Al Horford Is the Atlanta Hawks' Biggest Off-Season Acquisition
The Hawks didn’t exactly set the world on fire last season, even before Horford was lost for the year with a torn pectoral muscle. When Al went down on the day after Christmas, the Hawks were 16-13. Not exactly the 1996 Bulls, but in the pitiful East, that had them solidly entrenched as the third seed. By all accounts, they were holding their own as they adjusted to playing a new system under coach Mike Budenholzer, ranking in or right outside of the top third in offensive, defensive and net ratings.
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Things got flipped on their head once Horford went down. On top of Horford occupying the injured list, nearly every Hawk suffered at least brief periods of injury. Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antic and others all missed stretches of time, submarining a promising season. From being a shoo-in for the playoffs to just barely squeaking in, the Hawks took a huge tumble. They lost eight in a row, won a game and then lost six more in a row, followed by another six-game skid. After holding off the Knicks and Cavs, the Hawks eventually did squeak in, pushing the Pacers to seven games before bowing out.
With Horford, it’s unlikely the Hawks would have been matched up against the Pacers in the first round to begin with. Horford isn’t the long-range bomber that his replacement in the starting lineup, Antic, is, but he still has a versatile offensive game. His shot chart from his 29 games last season is a thing of beauty, with lots of green all over the court. While 45 percent of his attempts came at the rim, the rest were sprayed all over the court.
Horford has good range for a big man. More than half of his shots last season (215 of 420) came on jumpers, and he hit on 48.4 percent of them. Paired with another smooth-shooting big in Millsap, who blossomed into an All-Star in 2014, and the Hawks had a potent duo up front. Still, the Hawks didn’t exactly fall off a cliff offensively. Instead, where they most missed Horford’s presence was on defense.
He was easily the best rim protector in the ATL, allowing just 47.8 percent shooting while facing 7.1 attempts per game at the hoop. Antic was the only other big that held opponents under 50 percent, per NBA.com’s player tracking, but didn’t spend anywhere near as much time there, defending just 4.5 shots per game there. In fact, Horford ranked ninth in field goal percentage allowed among all players who faced at least 7.1 attempts per game at the rim, and two of those players appeared in even fewer games than Horford. That’s as good as three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, and better than DeAndre Jordan.
Despite being undersize for a center, Horford has been manning the middle for Atlanta admirably for several seasons. Horford only played a quarter of the Hawks’ minutes last season, but their defensive rating was five points better (102.7 to 107.6) with him on the floor.
As long as Horford is healthy, the Hawks should see their defense stabilize next season. Sefolosha has had a defensive rating lower than 105 in four of his last five seasons in Oklahoma City. If Teague can find a way to navigate around the defensive end, the Hawks will be in much better shape.
It’s not often that a playoff team gets to add an All-Star into the fold. The Hawks get to do that this coming season. Together with Antic and Millsap, who added a whole new perimeter dynamic to his game that he rarely flashed in Utah, the Hawks have the rare trio of big men who can stretch out a defense. After Teague went nuclear on the Pacers for several games during the playoffs, the Hawks can certainly hope he’ll be improved next season. With the Heat decimated by the loss of LeBron, the Southeast Division is going to be wide open. With a pair of All-Stars, Atlanta will be right there vying for the top.