Losing Horford would mean Hawks’ return to irrelevance

When people fret over how expensive an athlete’s contract might be, they tend to look at all of the bad stuff. So in the interest of minimizing Al Horford’s value to the Hawks, let’s consider his perceived weaknesses.

He’s seldom the first option on offense. He’s often not even the second option. He’s not as consistently aggressive in the post as he should be. He’s not as consistently physical as he needs to be. In a season when the Hawks took a step back and needed more from Horford in the playoffs, he took a step back.

All that said, understand this: If Horford goes away, say hello to Hawks’ irrelevance again. That’s not to suggest Horford is LeBron James or Steph Curry or Kevin Durant. But the team has no realistic chance of acquiring significant assets to make up for his loss, certainly not in the short term. Equally important, giving the four-time All-Star a contract at or near the maximum allowed will not hamstring their payroll.

If the Hawks don’t re-sign Horford in free agency, which was set to begin at 12:01 a.m. Friday, they will be looking at a core without Horford next season and potentially without Paul Millsap after next year (when Millsap can opt out).

If you believe the Hawks are a perennial afterthought for high-profile free agents like Durant, how desirable a destination would they become for the free agent class of 2017 without Horford or Millsap?

A free agent could walk into arenas in Boston or Los Angeles, see banners and convince himself, “They’ve won before, they can win again.” A free agent walks into Philips Arena and sees wall space.

I understand the don’t-give-him-the-max mindset when it comes to Horford. This is Atlanta, where prior ownership gave a max deal to Joe Johnson, who wanted the money but not the stage or the responsibility that went with it. If Johnson wasn’t the most polarizing player in Hawks’ history, it’s only because he shared a locker room with Josh Smith. (I’m fairly certain former general manager Billy Knight failed chemistry in high school.)

But Horford has significant value to the Hawks and his market value is high. There’s at least a dozen other teams that would jump at the chance to financially satisfy a high-character All-Star. If you doubt that, you don’t understand the current NBA landscape. The salary cap is going up and exceptional, low-maintenance players like Horford are in short supply.

Boston wants him. Detroit wants him. Houston wants him and reportedly will meet with him Friday.

Oklahoma City absolutely wants him, which is why the Thunder has been clearing salary cap space for that pursuit. The Thunder are a potential title team. It would have played for the championship this season if not for blowing a 3-1 series lead to Golden State in the Western Conference finals. Oklahoma City’s reported desire to sign Horford makes sense on so many levels. Horford would replace the just-traded Serge Ibaka, help cement Durant’s decision to stay in town and reunite the former Florida Gator with his college coach, Billy Donovan.

To those who belabor Horford’s playoff performances or tendency to get overpowered as an undersized center, I suggest remembering what happened the last time the Hawks lost a major player. DeMarre Carroll left last summer as a free agent. With Paul Millsap’s contract also up, the team couldn’t realistically keep both, especially when Toronto offered Carroll $60 million over four years.

But coach Mike Budenholzer believed, or at least said, the team could make up for Carroll’s loss. Didn’t happen. The hope was that Kent Bazemore could fill the void (he didn’t), that 34-year-old Kyle Korver would come back strong from injury (he struggled), that Tiago Splitter would strengthen the front line (he was mediocre before getting injured), that Tim Hardaway Jr. would have an immediate impact (his transition to a new system took time). The Hawks dropped from 60 wins to 48 and from an Eastern Conference finals team to familiar second-round flotsam.

Horford’s re-signing alone doesn’t ensure success next season, but his loss almost certainly would ensure a slide. Is there anything in this franchise’s history that suggests otherwise?

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