ATLANTA — Paul Millsap confirmed on Saturday that he “probably will opt out” of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent, leaving the Atlanta Hawks to plot their future following a painful first-round exit from the playoffs.
Millsap has a $21.4 million option for next season. The four-time All-Star can earn substantially more in a new long-term deal, which makes the opt-out decision obvious.
The Hawks’ win totals have slipped in two straight seasons. The team could enter free-fall mode if it is unable to re-sign Millsap. The power forward, who averaged 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds, was the top producer on a roster that received disappointing returns from $70 million investments in Dwight Howard and Kent Bazemore.
Millsap said he wants to stay with the Hawks.
“I want to be here,” Millsap said. “I think talks have been pretty good. … It’s something me, my agent and my family have got to sit down and talk about.”
Millsap’s teammates want him to stay.
“I’m definitely recruiting Millsap to come back,” Bazemore said, adding that it is “probably smart” for Millsap to take advantage of the opportunity to “sign a big contract.”
Hawks coach and president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer said Saturday that he is a “huge believer” in Millsap.
“The best for us is with Paul,” Budenholzer said. “We’re incredibly optimistic and incredibly committed to Paul.”
Budenholzer said Millsap “exemplifies everything” he likes in a player. He made similar statements about center Al Horford at this time last year before Horford signed with Boston. The team made a four-year, $70 million commitment to Bazemore and signed Howard to a three-year, $70.5 million deal.
Howard did not play in the fourth quarter of the Hawks’ 115-99 Game 6 loss to Washington on Friday night. It was the second time in six playoff games that the center did not play in the fourth quarter.
One day later, it was clear Howard was still upset.
“It was very difficult. I want to play,” he said Saturday. “I want to be on the floor. I want to make an impact. You can’t do it on the bench.”
Howard averaged 8 points and 10.7 rebounds in the playoffs. Bazemore averaged 9.8 points and 3.8 rebounds.
The Hawks were eliminated in the first round for the first time since 2014. Clearly, expectations were much higher.
“I think we thought we had a team that could compete with anybody in the league,” Budenholzer said. “I think when you look at the record from the regular season and then not advancing from this round, I think we all thought we had greater potential.”
Budenholzer said the decision to trade Teague and make Dennis Schroder the full-time starter for the first time in his career meant “there weren’t any guarantees.” Rookie Taurean Prince emerged as a starting small forward late in the season.
“There’s a little bit of risk-reward and also a little bit of hope for the future,” Budenholzer said of the young starters.
Budenholzer acknowledged that keeping Howard on the floor can be a challenge. The coach said the Hawks had to “play faster and more spread” when trying to make up a deficit against the Wizards.
“The league with all the 3-point shooting and all the bigs shooting 3s is definitely a challenge for us and a challenge for Dwight,” Budenholzer said.
Budenholzer said he planned to meet with Howard “within a week or two” to discuss the center’s concerns about his diminished role in the playoffs.
Howard’s hurt feelings did not make Budenholzer’s list of top three offseason priorities, however. He said his top concerns are the continued development of Prince and Schroder, improving the offense and re-signing Millsap and Hardaway.
Hardaway, a restricted free agent, ranked third on the team with his average of 14.5 points, and he led the team in 3-pointers.