Against the backdrop of double-unsourced rumors that the Hawks are willing to trade one of their two best players (Al Horford and Paul Millsap), or their starting point guard (Jeff Teague), or a guy who has been their best three-point shooter because he’s showing signs of age and wear (Kyle Korver), this is really what coach Mike Budenholzer must decide: Should he give his team’s core one more shot?
It’s easy to understand the “Break ’em up,” mentality. The Hawks finished first in the Eastern Conference last season with 60 wins and reached the conference finals before running out healthy limbs and losing to Cleveland. This season they are barely in fourth place in the East and are on pace to win 46. They look too inconsistent to be a serious playoff threat, which isn’t to say that can’t change in the final eight weeks of the regular season.
But is this the time to bust up the core? I don’t think so. Some thoughts as we near the NBA’s trade deadline Thursday (3 p.m.):
Should they break up the core now? (No) If the Hawks are going to trade Teague, Millsap, Horford or even Korver, there’s a strong possibility they will take an immediate step back in this system offense. Any upside of a deal would more likely be in the future, not this season (because no team is likely to trade them an asset that weakens themselves this year and makes the Hawks better). If we were to assume a major deal would not help the Hawks in the short term, what’s the point of effectively blowing off the postseason? The field in the East isn’t daunting. The Cavaliers lead the conference standings but they’re not conquering nations. They have LeBron James. Big plus. But they also have a head coach (Tyronn Lue) who has been on the job for three weeks and by all appearances is a puppet for the team’s best player. Lue will have to make some major decisions at some point in the playoffs. Is he ready for that? Toronto looks like a legitimate contender but this is a franchise that has won only one playoff series in its existence (2000-01). The Raptors don’t scream tradition.
If you make a trade, who/when? (Teague/summer) Should Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox decide to radically change the team’s look, it makes sense to do it after the year, when more teams are resetting their rosters and therefore can get involved in trade talks. There’s little danger of Horford leaving as an unrestricted free agent. Horford is a team guy but, like any athlete, he’ll also want the richest contract possible. Even if he wants out, he can make far more money in a sign-and-trade situation because the Hawks can offer him a five-year deal whereas another team can only offer four. So he likely won’t just bolt and sign elsewhere. But I believe dealing Horford would be a mistake. You can’t find too many athletes like him who check all the boxes: production, leadership, headache-free. The financial component of his potential signing is significant but that’s a decision the Hawks can make in the summer. If the Hawks are going to trade one of their three main pieces (Horford, Millsap, Teague), Teague makes the most sense. He has made remarkable strides under Budenholzer. When he’s aggressive, he’s great. The problem is he’s not always aggressive, and therefore he’s inconsistent. But it took a while for the Hawks to find a legitimate starting point guard so they need to be careful here. And I’m not convinced Dennis Schroder is the answer.
So what to do at the trade deadline? (Shooter) The Hawks can’t change their identity now. They are not going to suddenly become a physical team at either end of the court. So it makes the most sense to add a player who can be a short-term fix and enhance what they are. The best-case scenario: That means a three-point shooter. The Hawks averaged 10 three-pointers made per game last season, shooting 38 percent outside the arc (2nd in the league). This season they are averaging 9.4 made, shooting 34.8 percent (19th in the league). The biggest drop-off belongs to Kyle Korver, who has gone from 2.9 per game to 1.9, and his three-point shooting percentage has plummeted from 49.2 to 38.6. When I spoke to Korver in December, he attributed his slow start to limited off-season workouts and shooting drills resulting from post-season ankle and elbow surgeries. He has shot threes effectively in February (15-for-29 in six games) but that’s a small sample size.
Dwight Howard, anyone? (Please, no) There’s a saying about buying a boat: Your two happiest days are the day you buy it and the day you sell it. That’s what I think about Dwight Howard. Coaches and GMs believe he can be a major asset because he can still rebound and defend. The problem is everything else that goes with it, namely attitude and the fact he has long seemed out for himself and not his team. Those believing he would be a plus for the Hawks would suggest he has been humbled. There’s no evidence of that.
Who’s most on the spot? (Budenholzer) The Hawks miss DeMarre Carroll but Budenholzer couldn’t expect to compete with Toronto’s four-year, $60 million contract offer. But, as the de-facto GM, Budenholzer was entrusted to continue what the Danny Ferry started. To this point, the jury is still out.
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