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At start of free agency, Horford’s heart is in Atlanta

Al Horford’s heart is in Atlanta.

The Hawks All-Star center becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. His preference is to return to Atlanta, where he has played all nine of his NBA seasons after the Hawks selected him with the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. Hawks management has also made it clear that re-signing Horford is a top priority this summer.

Now, it comes down to a contract.

If the Hawks and Horford are unable to come to an agreement, there will be a long line of suitors for the versatile big man. There could be as many as 15 teams with maximum offers in hand. The Celtics, Nets, Lakers, Rockets, Magic, Pistons and Wizards are just a few of the teams that have reportedly shown interest in Horford.

Horford, who turned 30 on June 3, has kept a low-profile this summer, choosing not to discuss his pending free agency. He did the same during the regular season, saying only that he would explore free agency at the end of the year. He has been a regular at Philips Arena for workouts this summer.

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“I’m grateful, first, for the season that we had,” Horford said during his exit interview following the end of the Hawks’ season in May. “I really love playing with this group of guys. Coach is great. I really like the way the organization is heading with new ownership and all the changes there are around here. That’s something that we’ll have to address when that time comes. But I feel good here.”

With the salary cap now reported to be $94 million, a maximum contract for Horford would be approximately five years, $153 million from the Hawks and four years, $118 million from another team.

All indications are that the Hawks are willing to make a maximum offer. It is not expected that negotiations between Horford and interested teams would take very long and the whole process could be resolved in a couple of days following the start of free agency period.

“We are so fortunate to work with a guy of the caliber of Al Horford,” Hawks general manager Wes Wilcox said. “We also believe in the quality of the relationships that we have built over the years. At the same time, we always respect a player’s right to choose, especially as an unrestricted free agent. But Al has been, is and will be a priority for the Hawks. I think we feel very good about (re-signing him).”

The Hawks have shown their preferred way to build the organization is to retain players and add through the draft. They re-signed all-star Paul Millsap last season although were unable to retain DeMarre Carroll, who got a large deal from the Raptors.

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said following the season that Horford is “incredibly valuable” to the organization. The Hawks have the longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances in the Eastern Conference at nine – a run that started the year Horford was drafted.

Horford is the Hawks’ all-time leader in playoff games (74). He also is first in rebounds (621), second in points (958) and field goals (406) and fourth in assists (210). He is among the franchise leaders in several regular-season statistics including second in field goal percentage (.535), sixth in blocks (698), eighth in rebounds (5,144) and 10th in player efficiency rating (19.1).

The Hawks have the means to sign Horford to a maximum contract and add another max player – although that would mean parting ways with Kent Bazemore. The Hawks currently have $25 million in salary cap space after accounting for Horford. It would take just a move or two to increase their cap availability to the $26.5 million for another max contract.

Not only has Horford spent his entire career in a Hawks uniform, he has built a life here. He got married. He had a first child, a son. He as another child on the way, a daughter.

“I know, and I believe in my heart, that this is a special place and I feel like the way the Hawks organization is going, it’s going in the right direction,” Horford said in May. “People should want to be a part of this.”

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