The Paul Millsap-Al Horford Connection: Mutualism Despite a Departure From Assists


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When the Atlanta Hawks let Atlanta-native Josh Smith set sail to new land in Detroit this past offseason, they lost more than an extremely productive player. They lost a cohesive bond built over 6 years of wearing the same jersey. His de facto replacement, Paul Millsap, would have a hard time living up to the shared production of that pair. Could Millsap work with Horford without wrinkles or would it never live up to past triumphs?

Biological ecosystems are defined in terms of the network of interactions between organisms as well as with a non-living objects. The terrain, bodies of water, and climate over long periods of time play a huge part in shaping the chance of survival and triumph of its containing living beings.

This symbiosis has contributed to the thriving of organisms for millions of years. Humans have not and will not ever ween themselves from the roots of worldly necessity. When we mindlessly drive down the nearest McDonalds for a quick meal, the car that transported us was supplied by the Earth’s natural fuel, and the all beef patty, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and buns came from naturally harvested or herded food sources. But we don’t think about cows helping us live in that sense. In essence, directness is not a prerequisite for reliance. And this is important in understanding how Atlanta’s two big men work.

Ecology has three terms for relationships in which at least one member benefits: mutualism, commensalism, parasitism. Most partnerships are formed with mutualism in mind, or the intention of all parties benefiting from the pact, such as a hummingbird feeding off of a flower and subsequently pollinating it in its consumption process. Commensalism is where one party benefits without affecting the other positively or negatively, say an animal nesting in a tree’s knot. Parasitism is the interaction of two or more organisms wherein one suffers at the benefit of the other. For example, a tapeworm in your intestines that adversely affects your health by absorbing nutrients.

On the basketball court, these ideals manifest themselves in each of these forms. Michael Beasley has resurrected his career back in Miami surrounded by an All-Star cast this season, but offers no boost to the already spectacular Big Three. Commensalism. Two players can be a net-positive alone, but when sharing the court the production of one or both can drop. Dwight Howard is the reason that is shopping defensive stopper Omer Asik, as that pair together been shown to be less effective than the sum of its parts. But by all accounts, Howard has bounced back from an unfortunate situation in Los Angeles. Parasitism.

NBA teams are all subject to the same inanimate standards. A ten foot hoop. A 9.4 (approximately) inch diameter basketball. A 94′-50′ court. But what makes one team score more points than the other after 48 minutes is the organization and relationships of the living things, namely the players, coaches, fans, and other arena-situated beings that can affect play.

Al Horford and Paul Millsap, or #HORSAP as some in the Twitter community have taken to call him, are almost scarily similar. The day you here either one suspended for conduct detrimental to the team will be the day the sun becomes dim. Both commonly referred to as undersized for each’s respective positions. Both are regarded as under-appreciated around the league. But the effect each has on each other is real. Below are each’s statline when sharing the floor, per NBAWowy.com

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The biggest boon of Horsap seems to be markedly high shooting numbers. In short, Horford sees his scoring efficiency climb when on the floor with Paul, whereas Millsap stays somewhat in line with his normal production. Of course, some of that effect is by way of playing with the entire first team much of the time, which normally includes Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, and DeMarre Carroll.

For reference, here is last year, with Josh Smith in place of Millsap.

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The bump seems not quite as pronounced for either side, but it can be misleading since the environment has changed. Larry Drew’s offensive system has been replaced by Mike Budenholzer’s in short time. The end result is that specific plays involving both have been scrapped for the most part.

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One of the most destructive plays last season was the Horford-Smith high-low pick-and-roll play, especially when run from an out of bounds set, as you can see above. Last season, Josh Smith assisted on 118 of Al Horford’s made shots, second in the team only to point guard Jeff Teague’s 151. For reference, Teague logged 7.9 assists per 36 minutes to Smith’s 3.5 assists. In effect, a higher percentage of Smith’s assists went to Horford than did Teague’s.

Big men aren’t usually asked to read passing lanes and thread passes between defenders, but should the combination of skills sets ask for it, then it would be a folly to not use it to your advantage. And Josh Smith to Al Horford and vice versa quickly became a seamlessly effective ploy. It seems out of place to run such a play in a point guard dominant league but the results speak for themselves. A crossbow is of little use in the middle of New York City but stranded and starving on a deserted pacific island a crossbow could push you over the threshold from imminent demise to extended life. Environmental adaptation is the key objective for Earthly survival.

Josh Smith was by all accounts an impressive complement to Al Horford. An elite help defender to a 6’10″ center. The high-flying dunker to the accomplished midrange shooter. Paul Millsap is much more similar to Horford than Josh, and it’s quickly evident upon deeping statistical studying.

To date, Horford has only assisted on 9 of Millsap’s makes per the NBA Media site, which is less than Teague, Shelvin Mack and even Kyle Korver. In a similar fashion, Horford has only 11 makes off of Millsaps’ passes. While that is second on the team, it pales in comparison to Jeff Teague’s 59.

The Horford-Millsap relationship on the floor cannot be measured by assist numbers to each other. The coincidentally named Synergy Sports, shows almost mirror images in the amount of type of plays each runs and their results in terms of points per possession (PPP). The first line for each alternating play type is Millsap and the second is Horford.

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Despite apparent redundancy, lineups with both Horford and Millsap on the floor have been extremely successful. The duo logs a PPP of 1.061 together, according to NBAWowy.com, which comes out about 5 points per 100 possessions better than the team’s PPP, per NBA.com.

So maybe it’s better that Horford and Millsap are not assisting each other in box score terms. But it’s clear they are assisting each other on the court in basketball terms. Post-up are a form of isolation play, meaning it’s rare to log assists without the posting player dishing it to a teammate on a back cut or a spot up. And Synergy shows the high percentage of shots from post up for the Horsap couple, as well as shoot first P&R Roll Men.

The Hawks are thus far 14th in offensive efficiency, slightly better than last year’s 14th ranking. While Millsap is a very accomplished player, there can be many missteps when introducing new players in new places, even when aided by bountiful talent levels, Example A: The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers.

Too often we think of NBA players in a vacuum. Player X could be a double-double machine on a bad team, but on a deep contender, rebounds would be harder to come by. Growing pains exist in transition, and those pains may never subside. A shark would not survive in the Great Salt Lake. Penguins and polar bears were not meant for the Amazonian jungles.

But NBA players are flexible. Josh Smith has already undergone trials as part of the Piston’s crowded frontcourt. Some of the same virtues that helped the Hawks are ailing Detroit. The environment has changed and Smoove and others must adapts or fall below expectations.

Millsap ran a post-up heavy offense in Utah for the entirety of his career before this season. He’s now asked to engage in a motion offense that even sees him attempting three pointers occasionally. But most of all, as he and Al Horford entered their physical primes, he is tasked with taking this team to a greater level.

And on the backs of the two most productive Hawks, they must not only exist but thrive, and so far the signs point towards big things in the coming months. Atlanta is lucky for the continued mutualistic relationship of these two big men.

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