Culture of Hoops

Sonny’s Top 50 NBA Players: #17 Al Horford

Resume: 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists (career best), 1.3 blocks, 30.5 minutes, 54% FG (6th in league), 76% FT … Team Record in Games Played: 56-20 (4-2 without) … Playoffs: 14.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists (career best), 1.4 blocks, 32.6 minutes, 51% FG, 75% FT, 8-8 record … All-Star

Back in January, Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote an awesome piece on Atlanta Hawks Center Al Horford, and he referred to Horford as “a chameleon who is good at everything, great at some things, and always flying underneath the radar.” This characterization of Horford is absolutely true, and it helps to highlight why Horford is ahead of someone like DeAndre Jordan on the Top 50 list.

Jordan, as detailed a few days ago, brings a few nice things to the table but he’s also take a few things off. Basically, he’ll bring the napkins and the salt and pepper shakers, but he’s taking away the place settings and candles. Horford damn near brings a whole China set; the plates, the spoons, the forks, the knives, the drinkware etc. Horford is one of the premiere “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” guys in the league, and he’s come damn close to mastering a few.

In calling him a chameleon, Lowe essentially meant that Horford can not only easily adapt, but also excel in any style of play. You can run your entire offense around pick-and-rolls featuring Horford as the roll or pop man. He”s still got the legs to roll hard and finish strong at the rim, and he’s also got the touch from basically anywhere on the court inside of twenty feet that will make defenses go crazy as they try to figure out how to prevent Horford from getting relatively uncontested jumpers.

Horford takes it the next step though. Even though he’s one of the most deadly mid-range shooters in the NBA — better than Dirk, and only a percentage point worse than Chris Paul — Horford isn’t shy about passing up a good shot to get a great one. The Hawks offense reached Spursian levels of beauty at times last year, and it’s in large part because Horford, the hub of the offense, made the right play the majority of the time. His basketball IQ is off the charts, and it’s heavily praised by members of the Hawks organization.

Kyle Korver referred to Horford as “a basketball player who happens to play center,” while head coach Mike Budenholzer got all gushy saying, “I honestly feel fortunate to coach him.” The gushy, glowing praise is all warranted. Horford got off to a slow start to the season as he worked the rust off after missing the majority of the prior season. Once Horford got into game shape the Hawks took off, winning 28 out of 30 games during a mid-season stretch.

In January five Hawks starters won the Eastern Conference Player of the Month, but Horford more than anyone else deserved the recognition. Without Horford, Paul Millsap isn’t getting half of the open spot up looks, or as many semi-uncontested shots near the basket. Without Horford, Jeff Teague is robbed of one of the three best pick-and-roll big men in the league, and Korver is left without a Center who can catch, put the ball on the floor, collapse the defense and kick out to wide open shooters on the perimeter. Defensively Horford isn’t at an elite level, but for any undersized center he battles hard in the paint, moves his feet against smaller matchups, and is rarely caught out of position on rotations.

It may sound blasphemous to say this, but Horford is probably the closest thing in the NBA right now to our favorite basketball-playing alien Tim Duncan. I don’t want to say he’s the poor man’s Tim Duncan because that’s a knock on Horford, but he’s clearly a level or two below Timmy. Really, he resembles the Duncan we’re seeing now rather than a young Duncan. They’re cut from the same cloth at the very least; the consummate teammates, glue-guys and heady do-it-all big men who have overachieved and established a culture for their respective franchise.

That last point is the most crucial. The Hawks were supposed to go through a period of rebuild after they cut ties with Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. Instead, they fought their way to the eighth seed in 2014 and nearly upset the Indiana Pacers in Round 1. The following season they won sixty games and made the Conference Finals. This year the Hawks are expected to take a step back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are yet again the second best team in the Eastern Conference.

For better or worse, it’s on the back of Al Horford. He’s not the typical star, but you aren’t looking close enough if you don’t see that he is one.

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