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Hawks at critical juncture during seven-game winning streak

Atlanta must soon decide to either continue in-season remodeling project or forge ahead with roster as-is

Lang Whitaker

As the Atlanta Hawks have found out recently, life in the NBA can come at you fast.

Even though it was only two seasons ago that the Hawks posted a franchise-best 60-win season, including a perfect January (17-0), things have changed, quickly. Of the 2014-15 Hawks starting five who went on that magical run, these days only Paul Millsap remains in an Atlanta uniform. DeMarre Carroll (Toronto) and Al Horford (Boston) left via free agency, and after trading Jeff Teague over the summer, last week the Hawks traded Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

On Friday night (8 ET, ESPN), Horford returns to Atlanta for the first time since his departure. His surging Celtics (24-15) — who occupy third place in the Eastern Conference — take on the Hawks (22-16), who have the league’s longest win streak (seven games) and are just one loss behind Boston in the East standings.

They may be flying high of late, but these Hawks seem to be something of a team in flux. After dealing Korver, rumors swirled that Paul Millsap, Atlanta’s All-Star power forward who can test free agency this summer, would be the next to go. Despite winning 10 of their last 13 games and after signing Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schröder to long-term deals over the summer, would the Hawks really hit the reset button now?

Well, maybe not. Earlier this week, the Hawks said they were done listening to any offers for Millsap. As coach and team president Mike Budenholzer explained in Brooklyn earlier this week, “[Millsap is] a great player, one that means a lot to our franchise, our organization. I think him staying a part of this group and pushing forward this year is important to us.”

According to Millsap, while hearing your name in trade talk isn’t fun, he appreciates the Hawks telling him that they want him.

“It means a lot,” said Millsap. “But knowing basketball and the business of it, you knew what they were looking at and what they were trying to get, pretty much seeing what was out there. I’m not mad for that, because that’s business, but to hear them say I’m valuable to them, it means a lot.

“I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be playing for this team.”

While the Hawks may have decided to hang on to Millsap in lieu of completely rebuilding, it doesn’t completely gloss over the Hawks trading away Korver to the best team in the conference.

Although there are extenuating factors, if you boil it down there are two ways you can look at the Hawks moving Korver:

The Hawks gave one of their toughest opponents their best outside shooter in exchange for a collection of assets (a protected first-round pick, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Mo Williams) that probably won’t move the needle in a significant way, at least not anytime soon.

The Hawks traded the oldest player on their roster, who had recently lost his starting position and was arguably their worst perimeter defender. They have not only cleared playing time for several promising young wings (Tim Hardaway Jr., Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry), but they also got a first-round pick in return.

The actual impact of the deal probably lies somewhere in between. But trying to improve an NBA team on the fly without doing anything at all is difficult, if not impossible.

“I’m not mad for that, because that’s business, but to hear them say I’m valuable to them, it means a lot. I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be playing for this team.”

Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap, on trade talk

Hawks fans with long-ish memories will recall it wasn’t all that long ago that the Hawks actually did decide to rebuild, trading away Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephen Jackson and Jason Terry, and instead looking to the Draft. The 2004-05 Hawks won all of 13 games, and it took until the 2007-08 season for the Hawks to climb back into the postseason.

Since that dry spell, the Hawks haven’t missed the playoffs. They have have the second-longest postseason participation streak in the NBA, behind only the San Antonio Spurs. They are firmly in the Eastern Conference playoff mix, and it seems as though they’ve decided they’ll be better with Millsap than without him.

“Teams are always trying to figure out how to get better and those things, but with someone like Paul it’s important to us and to our group to understand how important he is to us,” Budenholzer said. “I think we’re not any different from any other team. We’re always going to be trying to find ways to make this team better and have the best season we can this year.”

In some ways, Atlanta’s last two weeks have been business as usual in the NBA. Rumors swirl, names get tossed about in the Twitter hopper, and contracts get traded for more palatable options, based on timing and budgets and dozens of other variables. And there’s always another game to be played, always another opponent to face.

“Whatever happens,” summarized Millsap, “you have to get out there and play your butt off and win games.”

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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