Is Al Horford ready to carry the load for the Atlanta Hawks?
With Josh Smith now suiting up for the Detroit Pistons, the Atlanta Hawks have totally geared their team around Al Horford, who may finally get the credit he deserves for his brilliant all-around game.
Horford can and has done just about everything for the Hawks. He plays two positions, he's an efficient scorer and a superb passer, and he handles defensive switches as well as any center in the league. He's one of the best two-way players in the NBA by any measure.
As you might imagine, Horford doesn't have any real holes in his game to fill. He doesn't need to overhaul what he does or even add anything major to it. He just needs to do a little tweaking now that he's the Hawks' offensive centerpiece. Let's run through the checklist.
1. Be More Selfish
One of the best things about Horford is the fact that almost everything he does comes within the flow of the Hawks offense. His favorite spot on the court is right at the elbow, where he can survey the defense and make plays for his teammates accordingly. And unlike most superstars, the ball is never in his hands for that long.
If Horford sees an opportunity to attack, he takes it, and if not, he's quick to move the ball to a teammate and wait for another chance. It's the main reason the Hawks often have very good ball movement, and it's refreshing to see a star who doesn't spend most of his time trying to create shots in isolation sets.
The problem is, Horford's unselfishness actually led to his being underutilized last season.
Last year, Horford posted a usage percentage of 21.8, a shockingly low number for a superstar. Three Hawks—Smith, Jeff Teague and Lou Willliams—used a higher percentage of possessions than Horford, and Ivan Johnson came within a fraction of a percent of doing the same thing. Seriously. Ivan Johnson.
To put it bluntly, that can't happen this season, not with Smith gone. Teague and Paul Millsap are both capable of creating shots, but neither is as efficient as Horford, nor do they cause the same matchup problems he does.
Though Horford plays the 5, he's a natural 4 and is almost always quicker than the man guarding him.
He scored very efficiently in post-up and isolation sets last year, per Synergy Sports Technology, and those consisted of about 30 percent of his touches. But those same sets made up just over 15 percent of the Hawks' total offense last year, and about half of that was soaked up by Smith. In short, Horford didn't get to create for himself nearly enough.
Horford doesn't need to be overly selfish. He shouldn't be calling for clear outs on every possession. He just needs to take on a bigger offensive role.
Last year, 77 percent of Horford's baskets were assisted, per 82games.com, and the Hawks don't have the shot creators to maintain that this season. Horford's been handed the keys to the Atlanta offense, and if he's willing to look for his shot a touch more, he'll make good on the opportunity.
2. Diversify Pick-and-Roll Looks
Most of the pick-and-rolls Horford ran last season ended in him taking a mid-range jumper, and it did wonders for the Hawks offense. Not only is Horford a good mid-range shooter (he hit 42 percent from beyond 10 feet last season), but Smith's inability to hit from outside made having a big who could stretch the floor a necessity.
Things are a little different this season. Unlike Smith, Millsap is a solid shooter, giving Horford a lot more freedom in the pick-and-roll and a chance to improve upon his already stellar efficiency. Horford's pick-and-pop game was good, but it stopped him from drawing fouls at the rate he could have if he spent most of his time lurking in the paint.
Horford shot under three free throws a game last season, just about the fewest of any center playing 30 or more minutes. More hard rolls to the hoop should bump that number up and give Horford a lot more clean looks at the rim, where he shot 75 percent last year.
Mixing some cutting in with the pick-and-pop sets Horford is used to will also open up a lot of looks for his teammates. The very best centers in the league roll to the hoop on every pick-and-roll and suck multiple defenders into the paint. The New York Knicks and Houston Rockets offenses are based around Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard doing just that, creating easy looks for three-point shooters.
Horford doesn't quite have that effect when he rolls to the rim, but defenses still give him a ton of respect, and he can create a lot of open looks with his passing. He's one of the rare bigs who can make plays while on the move or right after the catch, and Atlanta's three-point shooters could benefit from that.
In no way should Horford go completely away from the pick-and-pop, which opens a ton of things up for the Hawks in its own right. But a healthy mix of mid-range jumpers and hard rolls to the hoop would make him a real handful for defenses and open up looks for others as well.
3. Improve Free-Throw Shooting
This one pretty much speaks for itself. Horford needs to improve his free-throw shooting.
Going into last season, Horford consistently hit free throws at around a 75 percent clip, but he took a bizarre tumble down to 64 percent last season. He told Grantland's Charles Bethea that his form was fine and the problem was just mental, so Hawks fans can do little more than hope he puts it all together this season.
Horford's currently shooting just 50 percent at the line, though obviously three games is far too small a sample size to draw any real conclusions. And it is worth pointing out that he shot very well from the line in the final two months of last season.
There's really nothing more to say except that Horford needs to get back up to the percentages he shot before last season. This is going to be something to follow, especially now that the Hawks will be leaning on him more offensively.
4. Establish Defensive Rhythm With Paul Millsap
This isn't really an improvement that Horford needs to make, but it will be necessary for Atlanta to come close to the defensive success it had last year.
Horford is a terrific defensive center, but he's not the rim-protector that most elite centers are. Horford's biggest strengths are his solid positional defense and his ability to switch on any guard and hedge on pick-and-rolls. In fact, Smith was probably the Hawks' best rim-protector last season.
Despite that, the Hawks were a top-10 defensive team in no small part because Horford and Smith were almost always perfectly in sync on that end. Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote:
And they have Horford and Smith, two vocal defenders who've played a half-decade together. They're fast, long, and active, and they know each other well enough to understand intuitively when to switch assignments, when to help, and (perhaps most importantly) when they’ve helped enough and can return to their original man. “We work really well together,” Smith says of his partnership with Horford. “Communication is a lost cause in a lot of places in the NBA, but when we communicate, we make things a lot easier.”
Horford and Millsap aren't going to develop that kind of chemistry overnight, but understanding each others' tendencies will go a long way in helping Atlanta get its feet planted defensively. The Hawks have very little in the way of rim protection, and Horford and Millsap—both of whom are very good individual defenders—will need to mesh quickly in order to make up for that.
Horford-Millsap lineups have gotten smashed defensively thus far, per NBA.com, though again, three games is way, way too early to draw any real conclusions about their play together.
None of the stuff that made Horford and Smith such a good tandem on the defensive end—knowing when to help, switch, hedge, etc.—is easy to pick up for new teammates, and there's a decent chance the Hawks never even sniff the defensive efficiency they had last season.
Still, Atlanta has playoff hopes, and Millsap and Horford will need to develop at least a little chemistry on the defensive end if those are to be realized.
As was mentioned earlier, Horford doesn't need to make any sweeping changes to his game—he's one of the best all-around players in the league. He could play the exact same way he did last season and that would still be the case.
This is the first year that Horford's been Atlanta's top offensive option, though, and if he makes just a few minor improvements, he should settle nicely into the role and lead the Hawks to the playoffs once again.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless specifically stated otherwise.