Atlanta Hawks: An Appreciation of Al Horford


When a casual NBA fan thinks of the Atlanta Hawks the images conjured up by their brains are likely of lightning quick ball movement, a barrage of three-point shooting, and Kyle Korver’s handsomeness. That makes sense. The Hawks did attempt the seventh most three-pointers per game in the NBA (26.2), rank second in the NBA in three-point percentage (38 percent), and Kyle Korver led the NBA in three-point percentage by shooting a ridiculous 49.2 percent from outside. But, what you should also think of when you think of the Hawks is staunch defense and solid post play.

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The three-point shooting did not win by itself. The Hawks finished their 60 win season with the 6th best defensive rating in the league, allowing only 103.1 points per 100 possessions. While DeMarre Carroll was an important part of that success, the lynchpin of the entire defense is perhaps the most underappreciated player in the NBA, Al Horford.

Al Horford doesn’t fit the mold for the stereotypical NBA center. At 6-foot-10 (a listing that may be a bit generous) he is slightly undersized and he is not the vertical leaper that one thinks of when the word “rim protector” is uttered. Nevertheless Horford is one of the best defensive centers in the NBA.

Horford makes up for his lack of athleticism by being a good position defender. He rarely gets beat one on one, or gets out of position by biting on pump fakes down low. He accomplishes this obviously through fundamentally sound footwork, but also through his strength. Putting your shoulder into Horford’s chest on the block is like putting your shoulder into a brick wall. He isn’t going anywhere. His 1.3 blocks per game may not seem impressive, but also notice that Horford only allows 49.8 percent shooting at the rim.

The advanced stats also show that Horford is an excellent defender. This past season he had a defensive box plus/minus of 2.5, slightly behind Paul Millsap’s team best mark of 2.6. His 3.6 defensive win shares also ranks second behind Millsap, while his defensive rating sits at 102. None of these numbers indicates a defensive player of the year type of player, but it’s the type of production that shows why Horford is one of the best two-way centers in basketball. Just because a skill isn’t flashy doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. He may also one day have a career in professional wrestling, but that is a topic for another day.

That all fails to mention how offensively gifted Horford is. Horford was the third leading scorer for the Hawks last season, averaging 15.2 points per game on 53.8 percent from the field. He also gobbled up 7.2 rebounds per game and proved to be an excellent fit for Mike Budenholzer’s system by averaging 3.2 assists per game, which ranked fourth best for centers in the NBA.

With Horford on the court this season Atlanta’s offensive rating was at 110.1, compared to 107.4 when he was on the bench. He had a similar effect on their effective field goal percentage. The Hawks posted an eFG% of 54.1 with Horford and only 50.8 without him. Horford served as somewhat of a safety valve in their high-powered offense. If a possession gets stuck in the mud just get the ball to him and let him go to work in the post. Whether it’s due to his scoring, his rebounding, or his exceptional passing it’s clear that the offense is significantly better with him on the floor.

Perhaps the best way to highlight  Horford’s value to the Hawks is to look at their record the last two seasons. Last season when he played 76 games Atlanta won 60 games, were ranked 6th in both offensive and defensive rating, secured the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2013-2014 a severe shoulder injury limited him to only 29 games. He had been in the midst of the best season of his career, averaging 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game on 56.7 percent shooting. At the time of his injury Atlanta had the third best record in the Eastern Conference at 16-13. Without him in the lineup the Hawks nosedived.

The team stumbled to a 38-44 regular season record, barely nabbing the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference thanks to extremely subpar competition. They pushed the scuffling Pacers to seven games in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, but it was still clear that this team was one Al Horford away from being complete and a real contender.

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  • Just make sure you appreciate Horford while he still calls Phillips Arena home. His contract expires at the end of this season and he is due for an enormous payday. One would assume that Atlanta will make a serious push to bring him back, but with the uncertainty surrounding the rising salary cap anything can happen.

    It would not be surprising to see a mid-tier team such as the Mavericks or the Pacers make a huge push for him as they try and get themselves back to contender status. The teams with cap space that don’t win the Kevin Durant sweepstakes will absolutely make a push for Horford, and what a nifty consolation prize he would be.

    Zach Lowe of Grantland may have said it best in a January 2015 article about Horford. Whether you know it or not, Horford is a superstar.

    "When he’s healthy, Horford is a legitimate NBA superstar — a chameleon who is good at everything, great at some things, and always flying beneath the radar. He doesn’t pile up insane numbers, hog the ball, or appear in national TV commercials. He is concerned only with winning, even if the path there involves sacrificing shots to focus on passing, setting good picks, and battling 7-footers under the basket."

    But, all that worry about losing him in free agency is a year away. In the meantime enjoy Horford’s consistent production while you still can.

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