9 years, 7 quality, 4 All-Stars … 1-time All-NBA (’11) … ’15 Playoffs: 14-9-4, 51% FG, 75% FT (16 games) … Missed 50+ games twice in prime
Overall Averages: 14.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 blocks, 33.5 minutes, 54% FG, 11.5 FGA, 74% FT, 2.5 FTA, 578 Games Played
5-Year Regular Season Peak: 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 blocks, 33.2 minutes, 53% FG, 13.4 FGA, 71% FT, 2.2 FTA, 261 Games Played
9 years, 6 quality, 2 All-Stars … 1 Top Ten MVP Finish (’14), 1-time All-NBA (’14), 3-time All-Defensive Team (’11, ’13-’14), 1-time Defensive Player of the Year (’14) … ’14 Regular Season: 13-11-5-2, 48% FG, 74% FT, DPOY
Overall Averages: 9.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.4 blocks, 29.5 minutes, 49% FG, 7.2 FGA, 71% FT, 3.1 FTA, 572 Games Played
5-Year Regular Season Peak: 11.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.6 blocks, 33.2 minutes, 49% FG, 8.8 FGA, 74% FT, 3.7 FTA, 322 Games Played
Well hello there! Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 NBA Players Countdown! In case you are new here, or if you haven’t heard what will be different this time around, allow me to explain!
(That third exclamation point was not necessary)
Typically how this works is in the days leading up to the NBA season, I release a countdown of the Top 50 players currently playing in the National Basketball Association. This year I decided that it was time to remix this idea, expand the pool of players, broaden my horizons, and give myself an excuse to watch a bunch of old games on YouTube.
This time around I’ll be counting down the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s (this means we’re looking at a seventeen season sample size that goes from the 1999-00 season all the way through the 2015-16 season). I’ve detailed the criteria I used to make this awfully long list. If you want to check it out, you can do so by clicking here.
The last three years I’ve kicked this countdown off with a breakdown of two players vying for the final spot. I don’t see any reason to switch it up now. This year it’s a battle between two players that once upon a time made up one of the most successful frontcourt tandems in college basketball history.
Best Offensive Skill
Noah may be the most gifted passing big man on this list; during various portions in multiple seasons the Bulls ran their offense through Noah, a big man who can’t shoot and rarely looks to score for himself, at the elbow and in the post and it wasn’t a total disaster. Had you swapped Jo Noah out for any replacement level Center, even one that could stretch the floor a bit, the Bulls offense would have undoubtedly taken a hit. Good luck finding many other bigs who can pass in the half-court AND grab a rebound, lead a fast break and get a teammate a lay-up with the same kind of effectiveness and fire as Noah.
In theory, Horford, a capable passer in his own right, could have given the Bulls maybe 90 percent of what Noah gave them as a passer, but he also would have brought an automatic mid-range jumper to the table. Horford has gradually drifted away from the paint and become one of the best shooting bigs in the league, an increasingly necessary skill in the modern NBA where space on offense is everything.
More impressive than just the jumper is the all-around expansiveness of Horford’s offensive arsenal. He’s a chameleon; he’s able to fit in and thrive in just about any offensive role you could imagine. You could post him up, put him around the perimeter, run pick and rolls with him, etc. He’s equipped for everything. And yes, I’m aware that this encompasses many offensive skills, but when you’re above-average at everything that is a skill in and of itself.
Horford is no slouch on the defensive end; he’s smart, disciplined and he annually boasts one of the highest post defense ratings among qualified players. Last year only Draymond Green allowed fewer points per post-up defended than Horford. He’s quick and mobile enough to hedge or switch onto ball-handlers, big enough to bang bodies in the paint, long enough to protect the rim. In summary, he’s a perfectly capable and impressive defender. He’s just not a crazed destroyer like Joakim Noah is.
Noah does everything that Horford does defensively, only it’s done better and louder and it’s far more manic. Just remember, anything you do in life looks infinitely more awesome if you scream like a madman while you’re doing it (unless you’re a burglar or a medical professional; then a calmer demeanor is preferred). Noah is the personification of this idea. If he was an even-keel guy he’d just be the rich man’s Al Horford. Instead he’s the rich man’s Al Horford, and he just so happens to own a megaphone.
A duel ‘What If’ that absolutely has to be discussed at length because it directly pertains to the careers of both Noah and Horford, and semi-directly impacts the course of college basketball history and NBA history. What if Noah and Horford entered the NBA Draft after the Gators won their first National Title?
Here’s what we know: the third seeded ’06 Gators rampaged through the NCAA Tournament and won the first National Championship in school history on the backs of four sophomores, including Noah and Horford (plus Corey Brewer and Taurean Green, and Junior sharp-shooter Lee Humphrey). The Gators were a year ahead of schedule, but they burst onto the scene like the Kool-Aid Man and Noah was definitely the one screaming “Oh Yeah!” Noah was voted the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player and vaulted to the top of everyone’s draft board.
Had the Gator Boys come around ten years later during in the “one and done” era they would’ve booked to the NBA as soon as possible. Instead they shut the door on that jump right away, came back to school and became the first back to back National Champs in fifteen years. Clearly, sticking around for their Junior year worked out, but it cost Noah the opportunity to be the #1 pick in the 2006 Draft. The ’06 Draft class was historically lackluster, and no player would have had a higher profile heading into June’s draft than Noah. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Noah, fresh off of a 16 point, 9 rebound, 6 block performance in the National Championship game, wouldn’t have been the first player selected, especially since Andrea Bargnani, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas and Shelden Williams were four of the first five picks in the Draft.
Noah plateaued over the course of the next season and scouts continued to find Horford (and Corey Brewer) more appealing. By the time the Gators won their second National Title Horford and Brewer had their own respective breakout performances (for Brewer it was becoming the human nightmare of Arron Afflalo for the second straight year in the NCAA Tournament, and for Horford it was going toe to toe with Greg Oden in the National Championship Game while Jo Noah was on the bench in foul trouble).
Rather than coming back for a potential third National Title, all four Gator juniors entered the ’07 Draft. Oden and Kevin Durant were the clear-cut top two selections, but it was Horford, not Noah, who went third overall. Corey Brewer was selected 7th by the Timberwolves and Noah was taken two picks later by the Bulls.
So the question remains: What if Noah and Horford entered the NBA Draft after the Gators won their first National Title? Well, Noah would have likely been one of the top two picks in ’06, and Horford probably goes in the top five. Oddly enough, the Bulls picked 2nd and the Hawks picked 5th in 2006, so in this elaborate alternate reality scenario Noah and Horford could have ended up where they ended up a year later. I’m glad I was here to clear all of that up.
Advantage: There wasn’t an advantage up for grabs, this was just a waste of time
Al Horford has only played six more games than Joakim Noah has, but Horford feels like a clear winner here. Horford missed 108 games in the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons because of two fluke injuries. It’s such an anomaly that in a two year span Horford tore his right AND left pectoral muscles that I can’t take imaginary points away from him in this category. On the other hand, aside from a hand injury back in 2010-11, Noah’s missed games have come, in large part due to five years of hard Tom Thibodeau miles that he ain’t getting back. In case you were wondering, if you wanted to get a Knicks fan very anxious just remind them that two of their five starters played for Thibodeau and are either breaking down or fully broken down.
A closer round to judge than I expected that it would be. Horford and Noah have each played in the Eastern Conference Finals once and they each got steamrolled there by LeBron James (it’s never not a good time to bring light to some of LeBron’s accomplishments). Noah’s Bulls have a two to one edge in finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference, but Horford’s Hawks have made it past the 1st Round four times to Noah’s three. It remains a tight race even when you look at the regular season records right down to the game; since the 2007 Draft the Bulls have 412 wins and the Hawks have 411. Incredible. Technically, I suppose that means Noah has the slightest of slight edges, but I think it’s too close to call.
Al Horford’s father Tito was a second round draft pick back in 1988 and his brother Jon played college basketball for the University Michigan and University of Florida. Even Horford’s 6’10” Uncle Kelly was a Division 1 basketball player. Joakim Noah’s family is equally prestigious; his grandmother was the captain of the French women’s basketball team and his grandfather Cameroonian soccer star. Noah’s mother placed 5th in the 1978 Miss Universe pageant and his father was the winner of the 1983 French Open tennis tournament. You could really give either family the edge, but I’ll award Noah the point since Jo’s father Yannick gave us the greatest in-game interview that didn’t feature Gregg Popovich.
That’s genuine parental joy. I have so much love for Yannick Noah.
Remember what I said earlier … anything you do in life looks infinitely more awesome if you scream like a madman while you’re doing it.
It’s really hard to pick a peak season for Horford. They’ve all been perfectly steady and fine and none stand out in any particular way. Truth be told, it’s probably going to end up being the upcoming season, his first for the Celtics, but the easiest choice thus far would be the 2014-15 season when the Hawks won sixty games and everyone collectively acknowledged Horford’s understated brilliance.
In typical Joakim Noah fashion, his peak season was much louder and obvious than Horford’s was. Without Derrick Rose for all but ten games Noah served as the hub of the offense, the anchor of the defense, the heartbeat of the Chicago Bulls during the 2013-14 season, and the bus driver and team cook and party planner … and it was beautiful and enthralling to watch. When Noah was a Junior at Florida, making Verne Lundquist super uncomfortable during post-game interviews, I never thought he’d reach a level where he was contending for MVP’s and totally dominating games on both ends of the floor. I didn’t see it coming, and yet as an unbiased observer, I loved every minute of it. I was pumped I was wrong.
Until Draymond Green transformed himself into the most polarizing figure in the league, Noah was the perfect example for the “Love him if he’s on your team, hate him if he isn’t” kind of player. If Noah was playing your favorite team it was hard to stomach him … he tangled with my man, LeBron James, a number of times so I know the feeling very well. Contrarily, I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about Al Horford, nor have I actively detested Horford at any point in time like I have Noah. Even when Horford dropped an elbow on Matthew Dellavedova during the 2015 Playoffs I was just like “Eh, Delly deserved it.” Horford’s reputation is essentially non-existent mainly because I have never heard anyone other than smart basketball people actually speak about Al Horford.
On a year-to-year basis Horford has been more consistent than Noah, his outlook moving forward is far more promising, and he can do more things on a basketball floor effectively than Noah can. All signs point to Horford, but I’m still drawn to Noah. Maybe I’m just as guilty as everyone else in overlooking Horford in favor of his former Gator teammate. Or maybe Noah, through sheer force of personality and infectious energy and effort on the floor, has truly earned the 50th spot on this list. That’s what I’m choosing to believe.