answer is two, Gibson (who is on his rookie contract) and current Sixth Man of the Year James Harden (also on his rookie contract). There are no $10+ million dollar non-starters on the list, which suggests when a team shells out that kind of coin they either expect a starter or a different type of player to fill a bench role. This doesn't mean Millsap wouldn't work well competitively as a sixth man, just that this player pool in question shows no teams employing that strategy for what we'd have to pay Paul to do it. So, by any strategy approximated by the players on this list, the goal of resigning Millsap for $10 million per would be to start him for the duration of the contract. This is where things get sticky.
$10 Million Is $10 Million, Right?
This assumption that resigning Millsap would entail his starting invites the following counterargument: while he may easily be worth the price, he may not be worth that price for our specific team. Would the Heat or Lakers or Knicks or Wolves sign Millsap to a four year, $40 million dollar deal? Certainly not. Some teams would defer because they don't have the cap room; others would do the same because they have invested money in superior options at PF and can better utilize their remaining cap space on other roster positions.
The Jazz can easily be argued to be in the second category of teams, or at least well on their way. Few will argue that Derrick Favors should not become a better big than Paul Millsap. There is less certainty about Enes Kanter, but indicators are he will become a very good true center with freakish strength. If I had to say right now how these players will compare in three years given 30 minutes each a game in that time, I would guess Favors will be an All-Star, Kanter will be moving into that territory, and Millsap will stay at or near that borderline area as well. So Favors is a clear #1 option, and I would take a 23-year-old player built to force opponents at his position to adapt--Kanter--over a 30-year-old scrapper who makes up for the deficits he has in relation to the best players at either position he can man--Millsap. Three years from now, both Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter will dictate their matchup more often and more completely than Paul Millsap.
Granted, this is projection; Millsap is clearly better than Kanter right now and will be for the immediate future. The same may be true in relation to Favors, though I'm convinced a single year as a starter will make Favors the best overall player on our roster, even if we keep both Millsap and Jefferson. (I think that might have happened last year, even, had the team played Favors heavy minutes and weathered his steep learning curve early in the season.) But how long will it take for Kanter to overtake Millsap in terms of his value on the court? I don't know, but I do know the more Kanter plays, the quicker it will happen, and it is in the Jazz's interest to develop their young talent as quickly as possible without rushing things. It is very plausible that if we resigned Millsap for three years passed the coming season, halfway through his contract we might be paying our third best big $10 million a year. That's hard to justify given that this team still desperately needs a point guard of the future as well as a true first option from deep, and $10 million a year would be mighty helpful in procuring that.
If we could get a borderline All-Star level point guard or shooter for $10 million per, would that player's value be equal to Paul Millsap's current value to the Jazz? I think most of us would say no, they'd be worth far more given the context of our roster. Would freeing up that future money guarantee we land a player of that caliber and style? Certainly not. But spending it on Millsap will guarantee it isn't available even if such a player is.
Millsap Does His Best LeBron/Durant-Hybrid Impression
For the record, I was a fan of the big line up last year. I believed it should have been used early and often last season, as it was clearly our best line up. For last year's Utah Jazz (a.k.a. young team fighting to peak its performance as an eighth seed), it was a great weapon. Note all those reference to last season, because I don't feel the same about the value it presents in the future. For a championship caliber team, playing Millsap at the three is a poor option, even factoring in improvement of Favors and Kanter.
After admitting the small sample size we have to go on, Andy argued that there's "more evidence that Millsap would make a good SF than evidence otherwise." That's not exactly true. There is evidence that Millsap would make a good SF in a limited role, in favorable circumstances, and with particularly favorable matchups. The big lineup worked well in the limited spots we used it last year, and so we have reason to believe it would work in more spots like those going forward. Because Ty used the lineup almost exclusively when the situation and matchup proved favorable, the data we have likely represents a ceiling for Millsap's performance at SF, not an average, and certainly not a floor. It makes little sense to judge his suitability at SF based almost exclusively off limited circumstances where playing that position put him at an advantage. Given the sample size, it makes almost as much sense to condemn the idea based off of Millsap’s struggles against the Spurs while playing SF. Neither is likely to give us an accurate estimate of Millsap’s ability to play SF consistently against a variety of competition.
I do believe a lineup of Millsap, Favors, and Jefferson then later Kanter would be a very good team. Against many, perhaps even most teams in the league, the advantages would outweigh the disadvantages. Against the best and most complete teams in the league, however, I’m afraid it would be a sum liability. The Jazz have struggled defending behind the line for as long as there’s been no jazz in SLC, and asking Millsap to guard a versatile SF with range and/or unusual speed would be asking more of him than he can deliver. If the Jazz could leverage Millsap to get a true SF of roughly equal talent, we would not only better diversify our offense but also avoid the defensive liabilities of playing a PF on the wing.
As playing Millsap at SF is suspect, the only starting alternative would be PF—and with Favors on the team, that just isn’t going to happen.
Derrick Favors as the Next Coming of Dwight Howard
But why assume Favors has to play PF? David Locke seems to think he’s our center of the future, and a number of people agree with that assessment. Playing Favors at C would allow Millsap to start at his natural position, PF, without, the argument goes, harming Favor’s game. Andy said it this way: “The other place of flexibility here would be to put Favors as the starting center, though this obviously causes problems with regards to Al Jefferson and Enes Kanter. Still, should those two not work out long term... It doesn't seem to matter for Favors' overall effectiveness whether he plays at C or PF "
There are a few things about this strategy that alarm me, but the first is that idea that Enes Kanter won’t “work out long term.” There’s nothing certain about a twenty-year-old coming off his rookie season, especially one who didn’t play college ball the year before, but all the evidence suggests Kanter will be a very good NBA player. His per 36 numbers show that if he played no better than he did his rookie year, he’d still give you a 12.5/11.5 double-double per game. Even a 10% numerical improvement in his per minute production (well below what can reasonably be expected) would make Kanter a 14 and 12 center, and there were only two guys this year to deliver that (Dwight Howard and Kevin Love). I think those statistical projections have limited value, but taken with all the other evidence, from his performance thus far to his physical assets, there isn’t much chance Kanter will be a liability long term, and so that possibility shouldn’t be taken into the equation as to whether we resign Millsap now. It makes far more sense to ask if resigning Millsap makes sense if Kanter does work out long term, as that is the more likely outcome.
As for Favors ability to play C, aside from suspicion that would not take best advantage of his defensive talents, I won’t argue. I will point out that while Favor’s position may not matter that much statistically, it certainly does matter to Derrick Favors. He’s made clear he wants to play PF, and dictating that your young potential franchise player change his game before he’s even developed it, risking resentment in the process, isn’t a great idea. The Jazz will go where Derrick Favors and crew take them, and note who gets named there. Telling the most important player on the team to adjust so as to accommodate Paul Millsap strikes me as a foolish risk. If Millsap is everything we all love, then he should be wise enough to understand that given the Jazz’s current situation, he is the one who needs to adjust. But more on that later.
We Might Trade Paul in the End, but Why the Hurry?
Andy did a detailed job outlining how a potential Millsap $10/yr contract would not harm the Jazz ability to compete financially. His answer to the concern of how we pay our core four of Favors, Hayward, Kanter, and Burks is if “3 or 4 or them need large money extensions, we can always trade Millsap in 2014 or 2015. If there's anything that the last few months have shown us in the NBA, its that it is always possible to trade a contract. Joe Johnson even got traded." Meaning instead of trading a 26-year-old borderline All-Star making $8 mill, we trade a 29-year-old borderline All-Star (if he’s still playing at that level) making $10 mill? If the goal is to get maximum value in return, waiting is clearly not the best option. Waiting makes sense if the goal is to play it safe, to keep a very good player on a bottom three playoff team until the future stars come into their own, at which point he can be moved for the best value available. But it isn’t common that a team has its (arguably) best player on a market friendly contract entering the prime of his career as, let’s be honest, a non-essential piece to its competitive future. It’s unlikely Millsap will ever have the value he does now, and so any thought that we end up trading him in two or three years should spur us to try to pull the trigger now, while the return would likely be the greatest.
And just for the record, Joe Johnson, six-time All Star, was traded for Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams, Johan Petro, and a lottery protected 2013 1st round pick. Trading a contract may always be possible (though the Magic might argue after their Turkoglu experience), but often only for scraps. The Jazz need a legitimate piece or two yet, not a hodgepodge of another team’s odds and ends or a bottom-end pick in the first round. If Millsap will eventually be traded—and forecasting our core four as living up to their talent makes that likely—the Jazz should make the best trade at the best time to most benefit us during our competitive window. It’s hard to imagine Millsap having more market value than right now; with a particular team, maybe, but across the league giving us a variety of potential trade options? Not probable.
Paul Millsap as Paragon of Jazzdom
Andy brought up one more argument for signing Millsap to the extension, a pathos appeal that many Jazz fans share: Paul Millsap is our kind of guy. As Andy said, “Paul Millsap has been everything you want in a Jazz player. We've heard numerous times from teammates, media, coaching staff and even the front office that Paul Millsap is everything that the Utah Jazz stand for. In terms of toughness, effort, integrity, hard work, determination, improvement, responsibility, and success, he's been everything the Jazz could have ever asked for… Not only is he a statistical darling, substantively adding wins to the team's total, but he's also everything you want subjectively in a player." Millsap is pressed from the self-made mold of Malone, cut from the same gritty cloth as John Stockton; he’s easy to love and trust as fan because, much like Matt Harpring, you can always trust the intensity and effort regardless of the results that follow. It is true that Millsap embodies what the Jazz are and have been: the self-made underdog who earns everything he gets.
But some of us have started to ask, in shadowed corners where we hope not to be overheard, if that is who we hope the Jazz remain going forward. Do we really love being the little engine that can so much that we knowingly miss a chance to become a dominant, technologically superior super-engine? If that is who the Jazz want to be, the prototype rather than the underdog, then Millsap is not everything you want in a Jazz player.
He isn’t an offensive and defensive post centerpiece. Favors will be.
He isn’t a superior versatile wing with both range and facilitating skills. Hayward likely will be.
He isn’t a true C like Kanter, or the deadly stroke from range we need, or the PG with the vision and skills to synch all our young potential into a lethal combination.
He isn’t All-NBA talent.
Paul Millsap is a wonderful player that can, depending on the particulars of his situation, help any team, including ours. But he is not everything we want at any starting position; he isn’t even as much what we want as other alternatives, especially Favors. And he isn’t one more thing: at least to this point, he is not willing to embrace the role of dominant sixth man, with everything that comes with, including money and time on court. And in return for $10 million per year, that is exactly what I want from Paul Millsap as a Jazz player.
Why the Jazz SHOULD Sign Paul Millsap to a $10 Million per Year Extension IF…
He dedicates himself to becoming the Jazz’s perennial contender for Sixth Man of the Year. Extending Millsap at fair market value is tough for the Jazz because we have more attractive options at key positions that we must prioritize. There is no such conflict when it comes to our long term sixth man. Not only is that role completely open (though I can see Burks becoming a killer sixth man), but a quick examination of the role shows it fits Millsap and his game much better than any of our starting slots.
As good as Millsap is, he has always dealt with the limitations of being a tweener—a slightly undersized PF or a bulky but less mobile SF. Start him at either of those spots and his limitations come to the fore as often as his strengths, and teams will scheme to best take advantage of his limitations. But from the bench, Ty could use him how and when he offers the greatest advantage. Against some teams, he would play primarily behind Derrick Favors; in other circumstances, he would be primarily our backup SF, either behind Hayward or another (hopefully) prototypical, diverse wingman. The same in-between game that proves problematic when assessing Millsap’s value as a starter becomes a clear virtue in the sixth man role. Whether playing PF or SF, Paul Millsap will be a beast off the bench against every team in the league.
His particular style of play also favors a sixth man role, which ideally is a game changing player in a different sense than a starter. A starting game changer possesses the total talent and ability to prove the difference between winning and losing any given game, night in and night out. A sixth man, on the other hand, is asked to make a difference in a particular game situation, usually using a specific skill. Thus, a guy who can play at a different pace, score at an unusual volume, or instantly add the physicality of a hockey player to the court can change a game by adding what the team desperately lacks in a specific situation. A truly great sixth man provides several elite skills, any of which can inject the team with what it needs. Think Manu Ginobili and his ability to score either from distance or off the dribble and getting to the line, as well as his freakish enthusiasm and energy, or Lamar Odom, point-forward extraordinaire (when his head is right), both Sixth Man Award winners from championship-winning teams.
From the bench, Millsap could be the answer to a number of possible problems as a game unfolds. He’s a polished enough scorer to be a fine first offensive option off the pine, providing needed points. If we’re getting beaten down on the boards, Millsap could beef up the roster at SF or replace a big who might be dogging it. While not a great defender, Millsap is very active and disruptive defending the block, and that approach could provide a needed jolt to a floundering defense. Finally, Millsap will always bring toughness and energy to the game, either of which could turn the tide of play. Millsap’s atypical package as a player is a mixed bag at either starting forward position, but off the bench it is a pure asset.
Is $10 million a year too much for a bench player? It’s a valid concern, but the Lakers and Spurs both won championships with one of their three or four highest paid players coming off the pine. Plus, the Jazz won’t face the possibility of having to lock up all four of our young core for another three seasons. A front-loaded Millsap contract, as many have proposed on this site, would give us a realistic chance of keeping all four long term while keeping Millsap as sixth man. Even if the numbers proved too tight, Millsap would have respectable trade value given a steady, dependable, and predictable series of years as one of the league’s best sixth men. The position would lessen wear and tear on his body, a legitimate concern for an undersized PF, as well as prove his willingness to accept a bench role as well as a starter position. He probably would not have the market value he does at this moment, given his increased age and more expensive contract, but I suspect we would still get respectable value if a deal needed to be done—certainly better value than if we resigned him and engaged in a series of mixed experiments using him as a starting PF fighting for time with Favors and Kanter, at SF, and when the other options dried up, as a reluctant bench player.
Millsap is a very good player who fits well on the Jazz and can help the team win, perhaps at an elite level in a few years, while substantially benefiting himself. The question is whether that option appeals to him as much as possibly going elsewhere for slightly more money and an even more prominent role. Here, he has a chance to be one of the best paid and most important sixth men in the league with a team that, from current indications, will be very good. Plus, should he do so, he would likely go down as one of the greatest—and purest—of Jazz men, likely even have his jersey hung in the rafters. But he will not be our starting PF, nor (I believe) a long term starter at SF. He will not be our franchise player, or the Robin to Derrick “Call Me Batman” Favors, or perhaps even the third or fourth most important player on the team. If Millsap is satisfied with the role he best fits on the Jazz, we should resign him because it is an all-win situation. If he is unwilling to fully and immediately embrace that role, however, we should trade him now both to get the greatest value in return and to give him a chance to pursue his career in a situation where the team expectation for him better fits his own.