Without question, Al Horford is one of the best 25 players in the NBA. He can score efficiently, defend all over the floor, rebound on both ends, and pass and handle the ball like a guard. He does all of these things at such an exceptional level that he is a mismatch against nearly every team in the NBA.
Despite that versatility, many veteran basketball watchers still want to pigeon-hole the 6-foot-10 Horford as a power forward instead of a center because of his size. “Power forward is his natural position” is what is often said in this argument.
One that thing often gets buried in that argument is the type of center that people would put next to Horford. “Horford would be great with a rim-protecting type of center” is among sentiments that are heard a lot.
And that line of thought is not necessarily wrong. Horford would be GREAT playing next to a center like Marc Gasol or Roy Hibbert. These players possess unique talent and Horford is a good enough talent that is assumed that he would be great next to these guys.
However, a lot of Horford’s success at center comes from the disadvantages he forces on his opponents; Horford is quick, he runs the floor well, he’s strong, and he’s exceptional at spacing the floor. Because of these attributes, a team can put any type of power forward next to him and the team will likely be better off because of it. For example, both Josh Smith and Paul Millsap have excelled as Horford’s pair because of the space he provides.
Is that true if you put Horford at power forward, though? Sure, Horford will still be a great player because of the talent he possesses. But in most cases, it likely would not be the most optimal option for the team of Horford’s employ.
The most talked about option as a Horford frontcourt partner over the past two years has been Omer Asik. Asik is an exceptional rebounder and rim protector and appears to fit that role as a guy who would be deserving enough to bump Horford down to the power forward position.
But why would a team want to waste Horford’s spacing and speed in order to put him next to a player that possesses neither? Asik is a lumbering 7-footer that displayed some conditioning issues in Houston this past season. In the pace-and-space offense that has been installed under Mike Budenholzer, that is the guy that people want in order to move Horford to his “natural position”? Asik would clog the lane for Horford, likely cancelling out the size advantage that Horford would have against most power forwards. Asik would eat up some offensive rebounds, but even then, his defensive plus would likely be cancelled out by negative offensive advantages for Horford. Overall, Asik would likely look better next to Horford, but the opposite does not seem to be true.
Who would be a great, and realistic, fit as a center next to Al Horford? He is already on the Atlanta Hawks’ roster: Pero Antic. Antic did not get a lot of time to play next to Horford, but he stepped up magnificently after Horford’s season succumbed to a pectoral injury.
Like Horford, Antic is a game-changing floor spacer, plus he is above-average on the defensive side of the floor. In absence of the elite center option, Antic seems like he could be the perfect center pair next to a power forward playing Horford: he’s big enough to alleviate some of the defensive pressure, plus he is good enough at spacing an offense to allow Horford to maximize a size and strength advantage at the 4-position. The Hawks saw this philosophy work well with Antic playing next to Paul Millsap.
But this Asik-Antic divide proves why Horford is better suited as a center in the NBA than a power forward: a “match” at center has to be found, whereas almost any power forward in the NBA can play with Horford. Most centers are not that great at spacing the floor, whereas it is almost required of a modern power forward. The fact that Horford is capable of playing center means that you can maximize his skill set at that position by putting most teams at a disadvantage — a disadvantage that does not exist at power forward.
So no, the Hawks do not need to acquire a player to move Al Horford to his natural position; he’s already playing there. Put Horford at center and await further instructions.