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What’s the Plan, Atlanta Hawks?

What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where I usually look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship, but I’ve already talked about all of the bad and middling teams, so now I’m looking at the contenders. This week, we’re covering the Hawks, who are looking to recreate their regular-season success from last year and do what they can to keep that success from stalling out.

I have good news, bad news and worse news for Hawks fans. The good news is the Hawks could get a lot better next offseason. The bad news is they could also completely fall out of the contender’s race by losing one of their best players. The worse news is they can’t do a whole lot to ensure one outcome over the other.

Al Horford will be one of the most sought-after free agents next offseason, and while the Hawks can offer him more money and more years than other teams, Horford may take a look at Atlanta and decide he has a better shot at winning elsewhere. The Hawks might only be a borderline championship contender, and if Horford leaves, it’s hard to see this team’s chances improving without him.

The Hawks absolutely need to keep Horford next season to remain successful. They’ll also need to convince another quality player to sign in Atlanta if they want to get to the next level. They should have some money to go after a good player, as Atlanta only has about $48 million committed to salaries next season, although that number will soon go up by about $5 million assuming team options are picked up for Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr.

Of course, Horford’s cap hold is a hefty $18 million, so that’ll cut into what cap space they do have. But even if the Hawks don’t have room for a full max player, they can chase after a really good player or add several solid role players and then use Horford’s Bird rights to re-sign him and go over the cap that’s projected to be around $90 million.

It was tough to watch the Hawks struggle in the playoffs after winning so effortlessly in the regular season, and the drop-off was noticeable. Their struggles coincided with the injury to Thabo Sefolosha, but that only showed how thin of a margin for error the Hawks really had, and it’s not like Sefolosha was a key cog in the offense.

The team was built around depth and a lack of major holes, but when one was opened, opponents took advantage of them. Now that Atlanta has moved on from DeMarre Carroll, Sefolosha, when he gets healthy, will be taking on more responsibilities as a perimeter player, and the Hawks’ depth at small forward will be stretched a bit thinner this season.

Players around the league know all of this, and convincing those players that Atlanta’s the best situation for them might be a bit difficult, especially considering how many teams will have cap space. If the Hawks can pull off signings for Horford and another quality free agent or two, they’ll be in good shape. However, if they can’t make any meaningful additions and/or they somehow lose Horford, then Atlanta might find itself right back in the wheel of mediocrity it was recently stuck in.

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