In five individual appearances, the Atlanta Hawks' frontcourt has combined for 71 minutes played over the past three All-Star games. Aside from an end-of-quarter buzzer beater here or skillful pass there, much of Al Horford and Paul Millsap's All-Star minutes have been of the quiet variety.
Both Hawks stars took the court together in Toronto on Sunday night, their second consecutive group All-Star trip -- it could have been three straight years if Horford's pectoral muscle had cooperated -- and it was business as usual. Atlanta's big men provided few fireworks. In the highest-scoring All-Star Game in NBA history, Millsap and Horford combined for 10 of the 389 total points scored.
Millsap scored just three points on 1 of 6 shooting while Horford, who replaced injured Miami Heat big man Chris Bosh on the Eastern Conference roster, hit each of his three field-goal attempts for seven points. The two added six rebounds and three assists in the East's 196-173 loss.
The relative lack of individual productivity is, in some ways, a reflection of the roles Millsap and Horford typically play. The All-Star style and pace does not accentuate their strengths. Neither big man serves as a dynamic scorer or high-flying dunker, so in a defense-optional exhibition their talents can get lost amidst the league's brightest stars. It's also difficult to ignore that, while recognizing Horford's inclusion as an injury replacement, the East roster once again underscored that Hawks have constructed arguably the league's most consistent frontcourt -- and one that might be on its final run together.
Horford and Millsap serve as the backbone of Atlanta's core.
Their defensive efforts -- or, in coach Mike Budenholzer's words, activity -- has spearheaded what is shaping up to be another top-10 defense while their versatility on offense continues to keep Budenholzer's egalitarian offense viable. As the franchise's point guard efficiency and outside shooting have fluctuated, Horford and Millsap have been nothing if not steady. Millsap's career season has simultaneously rewarded the Hawks for making him one of the NBA's 15 highest-paid players and made his third-year player option look like a clever personal investment. Horford has proven time and again that, when healthy, he can be a force from all over the court.
The biggest question facing Budenholzer and his front office is whether to commit to this combination long-term.
Horford will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and, if Atlanta were even able to re-sign him, he'd command a five-year max contract that would pay him well into his 30s. Though there is no definitive timeline on the decision, the league's trade deadline hits Feb. 18 at noon Pacific and if the Hawks choose to keep their All-Star center and make another run in the East playoffs they run the risk of losing Horford without accumulating any value in return. It's a significant risk. Same goes for separating a frontcourt that so comfortably fits Budenholzer's scheme.
The Hawks possess other trade assets should they choose to hit the rebuild button -- point guard Jeff Teague and sharpshooter Kyle Korver, in particular, have come up in trade rumors around the league -- but Horford is the key. The franchise's direction hinges primarily on the front office's view of Horford's future. Breaking up the Horford-Millsap core would put the team's historic 60-win in the rearview mirror for good.
It may not have been evident during Sunday night's back-and-forth sprint in Toronto, but Atlanta's frontcourt could take centerstage in the next few days.