A summer of immense change awaits this Atlanta Hawks team, with the majority of players facing free agency and a coaching vacancy soon needing to be filled. Among all of the hysteria that comes with rebuilding a team nearly from scratch, there is one person Hawks and their fans can be thankful to have anchored in position with the team. That’s Al Horford, two-time All-Star, whose second half of this prior season has solidified his name with the best bigs in the entire league.
Post All-Star break, Horford put up averages of 19.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists a night on 54.8% shooting from the field. The lingering effects of his left pectoral muscle tear – an injury which nearly erased Horford’s 2012 season – have seemingly worn off completely, and Horford has shown us but a snippet of how strong his game is at full health in the late stretch of this past year. This level of performance for such a well-rounded player extended throughout an entire season would raise the question of whether or not he’s a star.
That said, Horford is 26 years old and his contract with the Hawks is set through the 2016 season. With a major rebuilding in the making, having a piece such as Horford gives the Hawks a couple of options to deliberate in the off-season. Atlanta can build around Horford as their star player, and spend their cap space on bringing in the best surrounding cast they possibly can. Or, the Hawks could have Horford take a supplementary role behind one or two star players. There are many aspects here to consider, so let’s begin.
Looking at option one, the first question that comes to mind is whether or not Horford is capable of being the guy for a team. Horford has the skill-set, a complete package that can only be matched by maybe two centers in the entire league. Horford can core both down low and step back for the mid-range jumpshot, his passing ability resembles that of a guard, he works the boards and plays very solid defense. There’s little not to like about his game, but whether or not he can produce at these outstanding levels with a bigger load on his shoulders is still in the air.
Note his 37.2 minutes a night, leading all centers in the league. As bulky of a number that is, his usage percentage of 21.7% is in the same tier as starting centers who are the second or third options on their team, such as Chris Bosh (22.7%) and Spencer Hawes. (20.9%) Despite being their best player, Horford’s USG% was third among Atlanta’s starters behind Josh Smith and Jeff Teague. Having all that said, it’s quite the adversity to try and properly envision Horford’s play as the centerpiece of a team.
One thing I did attempt was to weed out Horford’s statistics when he was playing without fellow big men Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia, Johan Petro and Ivan Johnson. This essentially left Horford as the only prototypical frontcourt player, with most of his minutes under these circumstances being played alongside long-range marksman Anthony Tolliver. In these stretches – being 91 minutes total throughout the season – Horford had an understandable USG% of 31.6%, and shot 56.5% from the field on 46 shot attempts, while also grabbing 24 boards. In 37 minutes a game these totals equate to 24.8 PPG and 9.7 RPG. Those are outstanding numbers, but whether they can realistically translate to 82 games worth of basketball or not is tough to say.
The second issue with building around Horford as a number one option is finding the right players to surround him with, ones that won’t intervene in what Horford does best and won’t jack up shots for the fun of it. First, picking out the ideal partner big. It’s best to initially understand that Horford’s model position is the center, where his per-48 minute statistics are all higher across the board compared to his playing at the power forward, courtesy of 82games.com.
An intriguing frontcourt mate – especially after reviewing Horford’s statistics without another strong paint presence – would be a knockdown stretch four. A player to give Horford his space and stretch out the defense with his shooting. Looking through the list of free agents, only one makes the cut as a possible choice for a three-point shooting starter at the four. This is Paul Millsap, of the Utah Jazz. Although this is the only realistic choice, it’s a stretch. Millsap attempted just 39 threes last season, shooting them at a 33.3% clip. He would only need to mold his game a small amount, already being a prolific mid-range shooter. You’ll notice this below on his shooting heat map, provided by Basketball-Reference:
Considering the unavailability of the perfect stretch four to pair Horford with, we can also examine playing him at the four and signing a center. Spacing concerns shouldn’t be addressed until you read this piece by Bo Churney on why Horford should shoot more threes next year. A few centers to keep in mind as free agency grows nearer are Nikola Pekovic and Al Jefferson. Pekovic is a towering figure – nearly 7-feet tall and weighing 293 pounds – and uses his monstrous figure extremely well. Pek has had a PER of 20 or above for the past two seasons, and this year he’s averaged 18 points and 10 boards per-36 minutes with the Minnesota Timberwolves. His defense is also improved tremendously over the past two years, with his tremendous frame being so tough to plow through.
Al Jefferson’s game is more offensive-oriented, with less value on the other end of the ball. This doesn’t make him less of an impressive get, but it is something to keep in mind. Jefferson with the ball in his hands is deadly, with an array of post moves and a solid mid-range jumper. His arsenal of offensive talents is on full display when checking his career stats, in which he’s always hovering around 50% shooting.
Outside of the frontcourt, there are a few wing players that would suit playing behind Horford extremely well. One is Andre Iguodala, damn near the most sound point-forward you can find in the league, not to mention one of the best perimeter defenders as well. A tandem between Horford and Iggy would mean having one of the most dynamic two-man combo in the league. However, this is contingent upon Andre accepting his Early Termination Option, but with his Denver Nuggets being a first-round exit this isn’t a scenario too difficult to imagine coming into fruition.
There are other great options available as well, such re-signing Kyle Korver, the Hawks’ sharp-shooter from deep. Andrei Kirilenko may very well decline his player option with Minnesota, and his Iguodala-esque all-around game could prove imperative to the Hawks’ success next season. Of all the misdoings in Charlotte, Gerald Henderson is coming into his own averaging nearly 18 points per-36 minutes this season with a 53.1% true-shooting clip and a PER of 16. J.J. Redick also had a breakout season, nearly shooting 40% from behind the arc in Orlando before getting traded to the Bucks, where he failed to find a comfortable role for himself. None of these guys would create the next super-team if signed to play alongside Horford, but they are very solid role pieces.
Now to the point guard spot, a crucial decision here as he’ll oftentimes find himself running the pick-and-roll with Horford. The optimal choice would be one who is a gifted passer, a solid three-point shooter and can take it to the basket. It’s a lot to ask for out of one player, and even in a league engulfed in a plenteous amount of viable point guards, picking the right fit is easier said than done. That said, the first on the list should be Atlanta’s starting one for the past two years, Jeff Teague. Teague’s been steadily improving and has a bright future ahead of him, not to mention the plus-side of handing Horford a point guard he’s already accustomed to balling with.
Now, to the second approach. There are only two players in this free agency market that could rationally be described as “superstars,” ones who would clearly be the best players on their team and would keep Horford in his current supportive position. Those are Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. There’s a third questionable name on the list as well, in Andrew Bynum. All three names would take the reins of the team, two could undoubtedly lead a team to an NBA championship, but there’s one problem. Can Atlanta sign any of them?
Money is no issue, with the Hawks having the cap space to sign two stars to max deals if they’d like. However, there’s the matter of these players would be willing to pack their bags and join a new team, especially one possibly getting a brand new coach and roster in a less-than popular market. It’s widely believed that Paul and Howard would prefer staying in Los Angeles, despite both of their respective season ending in utter failure. With Bynum, following a season where he played in zero contests due to injury, it seems the case is that he’ll go to whichever team will offer him the largest sum of guaranteed money. When healthy, Bynum is one of the best centers in the NBA, but signing him as a franchise player poses a risk when his health history is factored in.
This offseason for the Atlanta Hawks is piled with question marks, and no clear-cut direction. If there is anything for certain, it’s that Al Horford is here, healthy, for the foreseeable future. And there’s no reason not to be happy about that.