A black cloud hovered over the Atlanta Hawks organization in late November. The team had only just started what has now become a 22-2 rampage, but no one could have predicted that. In fact, the Hawks knew they were good, but in hushed moments, people at all levels of the organization furrowed their brows and confessed: Al Horford is not right after recovering from a pectoral tear. We don’t know when he’ll get right, or even if he will this season, and we’re not going anywhere until he’s truly back.
Almost all the concerned citizens were new-regime folks who admit they had no clue how good Horford was before they arrived in Atlanta. “When you’re not around a guy, you think you know,” says Mike Budenholzer, the coach who has helped remake the Hawks as Spurs East. “But with Al, you don’t.”
“I appreciated him as a player, but not to the level I should have,” says Kenny Atkinson, a key Hawks assistant who worked with the Knicks until 2012. “Josh Smith and Joe Johnson overshadowed him. He is much better than I had thought.”
Horford probably won’t represent the Hawks in the All-Star Game, but there is something like universal recognition within the team that he is their best and most important player. And now, after some worry, Horford is slowly regaining his wind and his legs after avoiding all basketball activities for almost a year. The Hawks’ defense has risen with him. Atlanta has had the league’s stingiest defense since December 1, and Horford has tightened up his rim protection during that stretch, according to SportVU data provided to Grantland.
When he’s healthy, Horford is a legitimate NBA superstar — a chameleon who is good at everything, great at some things, and always flying beneath the radar. He doesn’t pile up insane numbers, hog the ball, or appear in national TV commercials. He is concerned only with winning, even if the path there involves sacrificing shots to focus on passing, setting good picks, and battling 7-footers under the basket.
“He’s just so unselfish,” Budenholzer says. “I honestly feel fortunate to coach him.”
“He is our cornerstone,” says Kyle Korver. “His example — it’s what the Hawks are. Or what we’re trying to be.”
Here’s a conundrum: The ball isn’t supposed to stick in Budenholzer’s pass-happy motion offense, but most star players see holding the ball as their birthright. That dissonance is what made it so interesting that Atlanta wanted to meet with Carmelo Anthony last summer — back when free agents avoided the Hawks because they were boring, and not because they might be racist, too.
Horford is not a typical star, but he’s still a star, accustomed to munching on a certain number of post-ups and one-on-one attacks every night.
“I thought there would be an adjustment period for both of us,” Budenholzer says.
Budenholzer loves 3-point shooting, but Horford has never jacked many triples. His only two previous NBA coaches, Mike Woodson and Larry Drew, ran ho-hum offenses that looked nothing like the liquid basketball that Budenholzer envisioned.
“There is a learning curve,” Horford says. “I didn’t have any idea about [Budenholzer]. I didn’t know who he was. But I was excited. Danny Ferry was the one that hired him, and I felt Danny was making changes for the good of the team. I came into this with an open mind.”
Horford has blended in beautifully. Malleability might be Horford’s best NBA skill. It’s harder to construct rosters around stars who are great at some things and bad at others. A post-up big man who can’t play defense needs certain types of players around him. A pick-and-roll dunker with no shooting range can function only amid pristine spacing. Horford can grow in any environment. On offense, he’s dangerous doing anything out of the pick-and-roll — the play that greases Atlanta’s engine. If his big-man partner is a spot-up shooter — Mike Scott, Pero Antic — Horford is explosive enough to slice down the line for dunks. Hand the offense to someone else and Horford is a spot-up sniper who can stand 20 feet from the hoop and drag his guy away from the action.
He’s an expert screener, an underrated (what else?) NBA skill. If he senses he can bait the defense into opening itself up early, he’ll scurry up to set a pick, stop short, and slip into the paint without ever setting a proper screen:
Sometimes he’ll just stand 15 feet away from Jeff Teague and see how the defense reacts:
Horford could launch a half-dozen floaters out of the pick-and-roll every game, but he’s happy passing up a good shot to create a great one. Few big men pass on the move so well. Also, he isn’t a one-trick pony as a screen setter. He will lay a dude out, both on and off the ball, if that’s what it takes to get Korver open or create a driving lane for Teague. He’s also among the very best at disguising the direction of his pick until the very last second. He’ll rush up just to Teague’s left, convince the defense the pick is going that way, and flip the screen to the right — just when the defense has already committed the other way.
“Setting screens is an art,” Korver says. “There are some big guys who just aren’t good at the pick-and-roll because they don’t know how to get their point guard open, or how to get themselves open. Al can do everything. He’s not really a center. He’s a basketball player who happens to play center.”
Horford credits this deviousness to Mike Bibby and the late Lorenzen Wright, who played for the Hawks during Horford’s rookie season. Wright taught Horford to keep opposing defenses guessing, Horford remembers. Bibby would watch film with Horford and point out subtle ways Horford could spring him.
Horford says he learned to love the nonglamorous stuff at Florida, where he saw firsthand that a team filled with guys devoted to selfless play could coalesce into something larger. Playing team-first ball brought him such joy that he never wanted to play any other way.
Billy Donovan, Horford’s coach at Florida, says Horford had that mind-set before college. Donovan watched Horford’s AAU team lose an elimination game in Las Vegas during one recruiting summer. After the game, Donovan spotted Horford weeping alone on the bleachers. “Anybody who cares that much about winning — I want that guy on my team,” Donovan says.
Horford was the pulse of the team at Florida, Donovan says. All the national attention on Joakim Noah could have created resentment, but Horford didn’t care. A reporter asked Horford after the team’s second national title win, against Ohio State, if he felt any jealousy over the mob scribbling quotes from Noah. “Why would that bother me?” Horford asked, according to Donovan. “We’re both getting rings.”
“He kept me in check,” Noah says. “Al is a winner. The only reason he’s underappreciated is that he plays in Atlanta. Everyone in basketball circles knows he’s a top player.”
Horford was battling an injury before that Ohio State game, and he could sense the team’s younger big men were nervous about stepping up. He approached Donovan before tipoff and suggested the coach counsel them one last time. “You cannot put a price tag on his basketball IQ,” Donovan says, “and on how he creates chemistry.” The team nicknamed Horford “The Godfather,” because he knew what everyone was doing and thinking, and how to provide just the right quiet advice.
He is still “The Godfather” in Atlanta. “He’s so calming,” Budenholzer says. “I wish I could say that about myself. I draw on him during moments when I’m not poised. He’ll say something calming to me, and to the team.”
Veterans on the Atlanta team that Horford joined in 2008 noticed his maturity right away. “As a veteran, you see all these rookies come in with certain priorities,” says Zaza Pachulia, a member of that team. “You could see Al was different from other rookies. He just wanted to win.” Horford would often call Donovan during that rookie season and ask for tips on how he could put Josh Smith in better positions, the coach says.
Horford always wanted the team to hang out on road trips as a rookie, but found the NBA didn’t work that way. “I really believe it’s good to get to know your teammates off the court,” Horford says. “It was one of the reasons we were successful at Florida. I wanted that in the NBA. But everyone was like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to hang out with you.’”
Pachulia became Horford’s kindred dinner companion after growing up in Europe’s club system, where teams often socialized together. Horford took Pachulia’s starting spot toward the end of his rookie season, and Pachulia didn’t even care. “He deserved it,” Pachulia says.
It took a half-decade, but Horford has found an NBA team that dines together. Budenholzer came from San Antonio, where Gregg Popovich famously organizes road-trip dinners for the coaching staff, but Budenholzer opened those meals to the entire Hawks team. Horford is a regular. A bus will show up on the early side to pick up the first batch of players who want to return to the hotel. Horford usually sticks around until the last bus. He never commands the room, coaches say. He prefers a conversation in the corner.
He brings the same quiet approach to his craft. The Hawks under Budenholzer have emphasized individual skill work, and Horford takes it as seriously as the younger guys who actually need it, coaches say. “Al shows up for his time slot, and he’s already lifted and gotten a massage,” Atkinson says. “Most young guys come, and they just ate an egg sandwich. And this guy is an All-Star. To have a guy like that buying in — it makes our whole program.”
Atkinson was zonked out after the team returned from a recent road trip around 3 a.m. Horford texted him the next morning asking if Atkinson wanted to go do some yoga. “I was exhausted,” Atkinson says. “And it was like, ‘Holy cow. This guy wants to do yoga already?’”
So it’s no surprise that Horford is working his way back to peak form. He looks more confident muscling up behemoth centers, and he has been faster lately rotating to the basket as Atlanta’s last line of defense:
Opponents have shot just under 50 percent at the rim with Horford nearby since December 1, per SportVU data. That’s an average mark for a big man, but it’s way down from where it was earlier in the season, when Horford was laboring. The team’s rebounding, a potential weak spot, has also improved during that stretch — though Horford will always have trouble against the league’s jumpiest centers:
Horford is never going to be Roy Hibbert, but if he can hold the fort, the Hawks’ sound scheme might do enough for Atlanta to get through the East.
The Hawks shut off the transition game,1 avoid fouls, and do a decent job keeping teams away from the basket by dropping back on the pick-and-roll and forming a shell around the paint. Most teams that play that conservative style can’t force turnovers, but the Hawks are a gang of thieves.
Only two teams allow fewer fast-break points, and the Hawks rank second in points allowed per possession on transition chances, according to Synergy Sports.
Still: There will come a time in the playoffs when Horford has to outduel Noah and Pau Gasol for a rebound, body up Nene in the post, or snuff out drives from LeBron or Kyle Lowry. And even during this ridiculous streak, the Hawks are allowing the most corner 3 attempts in the league, per NBA.com.
“Al’s activity on defense is what we need to be really good,” Budenholzer says.
Horford will also be the guy Atlanta leans on in crunch time. The offense is gorgeous, but a dialed-up playoff defense will gum it up at some point. “Part of our problem last season was executing down the stretch,” Korver says. “The skill set Al has as a center — it changes everything for us. To be a good team, you have to have someone where you can say, ‘Go get us a bucket.’ It can’t be all pick-and-roll, even if you want it to be.”
The Hawks can always toss Horford into a pick-and-pop. That should really be the floor for any Atlanta possession — an 18-foot Horford jumper. That is where Horford separates himself from other jack-of-all-trades big men like Nene.
Nene is a good midrange shooter. Horford is a great one. In his best seasons, Horford has hit 50-plus percent of his long 2-point jumpers — Nowitzkian territory. He’s dangerous enough from out there that defenses will rotate a third weakside defender toward him, and the Hawks are smart about arranging the chess pieces so that that defender will be covering Korver. That’s a fun choice: Stop Horford’s roll or leave Korver open.
If defenses glue themselves to Korver in this situation, as J.R. Smith does on the Teague/Horford pick-and-roll below, they cede an automatic Horford jumper:
If defenses leap out at Horford in anticipation of his jumper on the pick-and-roll, he can respond by slicing down the lane. “You have guys like Andre Drummond, where you know they are going to roll,” Korver says. “And then you have guys like Dirk Nowitzki and Ryan Anderson, and they are gonna pick-and-pop. Al can do both. You can’t have just one coverage for us.”
Coaches around the league think playoff defenses will try to neuter Atlanta by switching more — keeping themselves out of rotation and forcing the Hawks to beat them one-on-one. That is when Atlanta could turn to Horford’s post game. He’s shooting 49 percent on post-ups, per Synergy Sports, mostly using a righty jump hook and a killer face-up game. He’s starting to get to the line again after appearing allergic to contact earlier in the season.
Still, it’s not the most polished post game. Horford doesn’t draw automatic double-teams, and he’s gone through weird blips of awful foul shooting over the last three seasons.
It’s also a tough balance to strike — staying true to the system, but still letting the big dog eat down low. “If I hold it too long, Bud will let me know about it,” Horford says.
“With his offensive game, we’ve come to him a bit, and he’s come to us a bit,” Budenholzer says. “I think we’ve found a happy medium.”
Budenholzer has also sold Horford on playing fewer minutes over shorter stretches. Horford is on the Nowitzki shift — he comes out early in the first and third quarters and returns a few minutes later to serve as the hub on bench-heavy units. “At first it was like, ‘Man, I have it going, and you’re taking me out?’” Horford says. “But I get it now. I have a lot of trust in Bud.”
Playing Horford in shorter stints frees him to play as hard as possible. Budenholzer is also trying to preserve Horford for April, May, and maybe even June.
The world is waiting for the Hawks to prove they can defend and score in crunch time during the hothouse of the playoffs. The early signs are good, and if Horford keeps progressing, Atlanta has a real chance to make the Finals.
“He hasn’t peaked yet,” Atkinson says. “I don’t know when that will be. But if it’s toward the end of the year, that would be perfect.”
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, stuck in purgatory
The Bulls, in the big picture, are fine. They’re near the top of the East and at the edge of the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession. When they are rolling, they look like the best team of the Tom Thibodeau era — the usual beastly defense, with more passing on the other end, two legit “get me a bucket” scoring options (Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol) alongside Derrick Rose, and a solid bench. There are even moments when you glimpse something like the old Rose — a few transition buckets that the Bulls wouldn’t generate without him and some zigzagging crunch-time drives; Rose records more drives per minute in the fourth quarter, by a huge margin, than in any other segment of the game, per SportVU data provided to Grantland.
And yet, Rose is shooting 39.8 percent overall, including a Josh Smith–esque 25.5 percent from deep on a (gulp) career-high number of attempts. He isn’t getting to the rim like Peak Rose, and he’s struggling to finish when he does.
The Bulls can afford to play a long game here. Perhaps they think Rose will develop into a league-average 3-point shooter once he works out the kinks. Maybe the uptick in fourth-quarter driving signals that Rose has that old extra gear in reserve for the playoffs.
But they are not winning the title with this version of Rose. Ditto for Noah, who hasn’t looked like himself after knee surgery and is a mess finishing around the basket.
The Bulls deserve some health luck from the basketball gods.
2. The Grizzlies’ way-too-hard version of “shorting” a pick-and-roll
The whole league has ripped this action from the Mike D’Antoni–era Suns:
The goal is simple: Use the pick-and-roll as a decoy to draw the help defender from the weak side and kick the ball to his man for an open 3-pointer. Imagine this play unfolding with Jeff Green in that corner instead of Tony Allen.
Memphis is better than anyone at turning chicken shit into chicken salad on offense. The Grizz compensate for crappy spacing with bullying post-up play, passing artistry from Marc Gasol, and smart cuts from all their guards and wings. They’re 10th in points per possession, the best mark of any Grit and Grind team, and they’ve scored at an even better rate when Allen and Courtney Lee share the floor on the wing. Why swap a first-round pick for Green, as the Grizzlies did Monday, especially since they’re already out another first-round pick to Cleveland?2
A pick that now belongs to Denver via the Timofey Mozgov trade.
This reminds me a bit of the Warriors’ move to start Draymond Green over David Lee. The Dubs had been fine with Lee starting; that lineup had the second-best point differential of any five-man group that logged at least 130 minutes last season, per NBA.com.
But Golden State thought it might be able to achieve something better with a lineup change, and it understood that even an incremental improvement could mean the difference in surviving the West.
Memphis’s play for Green is the same kind of gamble. It might not move the needle much — the needle can move only so much when you’re 26-11 — but the chance of a meaningful uptick is worth the risk. Green can hit corner 3s, work as a secondary pick-and-roll ball handler, play some stretch power forward, and defend bigger wing players well enough.3
Green’s defense has been inconsistent, especially off the ball, but he’s worked harder this season battling through screens.
Losing another pick hurts for a team that will have to rebuild its roster as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley all age — and Gasol and Conley get new contracts.4 But that roster uncertainty also means this might be the Grizzlies’ best chance to win it all. If you don’t chase those kinds of chances, what’s the point?
Assuming they both stay, of course.
Perhaps the Grizz could have talked the Celtics into swapping Green for two seconds by waiting until closer to the trade deadline, but Boston was reluctant to deal him at that price, and going that route risked reigniting a bidding war.
3. Tim Duncan playing center field
The best big-man defenders talk a lot about keeping ball handlers guessing on the pick-and-roll. They shift around in that in-between space rather than sliding all the way over to cut off the drive, hanging back on their original assignment, or leaping wildly at a pump fake.
I’m not sure anyone is better at that than Duncan:
Best of all: Duncan ends up behind Andre Drummond, maybe the bounciest big in the game, and leverages his timing, smarts, and quick hands to snare the rebound anyway.
I say this once a day to someone around the NBA: It’s just absurd how good this guy still is.
4. Toronto, beating a dead horse
I usually enjoy the work of Matt Devlin, Leo Rautins, and Jack Armstrong on the Raps broadcast; even Armstrong’s cackling adoration for Miller Genuine Draft is somehow endearing. But the mute button may be a necessity until the final All-Star balloting results come in.
The conglomerate that owns both the team and its broadcast partner has turned every Toronto game into a nonstop All-Star campaign for Kyle Lowry. Devlin is awkwardly squeezing the phrase “hashtag NBA ballot” into his play-by-play: “Lowry for 3! Hashtag NBA ballot! … A steal by Lowry, hashtag NBA ballot, and what a nice pass to Amir Johnson!!!!”
Lowry’s going to make the team, either as a starter or a backup. He deserves it. Everyone knows that by now. He got screwed last year. Everyone knows that, too. The world realizes the Raptors are a very, very good NBA team. At some point the inferiority complex loses its charm.
5. The LaMarcus Aldridge momentum buster
Aldridge is such a brainy player. We laud his jumper, and with good reason, but perhaps overlook his subtle understanding of space, momentum, and footwork. Take this simple side pick-and-roll, a staple of Portland’s offense:
Aldridge slips toward the baseline, where he’s money on catch-and-shoot jumpers. The defense has to do one of two things here: rotate a third defender over to Aldridge or hope his original guy, Nikola Vucevic, can scramble back in time after helping on Damian Lillard.
Vucevic rumbles back into the play, but he’s running hard, with momentum taking him toward the baseline. Aldridge knows that. He stops, waits for Vucevic to slide by him, and then veers back toward the middle for an easy drive. That’s just mean.
6. Watching the Nets
I can no longer live in a world where the Nets could make the playoffs, and two teams out of the Suns, Thunder, and Pelicans will stay home. This cannot be.
At least Brooklyn stands out — the moribund sloth in a league of fun, fast, invigorating teams. The Nets can’t drive the ball into the paint. They can’t finish there. They can’t shoot 3s outside the corners. They can’t find a two-man front line that works on both ends over long minutes. Poor Lionel Hollins can’t even decide whom to play anymore. Bojan Bogdanovic is back starting over Sergey Karasev. Hollins benched Mirza Teletovic in the second half until garbage time against Houston on Monday, swapping in Corey Jefferson instead just to see what the hell might happen.
Brook Lopez doesn’t get to the line anymore. Jarrett Jack’s 3-point shot has evaporated, and he’s breaking down under a heavier minutes burden while Deron Williams, the alleged franchise player, sits out with yet another nagging injury.
There are only five valid reasons to watch this team play basketball:
1. Mason Plumlee and his reverse dunks
2. Hollins’s wardrobe
3. You are a self-hating psychopath
4. You work for the Boston Celtics or the Atlanta Hawks and you need a pick-me-up
5. The faint possibility Kevin Garnett will do something crazy
The Pistons need to snag that no. 8 seed and FORM A FUCKING WALL to prevent the Nets from touching it ever again.
7. Justin Holiday, keeping Golden State funky
I don’t think anyone in the Warriors organization saw this coming. Steve Kerr told me a few weeks ago he envisioned using a nine-man rotation, and just ticking off names would leave Holiday well outside Golden State’s top nine.
But Holiday over the last month has emerged as a rangy bench wing, canning 42 percent of his triples and doing enough on defense to earn minutes. Holiday is 6-foot-6, so he allows Golden State to retain its long-limbed, position-less funk on bench units featuring any of the Holiday–Klay Thompson–Shaun Livingston–Andre Iguodala group along the perimeter. A really nice story in the Bay.
8. The Jodie Meeks floater
Defenses today overload the strong side of the floor, forcing lead ball handlers to swing the rock to the other side. If it stalls there, an offense can die. Secondary perimeter players have to be competent enough to at least keep the machine moving, and Meeks has blossomed in that regard in Los Angeles and now as a bench catalyst for the resurgent Pistons:
Meeks will never have the juice to be a lead ball handler, and as Stuart Smalley would say, that’s OK. One nice twist on this action from Stan Van Gundy: He’ll have Meeks rocket off a double screen from both Detroit big men, meaning that if Meeks can catch the ball and slice into the paint, there is no big man on the weak side of the floor to make a natural help rotation:
All hail our new Piston overlords.
9. Needlessly stressful saves
This says more about me than anything, but my blood pressure jumps when players risk tippy-toe saves on balls that are going to drift out of bounds and clearly went off the other team. Tony Allen might be the king of this, which makes sense, since he’s the king of basically every NBA high-wire act.
There are advantages to keeping the ball live. A team could seize a fast-break chance against a scrambled defense, or a key opponent substitute might be waiting to check in. But sometimes there is no edge at all — only potential regret.
10. Gordon Hayward’s leaner
Hayward has proved Utah (and Charlotte) right for betting on a bounce-back season. There are lots of variables at play — better coaching, better teammates, some regression to the mean after a terrible shooting season — but Hayward deserves credit for honing a crafty one-on-one scoring game.
Hayward doesn’t have blow-by speed, but his herky-jerky drives going both left and right get defenders just off-balance enough for Hayward to get a clean look. A personal favorite: a leaning pull-up jumper that Hayward uses after driving to his left, stopping on a dime, and reversing his body’s momentum so that he’s square to the basket:
Hayward has hit a sizzling 37-of-70 on isolation plays, per Synergy Sports. That’s one of the best marks in the league, and Hayward has managed it without coughing the ball up much. Utah’s offense has died with Hayward on the bench all season, but at least the Jazz can go forward knowing they have one nice wing centerpiece.