ATLANTA — In each of his first six Media Days with the Atlanta Hawks, Al Horford gladly shared the spotlight with others, older teammates who understood the fluctuating dynamics of the NBA in ways Horford never will.
A lottery pick, All-Star and franchise cornerstone with the Hawks, Horford’s been a mainstay and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. But the guys he looked around the room at during his rookie season and since then are no longer around. One by one they’ve vacated the premises in various ways (trades, free agency, etc.), leaving Horford as literally the last man standing from the previous regime and era of Hawks basketball.
From Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams to Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia, some of Horford’s closest friends and colleagues in the league have moved on to new adventures. It’s a feeling Horford, the Hawks’ All-Star big man, is still trying to get used to with the seven-year switch going on at Philips Arena this season.
“It’s weird man,” Horford said Monday. “It is. It’s hard for me to believe it’s my seventh year. I started, we started with a big group of guys here and it’s hard for me to believe it’s just me from that original group of guys. But it’s new and it’s exciting, an exciting time for the Hawks.”
It’s not necessarily the fresh start Horford envisioned when the Hawks went into free agency with $34 million in cap space and hoop dreams that included luring some of the biggest names on the market to town to help usher in this new era.
When the Dwight Howards and Chris Pauls decided to go or remain elsewhere, Horford realized that the new identity the Hawks were planning on would include him wearing the tag as the face of the franchise on his own.
“I had to take a step back and look at everything,” Horford said of his initial reaction to the Hawks’ work in free agency. “Initially I was concerned. But at the end of the day, I have to trust [Hawks general manager] Danny [Ferry] and his vision and where he wants to go. So at this point I’m putting all my trust in him and working with the guys we have here and we’re going to try and make the best of it with what we have.”
No offense to Paul Millsap, Elton Brand or any of the other new veteran faces here, but this is Horford’s team — and he knows it. And no amount of conversation from Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer stressing the “group dynamic” is going to change that fact.
“I believe so, at this point you can say that,” Horford said. “But most importantly, I’m a team player. Not one person is going to make that big of a difference. And I think we all understand that in the locker room.”
That same locker room that Horford has called home his entire NBA career will still take some getting used to, at least until the “weird” phase passes.
“It’s weird because … you create all of these relationships with different players over the years,” he said. “And whether it’s Joe Johnson, Marvin, Zaza or Josh and now they’re gone and you come back around in September and see all these new faces and it’s tough. I still have Jeff [Teague] here and Kyle [Korver] and a couple of my rookies, John Jenkins and Mike Scott are still rookies until the first game of the season, but we have something here. With Lou Williams, he’s coming along [from his injury] and I’m excited in what I’ve seen so far. We’ve been working together a couple of weeks so far here in September and I like what I’ve seen.”
He’s not the only one. Ten-year veteran Royal Ivey began his career with the Hawks and is back for his second stint, this time as a backup point guard. He understands the change in dynamics that Horford will be dealing with the season and said he’ll remind him whenever needed that this is definitely Horford’s team.
“Al is the last of the Mohicans around here,” Ivey said. “He’s a cornerstone, a veteran now. It’s basically his team with Jeff Teague and the guys they’ve brought in like Millsap. Al has to lead by example and with his voice. It’s a new regime and a different locker room. But that’s everywhere, it happens everywhere. New management, new culture and a different style. He definitely has to take the onus with this group and say, ‘listen, we’ve been here but we want to go to uncharted waters and do things a bit differently.’ He has to put that on his shoulders and carry this team.”
It won’t be easy.
The Hawks are trying to navigate the process of reconstituting the culture of a team that has amassed six straight playoff appearance and five straight winning seasons. They’re trying to fix something that wasn’t necessarily broken, yet was clearly in need of revamping.
If they succeed, they’ll do so with Horford’s face and game as their new and true identity.