The Atlanta Hawks three-time All-Star power forward/center Al Horford is in the final year of a deal that pays him $12 million this season and for the first time in his nine year NBA career there are reasons to believe he might want out of town at the end of the season. Opportunities to pick up a player of his caliber don’t go unnoticed and there is rampant speculation that the Celtics, Raptors, Lakers and other teams would love to get their hands on him – if not now by way of trade, then in the summer by way of unrestricted free agency.
No one really knows what’s going on at the brain trust running the Hawks and as Basketball Insiders Steve Kyler points out, this team doesn’t leak information.
From an information standpoint, the Hawks run one of the tightest ships in the business in terms of keeping things in-house so there are very few leaks.
The problem in Atlanta is the Hawks have taken a big step backwards this season after unexpectedly moving up to first place in the Eastern Conference a year ago. The team lost DeMarre Carroll to free agency, a noticeably different Kyle Korver is about to turn 35, Thabo Sefolosha will be 32 soon, and there’s a point guard controversy. It’s not all bad, but they are in a virtual four-way tie for third in the East five games back of second place Toronto and they can’t seem to find any momentum heading into the All-Star break.
“I think Atlanta is at a crossroads. This isn’t the team that was winning the Eastern Conference last year. They’ve got pending free agent Al Horford. They got to make a decision. What is this team going to look like going forward and if you’re not there, you don’t believe you are going to contend, not only for the Eastern Conference, but for the Championship, you have to start looking and I think that’s really where the Atlanta Hawks are.
“They really seem like a team that’s trying to find an identity and some of that identity may come in trade.”
If they stand pat, Atlanta is a solid playoff team again this year, but they aren’t a contender and there could be virtually no one left from this roster in 2017-18 when almost all of the rest of the players can opt for free agency. It could be a very tall order to convince Horford that the Hawks have a bright future this summer.
The Celtics are rumored to be interested in every former or current All-Star that might be available at the trade deadline and they have the assets to get a deal done. Multiple first round draft picks over the next three years, more second round picks than any one team could possibly use, a surplus of high potential young talent and a dire need for a veteran star player to lead them.
The gem of Boston’s trade assets is the Brooklyn Nets 2016 unprotected first round draft pick, but no one believes the Celtics will ever give up that chip. Still, if the Hawks want to rebuild through the draft, Boston is a team to talk to.
Ever tight-lipped at the management level, Toronto should have the most interest in Horford, but the only real indication that president and general manager Masai Ujiri is lurking has been an admission not doing a deadline deal last year was a mistake and acknowledging the team has too many draft picks over the next two years.
Reuniting the All-Star big man with Carroll could make the Raptors an improved version of last year’s 60-win Hawks. Toronto already has two All-Star guards and Horford can play in his natural position at power forward with Jonas Valanciunas manning center.
The Raptors have multiple first round draft picks they could throw into a deal – not quite of the same quality Boston can muster, but pretty good. They could also include some of their recent draft picks who are primarily playing in the NBA D-League this season if the Hawks are looking to rebuild.
The issue for any team thinking about trading for Horford is this could become a short term rental and keeping the big man will take a near max contract next season. While Boston is likely to have plenty of salary cap space, the Raptors would have to dive into luxury tax territory to retain both DeMar DeRozan (player option) and Horford. The organization is plenty rich enough to entertain going into the tax, but hasn’t historically done anything to put winning ahead of profits.
Unlike a lot of other potential suitors for Horford’s services, both Boston and Toronto should be able to convince him their organizations are on an upswing towards contention, the Raptors possibly getting there this season if they can swing a deal for the veteran star big man at the trade deadline.
Like every trade rumor being tossed around at this time of year, there’s a good chance nothing happens or something completely unexpected happens.
The Hawks have been to the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons and if they do nothing, it’ll be nine. Atlanta is leading the Southwest Division and trading away a star player at the deadline will put a return to the postseason at risk. That can paralyze a management team into inaction, just like what happened in Toronto when All-Star Chris Bosh was about to become a free agent in 2010.
However, the Hawks really are at a crossroads and this is a situation worth watching closely over the next couple of weeks.