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Al Horford was the foundation of the Hawks’ biggest successes

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As Atlanta’s former star returns home this week, the memories of his best moments aren’t far behind

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When the Hawks traded Kyle Korver, they left only one starter from the 60-win 2014-15 team. Although Paul Millsap seems safe from trades for the time being, the pieces from the Hawks of two years ago are steadily disappearing.

On Friday night one of these pieces, Al Horford, returns to Philips Arena as a member of the Boston Celtics. There are many reasons to celebrate what he has meant to Atlanta basketball during his NBA career, and January 13th is understandably one of the most interesting days on the Hawks’ schedule. Perhaps most importantly, though, some of this franchise’s greatest successes depended on Horford’s contributions. In short: he was the most important building block of the 2014-15 team.

The 2014-15 Hawks depended on a team-friendly style of play, drawing from the sum of each player’s parts rather than relying on a superstar to dictate flow or control the team. In that vein, it may seem odd to claim that any one player formed the foundation for this team, but Horford’s presence on the Hawks from 2007 onward provided the foundation — from both a stability and skill perspective — for almost everything the Hawks have done under Mike Budenholzer.

In 2005, 2006, and 2007 the Atlanta Hawks used three top-five draft picks, hoping to land a foundational superstar. While some of their draft choices (Marvin Williams over Chris Paul) certainly deserve a second look, the team’s choice to pick Al Horford in 2007 couldn’t have been any better. Horford’s presence didn’t automatically improve the team’s prospects, but his character and talent gave the team a direction that Budenholzer capitalized on once he arrived in 2013.

It’s important to remember that Horford and Jeff Teague were the only two members of the 60-win team that Atlanta drafted. Kyle Korver arrived through a trade with the Chicago Bulls in 2012, and Atlanta signed Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll in the summer of 2013. By simply being on the roster Horford gave Budeholzer the cornerstone he needed to build team around, and Millsap and Carroll provided the next pieces toward becoming even better.

Horford was also immensely valuable for his on-court contributions. His versatility on both ends of the floor allowed the 2014-15 team to succeed with its free-flowing style. Perhaps even more impressively, though, his defensive prowess helped the Hawks find a new direction and turn into one of the best defensive teams in the league around the midpoint of last season.

It’s never easy to have a key player leave in free agency, and it’s even more painful to be staring up in the standings at that player’s new team in January. The Boston Celtics have been more successful than the Hawks this season, and there’s a good chance that Horford will be victorious in his return to Philips Arena. Horford’s skills prompted his newest contract from the Celtics, and the defensive skill he showed in Atlanta has helped his new team challenge the Toronto Raptors for the second seed in the East.

Even if his return to Atlanta is bittersweet, though, Horford helped raise the Hawks to heights the franchise had been starved for. As good as Budenholzer, Millsap, Teague, Carroll, and Korver have been in their respective tenures in Atlanta, Horford was the most important piece of the 2014-15 team. From his skill and versatility as a player to his status of team cornerstone in the summer of 2013, this franchise owes a lot to Al Horford.