Through the first two months of the season, the Atlanta Hawks have been one of the biggest surprises in the NBA. Almost nothing went right for them in the offseason - they dumped Lou Williams for nothing, their GM got caught bad mouthing a player's ethnic backgrounds and their owner decided to sell the team in the aftermath of the scandal. They were expected to be a fringe playoff contender, not one of the teams competing for homecourt advantage.
The Hawks were not a good team last season, but that was mostly because of an injury to Al Horford, who played in only 29 games after tearing a muscle in his shoulder. Before the injury, Horford’s numbers were off the charts in his first season in Mike Budenholzer’s offense - 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.5 blocks and 0.9 steals on 57% shooting. With Horford in the line-up over the last two years, the Hawks have been a really good team.
Horford is a perfect fit in Atlanta - an anonymous superstar in one of the most anonymous organizations in the NBA. He has made the playoffs in each of his seven seasons in the league, a mark that would have gotten him much more notice if he had played for almost any other franchise. Horford is the glue that makes everyone around him better, an extremely versatile big man with a complete skill-set who can impact the game on offense and defense.
Even in college, he didn’t get much publicity, overshadowed by the far more flamboyant Joakim Noah. However, their two championships at Florida were as much Horford’s as Noah’s, the product of the special chemistry between the two future All-Stars. When a college team has two 6’10+ guys who can defend out to the three-point line, score with their back to the basket and create shots for their teammates, they are going to be awfully hard to beat.
Noah got most of the awards, but Horford ended up being drafted higher, going No. 3 overall to Atlanta in the 2007 Draft, the same year as Kevin Durant and Greg Oden. The Hawks, with Joe Johnson and Josh Smith already in the fold, were ready to win immediately. That season, they won 38 games and took the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round. From there, they quickly became one of the best teams in the East.
Atlanta never made it to a Conference Finals, but they never got enough credit for how talented they were. From 2008-2011, they won an average of 48 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs three times. A lot of franchises would kill for a run like that. They sent Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard home - any team with Al Horford as the third option and Jeff Teague as the fourth option had the firepower to compete at the highest level.
While Horford was one of the cornerstones of the team, he didn’t get the chance to have much offense run through him. In his first five seasons in the league, he never had a usage rating above 20. He made his name as a hyper-efficient role player, scoring from the perimeter, moving the ball out of the post and finishing around the rim. His limited offensive role, meanwhile, prevented him from being recognized as one of the best PF’s in the NBA.
Things began to change three years ago, when they moved Joe Johnson for nothing to the Brooklyn Nets. Horford took advantage of the opportunity to expand his game, averaging career-high numbers across the board - 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.1 blocks on 54% shooting. The Hawks let Josh Smith walk the next season, in effect turning over the franchise to Horford, who has thrived in the role as the best player on the team.
Atlanta plays a balanced starting 5 that meshes well together - Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Horford - but Horford is really the key to the whole operation. At 6’10 245 with a 7’1 wingspan, his ability to slide over from his natural PF position and play as a small-ball C is what allows Atlanta’s guards to play in the maximum amount of space. The Hawks play true five-out basketball, which is almost impossible to defend.
“In my mind, this is the most underrated team in basketball and the most underrated coach in basketball,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said before losing to the Hawks on Monday. “Right now, with the way everyone’s playing, this is a team that could realistically be coming out of the East in the playoffs. They’re playing that well.”
It’s a max space configuration, with as many as five players spread out along the three-point line at a given time in a possession. There are acres of space in the half-court behind Horford and Millsap, who can both stretch the floor and run offense out of the high post. The defense is stretched to the breaking point, which creates a ton of driving lanes for guys like Teague, Korver and Dennis Schroeder, all of whom are playing the best ball of their careers.
Horford’s lack of size means he’s not an ideal fit for the C position on defense, but he can play it credibly enough that it allows the Hawks to take advantage of his speed, skill and shooting from that position on the offensive end of the floor. Atlanta’s opponents have an offensive rating of 106.8 when he is on the floor and 98.6 when he is off the floor, but the Hawks eye-popping offensive rating with him out there - 111.7 - more than makes up for it.
In many ways, Horford is a similar player to Chris Bosh, another natural PF whose made a career of being an undersized C in the East. And while Bosh is a more polished scorer, Horford is a better passer and a more all-around defensive player. He’s a better shot-blocker and he’s a little more physically equipped to play defense as a C, with the size to defend the post, the quickness to defend out on the perimeter and the athletic ability to play above the rim.
Horford is a complete player with no holes in his game, which makes it easy to put a team around him. He was paired with Josh Smith for most of his career and he covered up a lot of the holes in Smith’s game. His ability to step out and make a perimeter jumper opened up driving lanes for Smith and his ability to catch and finish in traffic made it easy for Smith to rack up assists. On defense, Horford guarded the bigger man and allowed Smith to roam.
His ability to guard bigger men is really what separates him from a lot of his peers at the PF position. Horford has the size to match up fairly well with the C’s in the other contenders out East - Joakim Noah, Marcin Gortat, Anderson Varejao and Jonas Valanciunas - which gives Atlanta a huge edge on the other end of the floor, where they really struggle with Horford’s foot-speed. His ability to win his match-up gives them a chance against anyone.
That was made crystal clear in their game in Cleveland last week, when the Hawks ran the Cavs out of their on building. Cleveland’s big men had absolutely no answer for Horford and Millsap, who combined to shoot 17-25. They could score any which way on the Cavs, whether it was posting up, facing up or putting their big men in the pick-and-roll. Cleveland just didn’t have the personnel to match up with big men as fast, athletic and skilled as Atlanta’s.
If the two teams end up meeting in the playoffs, that could be a real problem for the recently constructed juggernaut in Cleveland. Coming into the season, very few people would have said Al Horford was a better basketball player than Kevin Love, yet if you look at it, he’s providing much more value to the Hawks than Love is to the Cavs. Horford can survive on defense as a small-ball C - Love might not be able to survive on defense while playing as a PF.
If those two guys have to guard each other in a seven-game series, Horford has a much better chance of defending Love than Love has of defending him. That’s not the be-all end-all when it comes to determining which player is better, but it is pretty important, much more than our collective emphasis on guys individual stats would make it seem. If the Cavs and the Hawks end up facing each other in the playoffs, there won’t be anything more important.