Where Will Al Horford Ultimately Land?
Although mainstream attention has gradually started to arrive, the Atlanta Hawks in many ways are still seeking a certain level of national respect. After all, this is a franchise currently positioned to secure a playoff berth for the ninth consecutive season. The Hawks’ run has included the development of multiple All-Stars, survival of an ownership change, front office leadership shakeups and numerous head coaches.
The Hawks, amid all of the change in their organization, have been the textbook definition of steady. But steady has led to just one Eastern Conference Finals appearance over the previous eight playoff campaigns and numerous disappointing postseason eliminations.
If the Hawks have been steady over the past eight and a half seasons, their rock has been three-time All-Star center Al Horford anchoring the middle.
Horford was selected by the franchise with the third overall pick of the 2007 draft and has never missed the playoffs since entering the league after racking up two national championships at the University of Florida. The team’s selection of Horford, and his productive play, has helped erase some of the bad taste from the franchise’s previous two first-round missteps in 2005 and 2006 (Marvin Williams and Sheldon Williams, respectively).
But as the wins continue to rack up, there’s an uncertainty quietly lingering over the franchise.
Horford is in the final season of his current deal and is set to become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Although this isn’t Horford’s first tangle with the free agency process, this will be the veteran’s first opportunity to truly test the market without the Hawks being able to match any offer sheet he receives.
Sure, the Hawks can offer more money than other teams and a fifth year on a potential new contract. But as we’ve seen in recent cases such as Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge, when a player wants to evaluate if the grass is greener in today’s market, they will do so.
The question: What are Horford’s priorities (and what is his thought process) as he approaches free agency?
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. Before the start of training camp, President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Mike Budenholzer consistently stated the importance of Horford’s presence in the team’s long-term plan. That is the public stance the Hawks have given and it won’t change because Horford is indeed critical to their process.
But is Horford in it for the long haul? That will be the subject of plenty of debate since Horford has consistently brushed off talks of free agency so that the issue doesn’t become an in-season distraction.
Here’s the thing.
Players want to win and compete at a high level. The Hawks have never missed the playoffs since Horford arrived to town.
Players want a solid front office structure and coaching staff to work under. The Hawks have one of the strongest infrastructures in the league.
Players want to team up with other talented guys in a system that highlights their individual strengths. The Hawks have All-Star talent around Horford and Budenholzer’s system has helped expand the center’s game.
At the end of the day, it’s natural for players to take free agency visits and hear pitches from other teams. The individual should do their due diligence, listening to what teams have to say and considering their ideas.
But are there any teams out there that could realistically compete with the Hawks to land Horford’s services?
With the salary cap increasing significantly this summer, more than 15 franchises (not factoring in cap holds) could have upwards of $20 million in cap space to target marquee free agents.
From lottery-bound teams looking to make a splashy move like the Los Angeles Lakers to squads that feel they are just one or two veteran pieces away from contending like the Boston Celtics, the market will be crowded with suitors possessing significant bankroll.
So far this season, Horford is averaging 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and three assists in 39 appearances, while connecting on a career-best 39 three pointers (he had hit 21 total threes in his career prior to this season). Those numbers, on the surface, won’t jump off the box score into your lap. However, the addition of Horford to any team on the verge of contention could push that franchise over the hump.
With the Hawks tight lipped and Horford focused on the current campaign, the future of the center remains uncertain. But you have to wonder when the smoke clears, will the big man remain “True to Atlanta.”
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