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Al Horford’s in for Atlanta, but who’s out?

Nov 1, 2010, 6:07 PM EDT

Al Horford

Al Horford and the Hawks agreed on a contract extension that will keep Horford in Atlanta for five more seasons, but the Hawks’ long-term problems are far from solved. Losing Horford should never have been an option, but the money he’ll be owed over the next five seasons is thrown on top of the substantial financial commitments the team has already made to Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Marvin Williams. Those three players alone will cost Atlanta $38.6 million next season, and that’s not including Horford’s new salary, nor the guaranteed salaries of Mike Bibby, Zaza Pachulia, Jeff Teague, Jordan Crawford, and a potential Jamal Crawford replacement.

That financial reality has made some NBA decision-makers doubtful that the Hawks will be able to retain their current core. From Chad Ford of ESPN.com, writing at TrueHoop:

Several GMs believe the Hawks won’t be able to keep Johnson ($18.5 million in 2011-12), Josh Smith ($12.5 million in 2011-12), Marvin Williams ($8 million in 2011-12) and Horford ($10 million in 2011-12) together past this season for financial reasons.

While Horford’s new salary won’t push the Hawks into the luxury tax, it will put them very close. The move means they won’t be able to afford to re-sign Jamal Crawford, or replace him with a similar salaried player next season, without incurring the tax.

In spite of his defensive flaws, Crawford is an elemental piece of this year’s team, and should he walk in free agency — as the Hawks seem willing to let him do — that could spell trouble for Atlanta’s offense. Plus, if the Hawks are additionally forced to part with one of their current mainstays as Ford suggests, Josh Smith might be the most logical choice to relocate. Joe Johnson’s salary makes him an impossible sell on the trade market. Marvin Williams may not fetch much in return. Horford appears to be a part of Atlanta’s future. That makes Smith, who (as Ford notes) is no stranger to the trading block, the piece Atlanta is most likely to dangle come summertime.

Would that play make the most sense for the Hawks? Hardly. But Atlanta may not have all that many options. If this core is spinning sideways and relying purely on internal development, it might be appropriate to shake things up. The Hawks can’t just bide their time; though the Celtics will eventually decline, the Heat and Magic aren’t going anywhere. Atlanta will need to make moves to compete with either of those teams, and possibly even to compete with Chicago and Milwaukee in the future. Trading Smith may be the only way the Hawks move from their current mid-seed spot in the East, even if such a change would leave open the possibility of a free fall.

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