ATLANTA — Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to talk about it in the immediate aftermath of a second straight season-ending sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Al Horford wanted a little bit of time as well, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent wanted at least a day to process his thoughts about the Atlanta Hawks’ season and his future, before making any public comments.
It’s understandable. The wounds of the way the Hawks were dismantled this time were still fresh.
But another day or two won’t change the facts. As good as these Hawks have been the past two seasons under Budenholzer, the coach and president of basketball operations, they’re simply not good enough to deal with the Eastern Conference standard-bearer.
The Hawks are at a crossroads with their current roster and nowhere is that more apparent than with Horford, who will command a five-year, maximum salary on the open market this summer. Horford’s arrival as the No. 3 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft signaled a transformative time for the Hawks, at the time one of the league’s perennial doormat franchises.
They own the longest playoff streak in the Eastern Conference with nine consecutive trips, second only to the San Antonio Spurs. Yet they are no closer to reaching a championship level right now than they were after Horford’s rookie season, when they pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in a first-round series.
Continuity has been the hallmark for the Hawks, since before Budenholzer took over, with Horford as the centerpiece. He’s an All-Star with an impeccable work ethic and a sterling reputation off the court. But he’s played out of position, at center, for majority of his nine seasons and would likely have to continue to do so if he stays here in Atlanta.
So do you retool or rebuild, with a decision on Horford providing an opportunity go in whichever direction Budenholzer chooses?
“Our season just ended minutes ago,” Budenholzer said. “At the appropriate time, we’ll sit down and we’ll discuss. I know we feel strongly about our group. We have a great group to work with player-wise, coaching and front office…at the appropriate time, we’ll take a look and we’ll discuss all those things. We love our group.”
Loving your group doesn’t change the bottom line. They’ve only been able to go so far as presently constituted. Even with an accomplished group led by Horford and fellow All-Star Paul Millsap, who re-signed with the Hawks last summer, aging veteran shooting guard Kyle Korver and point guard Jeff Teague, there is a ceiling with this group that doesn’t suggest that a great leap in production is looming. Kent Bazemore stepped into a starting role this season and shined, setting himself up for a nice payday of his own this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
So Budenholzer and his front office staff have ask themselves some hard questions about what they have to work with going forward. Is this a core group capable of escaping the logjam of teams behind Cleveland in the conference playoff chase? Do you stick with Teague at point guard or go with the younger and streakier Dennis Schroder? And if they’ve lacked a true go-to-guy, a bona fide superstar to lean on at crunch time, is this the summer to scrap the current program and chase a big name like Kevin Durant, the prize of this summer’s free agent crop?
Horford talked passionately about his love for the Hawks, the city and its fans and the way he and his family have been embraced from the start. You don’t dig in the way he has, serve as an agent of change for nearly a decade, and not develop deep ties.
“It means a lot,” Horford said of his affinity for Atlanta. “I’ve set up here with my family. We all live here. We live here in the summer. We live here year-round. I’m very grateful for all the people here. They have taken me in from the very first day, even though I was a Gator. They loved me. I really love the city.”
Love has nothing to do with the business of free agency, for either side.
But he’ll have suitors from around the league this summer, some that will no doubt offer the opportunity for him to shift roles and operate in his natural position.
He won’t be able to do that in Atlanta as long as Millsap is entrenched at power forward. The Hawks need a significant upgrade in size, scoring and someone to control the action at crunch time. The system they’ve used the past three seasons has worked well, sharing the load amongst a quality group of veteran players.
But as the Hawks have learned so painfully well at the hands of a deeper and much more star-filled Cleveland team the past two seasons, you can only go so far with the “system.”