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The Power Forward Conundrum in Utah

Paul Millsap has dominatedThe NBA’s longest double-double streak of the season ended on Saturday. It lasted 19 games and was, unsurprisingly, turned in by a Utah Jazz power forward. What was perhaps surprising was which power forward: Paul Millsap. Not 2007 and 2008 All-Star, and second-highest paid player on the Jazz, Carlos Boozer. Then again, those who have watched Utah and their young big may not be that shocked. The 6-8, third-year pro has been the best player in a Jazz uniform this season not named Deron Williams.

Boozer and Millsap have a lot in common: they’re both undersized power forwards, they were both second-round picks because of their height, they’re both double-double machines, they’re both extremely efficient scorers, and they both thrive without dominating the ball.

Both are also impending free agents.

Ordinarily having two power forwards as efficient and productive as Millsap and Boozer is more of a luxury than a problem. And once Boozer returns from arthroscopic knee surgery, it will be a luxury for Jerry Sloan for the remainder of this season. However, with both players slated to become free agents this offseason and with each passing game serving to inflate Millsap’s pending contract, the Jazz may be forced to pick between the two of them.

Paul Millsap Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Boozer will make roughly $11.5 million this season, and although he has a player option for next year at $12.6 million he has made it clear that he intends to opt out. Meanwhile, Millsap is Utah’s cheapest player this year at just under $800,000, but it’s the final year of his extremely affordable rookie contract and he will be a restricted free agent this summer, one who is sure to garner plenty of interest.

Assuming GM Kevin O’Conner and Co. can’t retain both, who should they keep?

An argument for Paul Millsap, after the jump…

Carlos Boozer Boxes Out Pau Gasol

Carlos Boozer and Pau Gasol Photo Credit: Icon SMI

The two players actually have similar games to consider. At 27-year-old, Boozer is obviously the more polished offensively. He plays the pick-and-roll with Deron Williams exceptionally well, has developed a strong mid-range game, and hits the glass. He’s a broad-shouldered beast around the basket that knows his role and executes it with great efficiency, shooting over 54% from the field and averaging a double-double for his career. But despite that wide frame and prowess on the boards Boozer is undersized and doesn’t provide the defensive presence you would expect from an All-Star big.

Millsap is even more undersized than Boozer, listed an inch shorter and 16 pounds lighter, but he’s shown an ability to replicate Boozer’s success in Jerry Sloan’s system at a much younger age – and even be better in a few areas. He’s still just developing the mid-range jumper, an essential for the PF to run this offense, but he plays with more scrap and hustle. Millsap is fourth in the league with 3.8 offensive boards in just under 32 minutes per game, which perhaps shouldn’t be surprising from the only three-time rebounding champion in NCAA history. He’s also over 1 steal and 1 block per contest on the season, all better than Boozer, and doing it on an exceptional 55.7% FGs.

In fact, they’re both playing for a contract, but compare Millsap’s splits as a starter with Boozer’s numbers and it’s hard to tell who is making $11.5 million and who is making $800,000:

Paul Millsap35:1256.8%69.4%
Carlos Boozer33:4755.9%72.7%

Statistically they’re as close to facimiles as you’ll find in the NBA, though there’s no denying that Millsap gets a clear edge in the hustle stats. But let’s also consider what’s given Millsap this opportunity to shine after only being allowed to show flashes of his brilliance while backing Boozer up the last few seasons. Booz has been out since November 21st with what was initially termed a “strained quadriceps,” but has since required arthroscopic knee surgery that will keep him out approximately six more weeks. According to The Deseret News he’ll be shelved until mid-February and hopes to play in the Jazz’s final 20 or 30 games.

This will mark the third of Boozer’s five seasons in Utah that has been obliterated by major injury. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule, and at 27 years of age this is when leg injuries begin to mount for big men. Health and youth are clearly major factors to consider, and favor Millsap.

Another component is commitment to the franchise on the court, in the locker room, and in dealing with the media. Gordon Gund and Cleveland Cavaliers fans will not soon forget how Boozer orchestrated his departure from Ohio. There are two sides to every story, but Carlos reportedly made verbal promises to the Cavs that he would re-sign a larger offer to stay in town if they expedited the process by making him an unrestricted free agent. Boozer then promptly signed with Utah.

As a result, according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The Utah Jazz forward is known to the 1.3 billion people in China as ‘Fan Gu Zai,’ which, loosely translated, means ‘Betrayal Skull Dude.'” He’s been playing the contract game again this season, this time informing the media that he intends to opt out of his contract this summer and seek a bigger pay day. I don’t begrudge any man an opportunity to get paid, but the timing was questionable – Boozer had been injured for several weeks without improvement and he had neglected to inform his current employer of the situation. From The Salt Lake Tribune:

Jazz owner Larry Miller slammed Boozer in his weekly radio appearance on KFAN 1320, saying, “It’s one of the top 10 stupidest things I’ve heard an NBA player do in 20 years.”

Miller said Boozer’s timing detracted from the Jazz’s victory over New Jersey and came not only as he has missed 15 games with a strained left quadriceps tendon but after he missed 80 games early on after coming to the Jazz. Those memories are hard to shake, with Miller saying, “a lot of people are still suspicious about that, a lot of fans and stuff, and we’ve covered for him and protected him, justifiably.”

It’s hard to imagine the blue-collar, hard-working Millsap perpetrating such shenanigans. It’s also hard to imagine Millsap, who will be represented by his uncle Brendrick Simmons, commanding the same asking price as the more high-profile Boozer. In fact, the difference in their projected salaries figures to be in the $4+ million per season range. Utah could use that money to shore up their bench up front or bring in another outside shooter or backup ball-handler. And while Boozer is undeniably more skilled on offense at this point, Millsap may have the greater upside being four years his junior. Millsap has already proven a superior defender.

It’s not guaranteed that Utah will have to choose between the two; they may be able to retain the services of both, but that seems both unlikely and an unwise use of assets for such redundant players with similar size limitations. When you factor in all of the off-court considerations the choice becomes clear: pay the young man wearing #24 and let Betrayal Skull Dude walk.

Related Reading:
Ten of the Most Pleasant Surprises in Fantasy Hoops
The NBA’s Top Double-Double Machines Nobody’s Heard Of


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