There can be no better value in the NBA than Utah power forward Paul Millsap, who among players on the Jazz's active roster ranks first in rebounds (8.7), second in points (14.4) and blocks (1.2), and last in salary ($797,581). All three numbers should climb after Millsap becomes a restricted free agent next summer, earning him more money and a larger role.
"I think he has a great future. Hopefully it's with us,'' said Utah coach Jerry Sloan, who has begun campaigning for the Jazz to re-sign Millsap. "He's worked and earned that opportunity to go make some money. I certainly feel like those kinds of guys end up being good players for a long time because they've had to earn it the old-fashioned way. And that's what I appreciate about him.''
The teammate who has helped create opportunities for the 23-year-old Millsap -- while also complicating his future -- is All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer, whose absence because of a strained left quad tendon has enabled Millsap to average 17.9 points (on 57.1 percent shooting) and 11.1 rebounds while starting the last 14 games. Boozer was putting up his typical 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds before he was injured, and the starting job will be his when he returns. The question is whether Utah can afford to re-sign both of them next summer when the 27-year-old Boozer opts out of his contract (amid leaguewide speculation that Boozer is headed to Miami as a free agent).
Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor says it's possible that Utah could retain both the 6-foot-9 Boozer and the 6-8 Millsap.
"They've played a lot together,'' O'Connor said. "The way this league is now, I don't think you'd define Carlos as a true power forward. He plays center for us on offense [as Utah's low-post threat, while Mehmet Okur roams the three-point line], and I think the same thing with Paul -- he's proven he can guard bigger players. Now are we going to be able to play those two against Shaq all the time? No, but there aren't a lot of teams with true centers.''
"Our team's a little faster," Boozer said of his minutes together with Millsap, "so we're better defensively and then at the same time we grab every rebound. I think we complement each other very well. Me and him together is a great power-forward tandem, and we can mix it up a great deal. And I think we'd both love to play together for a while.''
An interesting change of trend is that both players are now seen as big enough to handle opposing centers. Yet both Boozer (picked No. 35 by Cleveland in 2002) and Millsap (No. 47 by Utah in 2006) were drafted in the second round because each was viewed as too small to survive at power forward. O'Connor credits the permission of zone defenses with launching a new era of agile big men in the post.
"If we were geniuses, we would have traded up to get [Millsap] early in the second round or late in the first round. A lot of people look at what a player can't do instead of what he can do,'' O'Connor said. "There was a trend there for about three or four years that maybe size was so important at that [power forward] position, but then you get a Leon Powe, you get a Paul Millsap and a Craig Smith and a Carl Landry ...'' All were "undersized'' second-round picks who have thrived as NBA power forwards.
Millsap sat untouched through the first round of his draft despite being the only player in NCAA history to lead the nation in rebounding for three consecutive years, having concluded his career at Louisiana Tech by averaging 19.6 points and 13.3 rebounds as a junior. Karl Malone, who had been drafted No. 13 by the Jazz 21 years earlier as a junior power forward from Louisiana Tech, was among those pushing Millsap to Utah.
"Karl said, 'Hey, there's a kid down here that all my people say really goes after it,' " O'Connor said.
The mistake by other teams was ignoring Millsap's rebounding numbers, which tend to translate from college to the NBA.
"Guys who go after the basketball, if that's what they do well, they always do it at just about every level they play unless they're just totally outsized,'' Sloan said. "It usually won't come to you unless you go after it, for some reason.''
The Jazz believed Millsap had the raw skills to improve offensively. During his career-high 32-point performance during a loss at Boston on Monday, Millsap torched the Celtics everywhere from under the basket to 19 feet away.
"One of the things that as an organization we look at is your hands,'' O'Connor said. "He's got great hands. We had a couple of other guys who had great hands for a long time -- John [Stockton] and Karl.''
In addition to Boozer and Millsap, the Jazz must deal with the impending free agency of Okur and shooting guard Kyle Korver. It's too soon to jump to any conclusions, but Millsap might be the leader among Utah's offseason priorities based on his age and capacity for hard work.
"I try to keep it at the back of my head,'' Millsap said. "I've still got a long ways to go. It's a long season and a lot of things can happen.''
Like Boozer, Millsap says the indignity of being picked in the second forced the best from him.
"Of course I had a chip on my shoulder coming in,'' Millsap said dispassionately. "I wasn't drafted where I thought I would be, where I thought I deserved. So I was coming in with a chip on my shoulder just to work hard and prove guys wrong.''
The unlikely outcome is that Millsap will become a free agent before the first-rounders of his draft, and -- unlike most young players in this era of entitlement -- he will have a large number of fans rooting for him to be paid. Because, as Sloan says, he has earned it.
The recession and financial crisis have already started to affect NBA teams, according to the senior executive of a franchise who has been briefed on the leaguewide consequences.
"There are a lot of sponsors who are behind on payments,'' the team official said. "What you're seeing is a lot of teams saying, 'We'll carry you, hoping that you get square with us.' Because there are no other sponsors in line to replace them.
"In places like New York, of course there is a waiting list for sponsors. But in a lot of these cities, the naming-rights people are worrying. What happens if an airline or another of these naming-rights companies isn't able to make payments?''
Teams are also earning less money from tickets.
"In most places attendance is off, but only by a little bit,'' the executive said. "Revenue is off a lot more because they're selling the seats for less. The revenue from the expensive courtside seats is holding up, and the business in the upper level [of arenas, where the cheaper tickets are sold] is the same or even better in some cases. But those seats in the middle, that's where the trouble is. Teams are having trouble selling those seats.''
Teams are having to discount those seats in order to fill the arena, according to the executive. That's why attendance appears to remain solid, while revenues are down.
One player who is contributing to the NBA economy is Stephon Marbury, who paid for a courtside seat at Staples Center in order to watch his Knicks lose to the Lakers this week. Marbury has been ordered to stay away from the team until he is bought out or traded (the latter being an unfathomable outcome).
If Marbury ever should agree to a buyout with the Knicks, the champion Celtics will be among his potential suitors. My understanding is that Boston has not dismissed the possibility of signing Marbury despite his reputation as a poor lockerroom influence and a me-first player who has never won a playoff series. Of course, Marbury would need to express a willingness to come off the bench, as well as an adherence to the unselfish approach of his former teammate Kevin Garnett.
But a rival executive raises the possibility that the Knicks could create buyout terms that would prevent Marbury from playing for a team in the Atlantic Division. Which only makes sense: If the Knicks are paying Marbury to play for another team, they won't want to suffer watching him help their divisional rival win another championship.