The past few months haven't technically been the most successful time frame the Atlanta Hawks have enjoyed over the past decade or so, but they may have been the most productive.
Under the direction of general manager Danny Ferry and new head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have successfully started the transformation into "Spurs East," essentially mirroring the best organization in professional sports in both approach and style.
After loading up on draft picks and swinging for the fences with a few international players, the Hawks pulled off one of the biggest steals of the offseason by signing Paul Millsap to a tidy two-year deal worth $19 million. Adding Millsap to a core of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Al Horford gave the Hawks a solid foundation to work with.
Throughout the first trimester of the season, despite the new parts and scheme, the Hawks lived up to most reasonable expectations. The defense slowly started to figure it out, and the blown assignments started to go away. The offense was sharp right off the bat, with Millsap and Horford playing off one another beautifully while Teague stirred the drink.
Even in the early stages of their progress, the Hawks cemented themselves as the third-best team in the Eastern Conference and a plucky opponent for the league's elite to go up against.
Establishing a winning culture requires winning, simple as that sounds, and Atlanta was one of the few teams smart enough to simultaneously rebuild, establish a young core, acquire draft picks (including the juicy right to swap first-round picks with the Brooklyn Nets in 2014 and 2015), maintain cap space and still win games.
This was a rousing success, even if you wouldn't typically apply that designation to a team a few games over .500. This wasn't the same old Hawks, stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity with no flexibility or long-term plan.
But as the saying goes, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. You can do everything right, and in one moment, an entire season can change.
That's exactly what happened when Al Horford tore his pectoral muscle. Horford has since had surgery, and he's been listed as out for the season.
As a result, it's hard to argue with listing the Hawks as out for the season as well. Horford truly is the center of everything the Hawks do. As Elton Brand explained to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, replacing Horford is a tall task.
"It’s going to be by committee," Brand said. "We can’t replace what he brought out there, 18 (points) and eight (rebounds) and blocks and leadership. As big guys, we have to step up."
It's not quite on the same scale, of course, but he was Atlanta's Tim Duncan. Horford's ability to operate out of either post, clean the glass and fortify the paint make him a unique talent that's virtually irreplaceable.
But when you think of all the positive momentum the team had working, and the lack of incentive to tank thanks to the ability to swap picks with Brooklyn, Ferry has to try to find someone who can fill Horford's massive shoes.
That player isn't currently on Atlanta's roster, even if there are some good role players behind Horford. Brand is serviceable, but he's running on fumes at this point in his career and can only play so many minutes. Pero Antic has a role in the league, but it's not as the starting center on a playoff team. Gustavo Ayon can't stay healthy, and his only elite skill is his passing ability. Millsap, for as versatile as he is, can't man the 5 in extended stretches. Atlanta needs help from the outside.
Replacing Horford's production will challenge the entire organization, from the players, to the coaching staff, to the front office. This is a good test, even if it's one that no one was prepared to take.
Finding a capable big man who would fit with Atlanta's offense, a scheme based on smart player and ball movement first and foremost, will likely require the forfeiture of a significant asset.
Lou Williams is a natural scoring guard who could likely bring back such a player, but his stock is relatively low right now, as he's still finding his legs after recovering from ACL surgery.
Korver and Millsap are both too vital to Atlanta's current success, and trading either player would feel like roster whack-a-mole. Outside of its international prospects, that leaves Atlanta with two intriguing guards to dangle as bait in John Jenkins and Dennis Schroder.
While Jenkins may have some appeal as a pure shooter, Schroder is likely the guy Ferry is getting calls about right now. It's hard not to fall in love with the way he defends the ball and finds teammates, and it would be a huge surprise if he doesn't turn into a solid pro, at the least.
Is giving up a player with loads of potential worth filling a glaring hole now, though? The answer largely depends on how important the third or fourth seed is to Ferry, but it's very likely that he has bigger aspirations for the Hawks down the line, and rookie-scale players are surely viewed as vital to the future.
That leaves Williams as maybe the only logical candidate who can actually fetch a legitimate starting center. While scoring off the bench is important, it's also a luxury at this point that the Hawks can't really afford given their need to replace Horford. That's easier to replace by committee than one of the best big men in basketball.
Williams has only two years and $10.6 million remaining on his deal, so it's a pretty movable contract that should be attractive to quite a few teams.
The Memphis Grizzlies, for example, have a serious need for perimeter shooting and scoring on the wing. Once Marc Gasol is ready to return, perhaps Memphis would be amenable to swapping the poor man's version of Williams in Jerryd Bayless (one year, $3.1 million) alongside a very solid big man in Kosta Koufos (two years, $6 million) for Williams.
Although the Sacramento Kings need defense much more than offense, Carl Landry should be back in action before the trade deadline, which will make Jason Thompson (four years, $24.8 million) even more expendable than he already is.
Thompson can really rebound and shoot from mid-range, so he'd be a decent option to replace Horford, as the offense wouldn't have to change all that much. Taking on Thompson's long-term deal stings a little, but he's a capable spot-starter at forward or center and ideally a very competent third big man behind Horford and Millsap at full strength.
Moving Williams may be tough to do, but finding a viable replacement for Horford is likely necessary to keep any hopes of advancing past the first round alive. In the grand scheme of things, it might be necessary to keep the ball rolling in the right direction as well.