Dwight Howard gets the headlines as the big man propelling toward unrestricted free agency in July, but observers might want to keep an eye on Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks ahead of the February 18 NBA trade deadline.
What’s that? The Hawks are third in the Eastern Conference at 27-19? While impressive, the Atlanta front office has the long-term outlook to think about and this version of the Hawks clearly pales in comparison to the squad that dominated the regular season last year. It’s why Horford’s name has started to pop up in trade rumors as of late. Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders.com not only provided the inside look at how the Hawks view these rumors, but hinted at what might be in store if the Hawks continue to struggle:
Hawks sources found the notion of trading Horford laughable, pointing to how important he was to the team dynamic in Atlanta and that he’s a core guy in Mike Budenholzer’s system.
There is a sense among NBA insiders that a hefty offer could steal Horford away from the Hawks, especially if the team continues to regress from their record setting form from last season.
Look, this isn’t the first time Horford’s name has come up as of late. Vincent Ellis of the Detroit Free Press also wondered if Horford might be available because some would point to an issue with leadership being the reason behind Atlanta’s struggles:
Don’t know if the answer to the leadership void is in the current locker room. Why I hear someone like Al Horford might interest #Pistons.
— Vincent Ellis (@Vincent_Ellis56) January 22, 2016
There’s no surefire answer to what exactly is wrong with Atlanta on the court this year. Horford, going on the age of 30 next June, would seem like the leadership type. The Atlanta source Kyler mentioned seem to think so. But there’s no debating the Hawks have a tough decision to make when it comes to his future with the team. The team has plenty of cash to pay Horford a max deal on the open market—but will they want to?
Somebody will wind up taking the blame for the odd position the Hawks find themselves in right now. Horford seems a likely candidate, as he’s averaging 15.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. But the points average is the same as last year and the rebound numbers are down for the third season in a row from his career high of 10.2 in 2012. Even worse, he’s averaging more minutes than one season ago and taking more attempts but converting less field goals on average.
The above numbers can change over the second half of the season, of course, but one has to begin to wonder if that will be with the Hawks. As Kyler notes, if the Hawks hit on a downward trend, the idea of unloading Horford for a decent return and freeing up in the neighborhood of $20 extra million to splurge with next summer on a slight re-tooling might begin to look more attractive.
Maybe the most underrated element here is Atlanta’s stretch up to and through the deadline. They play middling teams such as the Indiana Pacers (23-21) and Miami Heat (24-21), to the downright bad such as the Philadelphia 76ers (6-39).
Barring a huge surprise over the next few weeks, the Hawks should be able to remain in the hunt in the conference. If that happens, odds are strong Horford doesn’t budge. But it’s something to think about as the deadline nears, making each trip onto the hardwood for the Hawks more interesting than it should be.