From the first day of training camp, the Atlanta Hawks truly believed they had a roster and complimentary coaching staff that could compete for an NBA Championship this June. Atlanta returned 12 players from last year’s team that surprisingly took the Indiana Pacers to Game 7 in the first round of the Playoffs without Al Horford.
Now, Horford’s back posting triple-doubles, Kyle Korver is amidst a historic shooting season—nobody has ever completed a 50-50-90 year—and additions like Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore have clicked perfectly.
Throw in Jeff Teague’s ascendance into the upper echelon of the League’s point guards, and it’s easy to forget which Atlanta Hawk represented the organization in last year’s All-Star game.
Paul Millsap drew praise a year ago for stretching opposing defenses with his three-point shooting and in turn unlocking ample spacing for Teague’s dribble drives in Budenholzer’s Spursian motion offense. Meanwhile, Millsap has quietly put together one of the most impressive defensive seasons of anyone in the NBA this year.
Through Atlanta’s first 42 games, Millsap ranks second in the League in defensive win shares behind only Draymond Green. He also boasts the NBA’s fourth-best individual defensive rating of 98.3.
Simply put, the nine-year pro is a huge reason for Atlanta’s third-ranked defense, which has largely helped the Hawks surge to the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
“He does a lot of things. I think his hands and his instincts are just really unique. He gets deflections; he gets steals within our principles, within our basic fundamental defensive scheme,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “His instincts and rotations, he’s just kind of gifted and we try not to screw him up and just let him be Paul. He does a lot of things you really can’t teach and are really instinctual.”
Millsap has used those instincts to swipe the eighth most steals (71) of any player in the NBA this season. He’s the most efficient frontcourt thief in the league. Only Thaddeus Young (66) and Green (60) join Millsap as frontcourt players ranking in the top 20 in steals.
“I feel like the game slows down for him a little bit when it comes to that,” Horford said of Millsap. “He’s really, really good defensively having active hands and he just kind of has a knack for the ball. He makes the game easy for me.”
Millsap is a terror to opposing ball handlers when he’s helping on pick-and-rolls.
If he finds himself on the strong side of the screen, he has the speed and size to both close off the shooter in the corner and threaten to bump the rolling big man. Playing against bigger teams like the Wizards or Bulls, Millsap can double down on the penetrating point guard while also closing off the weak side 4-man who’s flashing to the high post.
“It goes back to training and jump roping, hand-eye coordination drills and things like that,” Millsap said. “And just having the tenacity to, when you see the ball, go after it.
“Just being active, having active hands, trying to beat guys to spots and helping each other. Being in the right spot, using your hands a little bit and guys are being aware on the court.”
Millsap also ranks 14th in the League in defensive rebounding. Essentially, only his lack of shot blocking—which is certainly a product of his undersized 6-8 frame—is holding Millsap back from potential Defensive Player of the Year discussions.
Atlanta has risen to the top of the NBA with massive improvements on both sides of the ball. The Hawks ranked in the middle of the pack in both offense and defensive efficiency a year ago, whereas 2014-15 has seen Atlanta morph into one of just two teams—along with Golden State—to rank in the top-seven in both.
Millsap proved his offensive value to Atlanta last season. This year, he’s shown he can be one of the most impactful defensive players in the entire NBA. And he should be rewarded with a second-straight All-Star appearance.