ATLANTA — After claiming top seed in the East a season ago, the Atlanta Hawks have been a bit of a disappointment this season.
Naturally, that makes them a center of trade talks with the NBA deadline approaching Thursday.
Center Al Horford, whose contract is up this summer, and point guard Jeff Teague have been mentioned prominently as trade possibilities, which made the first practice after the All-Star break seem anything but routine.
A larger-than-normal media contingent was on hand Wednesday, and all eyes were on the team's two senior members.
"It's part of the business," said Teague, who has been with the Hawks since 2009 but could be expendable with Dennis Schroeder as a backup. "You've just got to roll with the punches."
Horford is taking the same approach.
A four-time All Star, most recently this past weekend, he has spent his entire nine-year career with the Hawks. He's a good fit in coach Mike Budenholzer's system, but the end of the $60 million deal he signed in 2011 makes it imperative that Atlanta at least gauge interest in him on the open market.
If Horford is dealt, it would signify a major change of direction for a franchise that went 60-22 just a season ago.
"My plan is to be here," Horford said. "I like our team. If the front office feels like they need to make changes, they will. But I'm confident in what we have."
While the Hawks (31-24) begin the stretch run fourth in the East and just one game behind Boston, they have clearly fallen well behind conference leaders Cleveland and Toronto. A team that looked like a championship contender not so long ago — winning 19 straight games at one point last season — has struggled to find any sort of consistency.
The week before the All-Star break was typical: the Hawks lost on back-to-back nights to last-place Orlando — and then romped to a 23-point win at Chicago.
All-Star forward Paul Millsap insisted it's not too late to salvage the up-and-down season.
"It's not over," he said. "It's not time to jump off the cliff yet."
Budenholzer will have the final say on any deal, and he's not about to reveal which way he might be leaning: Stand pat, make a minor deal or two to fine-tune the roster, or give the go-ahead for a blockbuster trade.
"That a great question," he said, managing a slight smile. "We'll see between now and then. I'm very happy with our group. I feel strongly about them and I've been protective of them. I would expect to continue to be that.
"But," he added, "you never know what can happen."
The Hawks are dealing with another issue that could play into their decision.
Center Tiago Splitter, acquired last summer from San Antonio, is done for the season after deciding to have surgery for a lingering hip injury. That deprives the Hawks of a leading defensive presence on the inside, a player who was supposed to take some of the burden off Horford and Millsap, both a bit undersized for their positions.
Splitter's hip has been bothering him since late November, and it wasn't getting any better with rehab and limited minutes. So, he'll have surgery next week in New York and faces an eight-month recovery.
"That's a big blow for us," Horford said. "Defensively, Tiago gave us so much with just his feel and his ability. He fought. He wasn't healthy, but he was still trying to come out here and play and help us out. I'm just hoping he has a good recovery and he's able to play at a high level again."
With Splitter done for the season, Mike Muscala must take on a bigger role. Also, 7-foot-3 rookie Edy Tavares, who has spent much of the season in the D-League, will surely get more minutes.
"Edy is going to have to start growing up a lot quicker and helping us," Horford said, still able to refer to the Hawks as "us."