The Indianapolis Star recently reported the Pacers might pursue Jazz forward Paul Millsap once the NBA lockout ends and the 2011-12 free agent market opens for business.
Millsap was Utah's best player during 2010-11, battling through numerous injuries to average a career high 17.3 points during 76 games (all starts). The 26-year-old is still under contract for two more seasons, set to make a combined $13.5 million before he likely enters the prime of his career.
However, The Salt Lake Tribune reported in June that Millsap was on the trade block during the 2011 NBA Draft and was pursued by several teams. One of which was the Pacers, The Star reports.
Making Indy's reported interest even more interesting is a two-year connection that links the Jazz with the Pacers and Portland. Former Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard played a key role in Portland's 2009 attempt to lure Millsap away from Utah with a "toxic" front-loaded restricted free agent offer sheet. The Jazz matched the deal, and many at the time said the small-market franchise wildly overpaid for a reserve 'tweener.
Two years later, Millsap is technically underpaid and could be the centerpiece of a young Utah team attempting to win games and return to the playoffs during a compressed 66-game season that will place an emphasis upon proven players. Millsap knows the Jazz's system, he is a leader on and off the court, and he's shown a willingness to alter his playing style to fit the construction of his team — he temporarily slid down to small forward from power forward during the end of Utah's disappointing 2010-11 season.
Meanwhile, the Pacers have a new director of player of personnel: Pritchard. And the back end of Millsap's deal — $6.7 million this season; $7.2 million next year — makes him an attractive, trusted commodity in an uncertain market.
The Jazz will have many important decisions to make during what is expected to be a chaotic free agency period scheduled to start Dec. 9. Determining Millsap's role and future with Utah could be the biggest.
Utah could keep it simple: replicate 2010-11 by starting Millsap at power forward and Al Jefferson at center, and surround the undersized front-court duo with Devin Harris, C.J. Miles/Raja Bell and Gordon Hayward. That would allow Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter time to develop, and provide Utah with a reliable, veteran offensive scoring trio of Millsap, Jefferson and Harris to get the team through the initial part of the season. The Jazz could then still choose to trade Millsap before the 2011-12 trade deadline or the time surrounding the 2012 draft if Favors and/or Kanter push their way into the starting lineup. (Favors is much more likely, since Kanter is expected to be a work in progress.)
Millsap's trade value is high now, though, some teams could be needier than normal during free agency, and Utah has at least been open in the past to gauging his market value. Factor in that he will likely ask for a big-time contract extension if he has an All-Star year during 2011-12, and the Millsap question is not going away anytime soon. In many ways, he's the best and most reliable player on Utah's roster. Yet the chances of him remaining with the Jazz after 2012-13 are 50-50, at best, and he's currently the most tradable asset a rebuilding franchise possesses.
Brian T. Smith