Paul Millsap might be the best big man in the Eastern Conference, but he only received a fraction of the All-Star votes as some of his peers. Why does the Hawks forward continue to be overlooked?
He’s one of two players in the NBA, along with Blake Griffin, averaging at least 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. He’s one of two players in the NBA, along with DeMarcus Cousins, currently sporting a Player Efficiency Rating above 23 while also snaring at least 15% of available rebounds and assisting on at least 15% of his teammates’ baskets while on the floor. He currently ranks No. 13 in Wins Produced, No. 12 in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, No. 10 in Win Shares, No. 9 in both Box Plus-Minus and Value Over Replacement Player, and No. 6 in Nylon Calculus’ Daily RPM Estimate.
And yet somehow, Paul Millsap finished No. 15 among Eastern Conference frontcourt players in All-Star voting. Millsap was named as a reserve on Thursday by the coaches, but he still finished thousands of votes behind the likes of Jonas Valanciunas, Joakim Noah, and DeMarre Carroll, each of whom has been injured, ineffective, or both for the majority of this season. He was hundreds of thousands of votes behind Hassan Whiteside and Kevin Love, each of who he’s vastly outplayed this year.
Despite raising his scoring, rebounding, and assist averages this season, Millsap (who was forced to leave Thursday's game early with an ankle injury) got just over one-third the number of votes he did a year ago. How that happens to a player that has been arguably the best big in his conference—the only Eastern Conference forward or center ahead of him in any of the advanced stats mentioned above is LeBron James—is at once remarkable and ridiculous.
At age 30, Millsap is in the midst of what might be his best season. Last year was probably his best yet, and he’s on track to top the numbers he posted a year ago in PER, True Shooting Percentage, rebound rate, assist rate, block percentage, turnover rate, and more. There are explanations for why Millsap doesn’t quite measure up in the voting department, sure, but none of them have anything to do with the actual quality of his play.
Yes, he plies his trade for the Atlanta Hawks, who have never been the most popular team in the league. The brief public shine is off the Hawks this year now that they’re on pace for 46 wins, a steep drop from the 60 they won last season when they sent four players to the All-Star Game. And no, he’s not exactly the flashiest player or brightest personality in the NBA. But man, is he incredible in almost every respect.
He may only block 1.4 shots a game, but he alters a bunch just by being in the right spots. He actually checks in No. 9 in the NBA in Nylon Calculus’s rim protection metric, Position Adjusted Points Saved, which is pretty remarkable for a guy people thought was a small forward as recently as a few years ago. He’s also a dynamite passer, easily one of the best among power forwards and centers. His Playmaking Usage (the percentage of plays where he contributes a potential assist or free-throw assist) is third among big men, for example. That rare combination of plus interior defense and ace passing is basically the prototype of what teams are looking for from power forwards these days, and Millsap has it.
He’s also a really good athlete, but he often uses the bounce in his step in very subtle ways. Not many people get amped up watching a guy slide into the perfect position at the perfect time on defense or float to the perfect spot, at the perfect speed, to end up wide-open on a pick and pop. Every few games, though, he’ll unleash a monster dunk or a great block and make you think, “Oh yeah, Paul Millsap gets UP.”
But most nights when you watch the Hawks, especially now that they’re not quite as JV Warriors-y as they were last year, you notice that Millsap is playing pretty well, and then you check the box score at the end of the evening and see he’s filled the stat sheet with his typical 18 points, eight boards, and three or four assists, plus a few steals and blocks. His effectiveness and consistency almost sneak up on you. He’s so understated that it’s easy to see why he’s underrated.
The underrated label, though, can flip on you, if you wear it for too long. You know, the old, “he’s so underrated, he’s overrated” guy. It happens all the time, especially if the underrated label sticks despite the fact that you’re continually recognized for your accomplishments. And it’s undoubtedly a bit strange that Millsap always pops up in these conversations when he’s been selected as an All-Star three consecutive times.
But it still doesn’t feel like he’s in danger of tipping over into the “so underrated, he’s overrated” territory, simply because his production still really does outstrip his reputation by so much. Not only did he finish far lower than his talent would suggest in All-Star voting, but prior to the season Millsap ranked No. 23 on SI.com's Top 100 players list, No. 29 in ESPN’s NBARank, and No. 26 on CBS Sports’s Elite 100. All of those rankings are still firmly within the top 10% of all NBA players, but they’re still pretty much in fringe All-Star territory, and frankly he’s just been a heck of a lot better than that for a while now.