Road Court Advantage: The Curious Case of Paul Millsap

Jacob Eisenberg investigates Paul Millsap’s mysterious three point shooting tendencies on the road.

It’s no secret that Paul Millsap is one of the league’s most underrated big men. The topic has been discussed at length by bloggers for years and, yet, the lack of credit he continues to receive is borderline criminal.

How underrated is Millsap exactly? In every season since 2010-2011, he’s ranked among the league’s best 30 in efficiency. Millsap’s 31.5 cumulative Estimated Wins Added for the Jazz since 2010 ranks him ahead of rival power forwards Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett and David West (and on par with Dirk Nowitzki) over the same time period.

Regardless of his consistency, Millsap didn’t receive overwhelming interest in free agency and ended up signing with the Hawks for two years and $19 million.  He will be earning less money in 2013-2014 than either Mehmet Okur or Stephen Jackson.

Some pundits recognize his talent, but, for whatever reason, exclude him from the discussion of the best bigs in the league. Perhaps this can be attributed to Millsap’s seemingly unaesthetic playing style. He bruises in the paint, overpowers for rebounds, and finishes strong at the rim. While basketball purists drool over his effort on the court, it’s not quite as pretty to watch as a Stephen Curry pull-up three.

None of this is news, of course.

But here’s something interesting:

Millsap all

Above is Millsap’s shot chart from last season with the Jazz (courtesy of Hotshotcharts.com). As you can see, he gets most of his production from inside the paint. While he has some touch from midrange, he is far more effective with finesse shots within five feet of the rim.

Millsap has made strides from behind the arc. Once considered an offensive floor clogger for his lack of range, he has, in general, turned into a pretty decent stretch forward. Last year, Millsap attempted a career-high 39 3-pointers and converted 13 of them, good for 33%. While that percentage is nothing to write home about, it has made him considerably more dynamic and effective on the court.

Here’s some proof:

In 2011-2012, Millsap’s most effective three-man pairing among all his Jazz teammates came when he shared the court with fellow bigs Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors (via basketball-reference.com).

What does this mean?

Well, for starters, it means that Millsap is no longer the one-dimensional bruiser his reputation suggests. Jefferson and Favors occupied the paint while Millsap extended his game out to the perimeter. In the seldom 113 minutes of court time together, the trio outscored opponents by 33.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s simply unheard of territory. Last season, the trio shared the court for even less time (85.8 minutes) but still proved to be effective (+ 5 points per 100 possessions).

But there’s more to Millsap’s perimeter shooting. Look at this:

Millsap at home

This is Millsap’s shot chart at home last season. While his offense in the paint stayed at an elite level, something more obvious stands out: his 3-point shooting became a non-factor. Millsap made just one of his nine attempted 3-pointers at home last season. While this could be a call for concern, it might also be a window into a revolutionary way to look at matchups and lineup pairings for NBA coaches going forward.

Let’s contrast his shooting at home with his production on the road:

Paul Millsap on raod

Millsap, away from home, took 30 shots from the perimeter and made 12 of them. He made three more shots from deep on the road than he even attempted at home.

Obviously, it’s a small sample size to draw from. But rest assured: this is not an anomaly. Over the past three seasons, since Millsap has expanded his shooting touch, he has shot only 22.6% from three at home (7-for-31) and 35.5% from three on the road (22-for-62).

Think about that for a moment. Millsap is an entirely different offensive player on the road than he is at home. For starters, just the fact that he has taken twice as many threes on the road shows that he is significantly more confident with his shot away from home. His 3-point percentage on the road over the past three seasons looks nearly identical to Gary Neal, Marco Bellinelli or JR Smith’s percentages from last season. (Also, well ahead of Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul or Luol Deng’s.)

Meanwhile, at home, Millsap’s 3-point shooting is more comparable to Rajon Rondo or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

When I told Millsap about his disparity, he was not exactly surprised:

“For me, it’s always been the case that I like playing on the road,” Millsap said. “You and your teammates just have an extra chip on your shoulder so that works well for me, personally. I believe I shot more in rhythm on the road last season.” 

It’s fascinating to think about. Why don’t coaches place more importance on the analytics behind home-road splits to make lineup changes accordingly? After all, the shared sentiment around the entire Hawks’ locker room is that playing on the road is a totally different animal to playing at home.

“I don’t know what it is but I feel like I’m more focused on the road too,” admitted John Jenkins. “There’s something about being in that new environment. I just lock in better I guess.”

While success on the basketball court isn’t considered to be as mentally dependent as success in a sport like baseball, shooting effectively obviously requires a lot of confidence. As Millsap has proven over the last three seasons, confidence can fluctuate based on where you are playing.

Veteran free agent Royal Ivey says that there is something beneficial about playing away from familiar surroundings:

“You get so used to playing at home that it becomes your comfort zone,” Ivey explained. “On the road, there’s a different mental approach to the game. You got the crowd up against you in a different environment and you have to be all locked in. Playing on the road requires a bit of a higher focus.”

So, going forward with the season, is it possible that we see Millsap play more at the small forward position on the road?

Coach Mike Budenholzer won’t discount anything at this point:

“Paul’s versatility is one of the main reasons we’re excited he’s a part of the program,” Budenholzer said. “I think his ability to guard threes and fours is huge. In time, stretching him out as a three is something we may consider but, for right now, we’re going to use him as a big. Still, we want to be flexible and open going forward.”

With the frontline depth on the Hawks’ roster, it may be beneficial to experiment with lineups featuring Millsap and Horford and a third big man. After all, Millsap and Horford are far from prototypical bigs and have proven to be effective contributors away from the rim.

DeMarre Carroll, Millsap’s teammate for the past two seasons in Utah and current teammate in Atlanta thinks that it’s foolish to attach Millsap to a specific position:

“Paul’s a guy you just have to let go out there and play. He’s such a hard worker and effective player that you can’t really put a number on him.”

It’s unfair to put a position on Millsap, especially on the road. If he continues to evolve his outside touch, Millsap will create opportunities to space the floor for a diverse offensive attack in Atlanta.

“I’ve spent the past few years expanding my game and trying to become more versatile,” Millsap concluded. “Coach is going to ask me a lot to space the floor and to shoot a bit. Hopefully I can deliver.”

Jacob Eisenberg is a junior at Emory University and works as a credentialed reporter at Atlanta Hawks games. Check out his website here and be sure to follow him on twitter @eisenberg43.


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