Amidst Dwight’s Homecoming, Atlanta Loses its True Son

Graham Chapple —  July 4, 2016
Feature Image: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

Many fans across the league rejoiced when they heard the news that eight time All-Star, five time First Team All-NBA, and three time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard was coming home. Home to his native Atlanta. But as the city and the fans welcome home own of their, Atlanta cries for the loss its true son, who has left the nest after nine years.

Al Horford is gone, painting his Twitter account in green, indeed showing his intentions to sign with Boston Celtics on July 7th.

I’m still in utter disbelief. Throughout the night I tossed and turned, the Tweet announcing his next chapter embedded in my head. The moment he sent out this Tweet, you knew there was no going back DeAndre Jordan style.

I can’t shake the image in my head, can’t shake seeing all these shamrocks coming from a man who has spent his whole nine year career in Atlanta red. From a man who waged war on many occasions against the Celtics, especially in the playoffs. A man who seemed to live the phrase “True To Atlanta”. Heck, he and his family even lived in Atlanta during the offseason.

What made this moment — for the entire fan base — so much worse was the fact The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowksi Tweeted that the Celtics and Wizards (the two other teams Horford was weighing up as well as Atlanta) had “rapidly lost hope” of signing Horford.

The fan base’s hopes shot back up, believing that this inevitably meant that Horford and the Hawks had come to an agreement. But it turns out Woj in human after all. I swear, not even five minutes later he Tweets this.

The one time Woj got it wrong it involved the Hawks and their, now once upon a time, franchise cornerstone.

What also makes this a desperately difficult pill to swallow is that all parties seemingly wanted Al to remain in Atlanta, especially the front office, who knew how valuable Horford was. None more so than GM Wes Wilcox and President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach, Mike Budenholzer.

“We are so fortunate to work with a guy of the caliber of Al Horford. 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).” — Hawks GM Wes Wilcox speaking last month

“It is the day after the season. All those things, you will have to call his agent. He is incredibly valuable to us.” — President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Mike Budenholzer speaking a day after seasons end regarding offering a max contract to Horford

“There are a lot of things that we need to address. But the biggest thing for me is I feel good here. I have a great relationship with Coach. That is important to me and my teammates. Atlanta is a city that welcomed me from the first day. I like the way the team is going, I feel like we can win here.” 

“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. People should want to be a part of this.” — Al Horford speaking after seasons end

But as it turned out Horford wasn’t enough of a priority, wasn’t valuable enough to the front office, and he decided it wasn’t something that wanted to be a part of any longer, let alone other free agents. The reality of what has just happened must now sink in: the greatest Hawk since Dominique Wilkins is gone, and now the inquest begins:

How could this have happened? Why was this allowed to happen when all the signs (before free agency) pointed to Horford staying?

(Disclaimer: What I’m about to discuss are strictly theories and opinions, and should be treated as such and not treated as the truth, since we do not know the truth [probably because we — collectively — can’t handle the truth])

Tito Horford (Al’s father) said — via the Boston Globe — that seeing all those empty seats around Philips Arena while the Hawks were winning didn’t give Al much motivation.

“There wasn’t as much motivation for him when he saw all the empty seats when they were winning. He said to me, ‘Dad, when we were playing Boston, they were down 15 points and they were cheering their team like they were winning the game. They’re so into the game.’ This is special for us, especially for him.” — Tito Horford

Look, there’s no denying (and I noticed it big time in the playoffs) that those Celtics fans are loud. They create a fantastic atmosphere, among the best in the NBA. I’ll be the first to admit that. But there’s no way Al left the Hawks purely because of this, but it would sure appear as though it was something that just didn’t sit right with him and stuck with him. And to be fair, he deserves all of the screaming adoration that the Boston fans are about to give him…

I do wonder, though, if the Jeff Teague trade played a part in all of this. Horford and Teague had this great understanding and chemistry on the floor and seemed to enjoy playing with each other. You can’t help but wonder if the decision to send Teague away and the decision to give the point guard keys to Dennis Schröder were decisions that didn’t sit well with Al. Perhaps he thought the team were spinning backwards with that trade.

I think these two issues were things Al thought about when it came to ultimately making his decision, but not defining issues, not enough to drive him away from Atlanta. But there was more than just these two factors at play when it came to Horford’s decision…

Wes Wilcox said that retaining Horford was a “priority”. I think everyone can agree that keeping Horford was the right priority and should’ve been the number one priority. So, why would you (while negotiations are presumably still ongoing) agree to sign a center with the calibre of Dwight Howard while Al Horford hasn’t agreed to a deal yet??

Let’s answer why that may have been the case with a hypothetical conversation in Memphis:

“OK, Mike (Conley), what will it take for you to come back?”
“I want you guys to improve the team first, especially with out perimeter shooting. That needs to be better, we really struggled in that area.”
“OK, Mike, we agreed terms with Chandler Parsons, say the word and it’s done. How’s that?”
“Excellent, now just give me the max and we’re good to go.”
“Here you go, welcome home.”

Obviously negotiations aren’t as easy as that, but you get the general idea.

It’s possible that Horford wanted the Hawks to go make moves first and address some of their issues before he totally recommitted to the team. Marc Gasol made that mistake last year, signing a 5 year max without making Grizzlies really go out there and make moves before returning.

After all, Horford did say at the end of the season “there are a lot of things we need to address…”. Rebounding was certainly one of the issues Atlanta needed to address (again, exposed by Cleveland in the playoffs and various other times in the regular season). So, Atlanta went out and agreed terms with Dwight, addressing that area of need.

You’d imagine Al was consulted when it came to agreeing terms with Dwight, but what if he wasn’t?

If he wasn’t consulted, is it conceivable that this rubbed Al up the wrong way? Because I know if it were me, and if I were the player Horford is and had been around Atlanta for long as Al has and I wasn’t consulted about this move I can tell you I would be very angry and upset that I wasn’t the number one priority and that another center was being brought in before my terms were agreed upon. I would’ve felt angry and upset that the team didn’t want to pay me the max over five years, instead bringing in another guy for less money for a shorter period of time. I would’ve felt disrespected. Is it possible Al could’ve felt like this?

If he was consulted — which I believe he would’ve had to have been, how could you plan a move like that and not inform your top free agent — was he happy about the move? Some suggest that he was not happy with the idea of Dwight heading to Atlanta… But no one knows if there’s any truth to those rumors right now.

But I think he would’ve looked past that, past the fact that the Hawks were bringing in another centre. It was basically the Hawks saying, similar to the Grizzlies did with bringing in Chandler Parsons for their free agent Mike Conley, “look at who we were able to get to help you, to help us.” The Hawks needed to improve their rebounding and Dwight gives them that stability.

I believe Al was OK with the idea of sticking around in Atlanta, even after terms with Dwight were agreed, because Al’s contract discussions continued.

This is the kind of calibre move Al wanted when he said “people should want to be a part of this”. Dwight Howard, a very big name in the basketball realm, had just thrown his hat in with the Hawks. That’s a huge deal for a city and franchise that doesn’t always swing for the fences like this in free agency, preferring to specialise in low-key moves like bringing in DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore type players.

Even with the agreement to sign Dwight, the Hawks still had enough cap space to re-sign Horford to the max, his $18 million cap hold set aside.

Now comes the part where a lot of fans are conflicted upon. Later that night, the Hawks and Kent Bazemore agreed to a 4 year, $70 million deal, virtually eliminating the entirety of Atlanta’s cap space (subject to potential trades). Let me just say that I’m so happy for Bazemore getting this kind of deal, he fully deserves this, but there are others who are not so happy he was retained at this price, especially given the eventual outcome.

You can look at this deal from a number of different outlooks:

(1) If you’re Atlanta, you prepared for Bazemore’s exit by drafting two wings in the first round in Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. You knew that the market for Bazemore was going to be there and you knew there was a good chance his contract was one that you might not have been prepared to match/better.

You prepared for his exit only for that reason, not because he’s isn’t a good player that you’d like to have around. Of course you want him about. So, why do this? You have replacements in place.

With the addition of Dwight arriving first, the Bazemore extension risked everything when it came to Horford. You’ve now prioritised two free agents before addressing your top free agent. Is there really any need to spend this kind of money — given the wing depth the Hawks now possess — while risking the departure of Al Horford, a guy who you said re-signing was a “priority”?

That’s one way of looking at it.

(2) You could also look at it from this perspective: the Hawks merely signed Bazemore with the cap space they were always entitled to sign him with, after all, Wilcox also called re-signing Bazemore a “priority”.  However, you could argue that it was the signature of Dwight, not Bazemore — given that Dwight is a highly rated center, a position they’re already strong in with Horford — that screwed everything up when it came to Horford.

Was Horford pissed off that the Hawks had signed two free agents, who perhaps he felt should not have had deals agreed with before him, before they then turned his attention to him? Was he expecting the Hawks to re-sign Bazemore at all? Was this what he wanted to see all along before ramping up his own contract discussions?

(Again, I don’t know, I’m just asking the questions. Also, don’t blame Bazemore for Horford’s departure… Not cool.)

Heading into Day 2 of free agency, it now seriously looked as though Al Horford would not be returning, with Atlanta’s cap space all but gone. However, it appeared as though all was not lost.

As the day unfolded, it became clear that the Hawks were not willing to pay Al the max for five years, and the teams who were willing to pay Horford the max soon became favorites for his signature.

Despite this development, negotiations between Horford and Atlanta continued, but to bring him back would now require Atlanta to shed major salary, leading to the Hawks shopping their three time All-Star Paul Millsap in order to accommodate Horford’s possible return.

When the Hawks reached this point, it was always going to be a lose-lose situation. Instead of shopping Tiago Splitter and their assets (including a future first pick by way of the Timberwolves) and dumping Mike Scott to clear space for Al, the Hawks seemed dead set on dealing Millsap to accomplish this.

This, pretty much, now meant that one of Horford or Millsap would not be returning to Atlanta no matter what.

Time passed, negotiations proceeded, and Woj broke the news (as seen at the beginning of this column) that Washington and Boston had lost hope of signing Horford, and it appeared that an agreement between Al and the Hawks was just moments away. But of course as we know, that was not the case, and Horford notified the Celtics of his intentions to sign a max contract with them.

But there was one more punch to the gut yet to be exacted.

So much for Hawks fans to try and swallow here, besides tears of course.

Horford wanted to give the Hawks another chance, he basically gave them an excuse to up their offer by doing so. Gave them an excuse so that he could stay. All he was looking for was to be treated like the franchise player, All-Star he is. To feel as though he was still truly valued after all the time he has spent in Atlanta and after all he has expounded to the cause. Didn’t he deserve as much? He even dropped his demands of a max contract, meaning that he lowered his price in an effort to meet the team halfway. But the team wouldn’t meet him there.

In the end the Hawks lost Horford because they didn’t come up with $6 million in this incredibly inflated market. SIX MILLION. We live in a world where Evan Turner just signed for $17.5 million per and the Hawks couldn’t come up with six million?? Six million in this market is chip change and the Hawks wouldn’t fork it over. Serious shades OKC and James Harden and now the landscape of the league is completely different.

Woj reported that the Hawks really believed Horford would accept their offer because his “heart was with them”. Maybe they believed they held some sort of leverage over Al as to not give him the max because of this, but they went took it too far, and Horford has (very possibly) left Wes Wilcox’s and Bud’s legacies as front office executives to burn for their error of judgment, knowing that it was the Hawks who allowed Horford to go because they wouldn’t pay up. Would paying him the max for until he was 35 have been that much of a disaster? Had they simply met his demands, Al Horford would still be with the Hawks. And if DeMar DeRozan and Mike Conley are getting max contracts, Al Horford is clearly deserving of one and should not be blamed in the slightest for wanting money. And remember, he actually lowered his price to help the Hawks. The bottom line is this: he was Atlanta’s to lose, they low-balled him, and they lost him.

Now what?

The worst thing is, well, we may not have seen the full extent of the damage from this situation.

In the summer of 2014 the Phoenix Suns (coming off a 48 win season) low-balled a key component of their success: Channing Frye. Frye, like Horford in Atlanta, really wanted to stay in Phoenix because he believed they were building something special. But the Suns were unwilling to match Frye’s valuation, and he departed for Orlando. This really upset the Suns’ best player, Goran Dragić, who absolutely loved playing with Channing Frye, and it was from that moment on the seeds of discord were sewn, with Dragić eventually requesting a trade just before the trade deadline in 2015. Without Frye that season (and without Dragić once he was traded) the Suns would miss the playoffs considerably, and haven’t been relevant on the court since.

The Hawks were clearly shopping Paul Millsap amidst the Hawks’ desire to show Horford they were willing to carve room for him. But the Hawks didn’t need to be so open about shopping Millsap when Horford hadn’t even made his decision yet. The moratorium period doesn’t end until July 7th, the Hawks could’ve waited until Al had made his decision and then figure out how to manoeuvre more cap space, or just leave things be if Horford decided to move on.

Players get upset and uncomfortable when they’re shopped, especially when they’re shopped as openly as Millsap was last night. Have the Hawks induced his wrath to the point where he may demand a trade? Or will he play out of his mind, pissed off at the fact he was so openly shopped, and demand a king’s ransom for five years when he becomes a free agent next year? Will he even consider staying, knowing that the Hawks left Horford forever hanging (pulling his Atlanta heart strings) waiting for a max deal (and not even a max deal as it turns out)? Or will he care at all and just get on with it, like the pro he is?

There’s also this when it comes to future recruiting, and this could play a factor in Millsap’s free agency next year.

Ouch…

Oh, and the Hawks still need a point guard, so while there’s more minor moves to be made, their major moves appear to be over. But their worst fear has been realised: Al Horford is gone. What Dwight Howard may be able to add is a topic for anther day. The fans will embrace the homecoming of one of their own in Dwight, but the people responsible for allowing Atlanta’s true son since 2007 to run away from home may not be embraced so openly as they were before.

Graham Chapple

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3 responses to Amidst Dwight’s Homecoming, Atlanta Loses its True Son

  1. Pretty much exactly how I see it… great post. If Woj was telling the truth (and he did get at least one Al scoop wrong), this is devastating for the franchise… shopping Millsap and the $6 million stuff is just absurd. Even if none of it is true, Wilcox and Bud are on the hook for letting that narrative get out there. The only way for Bud to get the trust back is to sign a quality PG to back up Denis and then summarily dismiss Wilcox. Someone with a nice non-playing salary must take the fall for this. Otherwise, the team’s reputation is toast… and I think it has to be Wilcox.

  2. To clarify, there are legitimate reasons to sign Dwight and send out Teague and Horford. In theory, you are upgradimg the 1 and 5 defensively. In theory…. But you cant really call yourself “True to Atlanta” if this is how it is percieved and reported that you treat Horford, Teague and Millsap–three key players on the best team this franchise has ever had.

  3. I really don’t think this is that bad. The Hawks were trying to swing for the fences by bringing in a better rebounder to move Al to PF. Millsap like all of the Hawks understand that is a business. Next summer will be just as much of a challenge for Atlanta. I thought they were trying to be proactive. They will have to decide paying max money to a 32 year old veteran. As for Dennis and Teague both would become free agents next summer. Schroder will be a restrcited free agent. Teague would have be an unrestricted free agent. The Hawks had and will always have tons of challenges with personnel like all NBA teams when KD or LBJ is not walking through the door. The Hawks have to do better at drafting players and writing better contracts. i.e.

    (Bazemore and Carroll) were products of Danny Ferry signing cheap but not studying the CBA properly to understand the implications of Early Bird Free Agency on the Hawks.