Paul Millsap came into the NBA as an undersized power forward drafted in the second round without much of a face up game or jump shot, and questionable defensive prospects. Nine years later, he's a multi-time All-Star helping to anchor one of the best defenses in the NBA with a diverse offensive skillset that has him scoring efficiently on healthy usage. He's looking at making his first All-NBA team after filling up the stat sheet for a good Atlanta Hawks, and he'll be a worthy choice.
Says Al Horford about his frontcourt partner, "It's fun. Paul makes the game easy for me, for my team. The more we've been able to play, the more comfortable I've been able to get with him." And ask Horford if he thinks Millsap should be 2nd team All-NBA, and he won't even let you finish the question.
"He should be. He should be, no question. The level that he's playing ... he's had an amazing year. He's been very consistent."
Consistent is a good word for Millsap, who has played 80 games this season, and is averaging 17 points, nine rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 3.5 combined steals and blocks. There is very little that he cannot do. He spends times guarding fours and fives, and in Mike Budenholzer's defense, is constantly in the right place. It was always going to be difficult for the Hawks to maintain the level of play they found last season, but Millsap has been as good as ever. He's a true stretch power forward and compiled a 55.6 true shooting rate on 24.2% usage. There's very little he can't do.
Unless, it seems, he is playing the Cleveland Cavaliers. Or more specifically, Tristan Thompson. The Cavs were without the services of Kevin Love, and without the services of Kyrie Irving for the first three games of last year's Eastern Conference Finals. It seemed as though the frontcourt of Millsap and Horford would have a big advantage over Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. That didn't happen, and the trend has continued this season as well.
Those numbers include Monday night's game, and it didn't help Millsap's case. He finished with nine points on 3-14 shooting, turned it over twice, and came up a rebound short of his season average. He also suffered the indignity of what was one of the most impressive blocks of Thompson's career:
The success Tristan Thompson has had with Millsap is a sort of validation for the Cavaliers' combo big. Sure, we're talking about small samples, and this is not be a slight on the player that Millsap is. In fact, it's the opposite. Thompson's value is derived in part from being such a tough matchup for versatile forwards like Millsap. If Millsap goes out to the perimeter for a three point attempt, Thompson is comfortable there. If Millsap wants to post him up, that is fine too. If the Cavs want to switch a screen and put Thompson on the primary ball handler, he can do that as well. Put simply, you pay Tristan Thompson in large part because he can help counteract talented players like Millsap.
When asked about his success against the Hawks, and specifically Millsap, Thompson speaks with both pride and admiration.
"I just take the challenge. Paul has done a hell of a job in his career, going from an energy guy in Utah, to developing into more of an offensive player and now going to Atlanta and being an All-Star."
Without insinuating that Thompson has a future as a stretch forward, it does make some sense that some parallels between the two would be drawn. Both were considered undersized early in their careers, concerns that have largely faded away as they evolve into plus defenders. Both made their living with offensive rebounding and energy early on and are renowned for their work ethic.
And indeed, Millsap is someone who has consistently evolved in the league. In his first four seasons, he attempted a combined 20 three pointers. This season alone he has attempted 230. We won't see Thompson do that. With offensive creators like LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love around him, it's hard to see it being consistently featured anyway, but he also just doesn't have the ability. But the renaissance of Millsap can be emulated by Thompson when it comes to the mental makeup that made it possible.
As Thompson puts it himself: "The work ethic, you know, he’s gotten better every year. I look at it a lot in terms of where I want to grow as a basketball player and where I want to go."
The Cavaliers forward recently turned 25, and seems to be growing each year. His true shooting rate, rebounding rate, and turnover rates are all career bests, and he's built on the capable defense that finally started paying off in the Playoffs a year ago. Moving forward, the Cavaliers can only hope that a powerful dunk isn't the only thing Tristan Thompson takes from Paul Millsap.
Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com