The Atlanta Hawks have begun fielding trade offers for forward Paul Millsap, according to ESPN. Given the Celtics’ quest to join the league’s super-elite, their treasure chest of assets, Millsap’s history of playing well alongside Al Horford, and his status as a three-time All-Star, it is fair to ask whether Boston would or should pursue him.
Adding Millsap would instantly make the Celtics better, and All-Stars do not grow on trees. This season, the forward is averaging 17.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He can score in myriad ways — including beyond the 3-point arc — and he is a versatile, All-NBA defender. On the other hand, he is shooting a career-low 44.4 percent from the field and will turn 32 in February.
A deal could be complicated for both sides. The primary issue for the Celtics is that Millsap has a chance to become a free agent at season’s end if he declines his $21.4 million player option — a move he intends to make, per ESPN.
Near last season’s trade deadline, the Celtics were rumored to be interested in trading for Horford. But multiple sources told the Globe then that Boston did not see the point of giving up assets for a player it could simply try to sign in the summer. Sure enough, the Celtics held back and then inked Horford to a four-year, $113 million deal in July. And they did not have to surrender any assets to do it.
That situation could be fresh on the minds of the Hawks, who ended up losing Horford while getting nothing in return. The prospect of having that happen again with Millsap could be troubling, and it could spur them to shop him more actively. As it stands, though, the Celtics would likely be reluctant to risk giving up an important part of their future to potentially rent a 32-year-old forward for a few months. And all of the above shows why massive deals usually stall.
There are other options, however. League sources said that the Celtics could agree in principle to a deal, under the condition that they are able to meet with Millsap first and determine whether he would re-sign with Boston long-term, or even opt into the final year of his deal. If he does not want to commit — the most likely response — the Celtics could then tell the Hawks that the deal is off.
These situations are rare, however, because they can create great friction between a player and his current team. Millsap would know that a trade was agreed upon and then called off, and the Hawks would be in a conundrum. Also, it is rarely in the best interest of a player like Millsap to commit to a future decision almost blindly.
When the Nuggets traded Ty Lawson to the Rockets in 2015, Houston got Lawson to agree that he would remove the guarantee from his 2016-17 salary. This was good for the Rockets because it maintained financial flexibility while also leaving it up to Lawson, who had been arrested and charged with his second DUI, to prove his worth. For Lawson, it was a chance for a fresh start.
With Millsap, of course, there are no such off-court troubles. And although this season has been a disappointment for the Hawks, they are 18-16 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, just two games behind the third-place Celtics.
Boston has made it clear that it is looking for a seismic move that will push it one step closer to winning a championship. By adding Millsap this year, the Celtics would be better, but they would still not be title contenders. It could make them good enough to give the Cavaliers a tough series in the Eastern Conference finals. Also, they would ostensibly be committing themselves to offering Millsap a maximum salary deal this summer.
At the same time, if the Celtics insist on waiting for a unicorn, they might be waiting for years. If they believe Millsap can continue to play at an elite level, maybe it is worth taking a gamble.
Whatever happens, the uncertainty about Millsap’s future combined with his advancing age would almost certainly keep the Celtics from offering Atlanta one of their most prized assets such as one of the future first-round picks they will receive from the Brooklyn Nets.
Maybe they could offer the expiring contracts of Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko, as well as their own 2018 first-round pick and one of the many future second-round choices they own. The Hawks might decline that, but the Celtics simply cannot overpay for a potential rental. Atlanta might receive a much better offer elsewhere. It might also remember what it received before Horford walked last summer: nothing.