Thursday, May 22, 2008

Season Review: Al Horford

Previously: Joe Johnson, Josh Smith

Al Horford had an excellent rookie season, one that was as good as could have been realistically expected, but it’s still very difficult for me to imagine (barring injury) him not improving in his second season. WARNING: Optimism to follow.

His raw numbers would increase if the head coach next season simply refrains from overreacting to (in the first half) Horford’s second foul, (in the third quarter) Horford’s fourth foul, and (in the fourth quarter) Horford’s fifth foul. The only quality, healthy big man available to the Hawks throughout the year, Al fouled out of but one game last year. Despite both of those factors (his availability and his necessity) Horford was fifth on the team (if you include Mike Bibby, fourth if you do not) in minutes per game. (Josh Childress averaged even fewer minutes than Horford, but that’s a subject to be addressed in the next entry.)

I expect Horford's rate numbers to increase next season as well because of the variety of ways it makes sense to use Horford more centrally in the offense next season (Only Childress and Anthony Johnson had a lower usage rate* than Horford among Hawks who played significant minutes last season.) and to put him in more advantageous situations in general on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

*The percentage of a team’s possessions an individual player uses. Essentially individual (FGA + FTA + TO) divided by total team (FGA + FTA + TO) and adjusted for playing time.

Horford played center almost exclusively last year. The presence of either a healthy Zaza Pachulia or a newly acquired quality backup center on the roster would allow Horford to play the 4 when it would be advantageous for the Hawks to go with a bigger frontcourt tandem than Smith/Horford. When Dwight Howard's in town, for example. This flexibility/willingness to create mis-matches that challenge the opposition would presumably aid Horford defensively both in terms of limiting the number of fouls he commits and making the Hawks a better defensive rebounding* team (25th in the league last season), improving the latter would also increase the team's opportunities to run and thus improve the offense in general.

*Defensive rebounding is the early favorite in the category of "Things I'll Harp on During the 08-09 Season."

I contend that the poor design of the Hawks' offense (I refer to both the odd reluctance to push the ball up the court quickly and the half-court sets that did not seem to be designed in the full knowledge that the illegal defense rules were changed in 2001.) hampered Horford more than any other Hawk. Horford’s a good passer. Too often he got to demonstrate this skill only after grabbing an offensive rebound or in another non-structured segment of a possession. Good passing isn’t just about the passer. Useful, purposeful movement off the ball is also necessary and was in distressingly short supply last season. Horford himself rarely got the ball in a dangerous position on the move. A new offense and improved defensive rebounding would likely combine to increase the number and frequency of quality looks he receives in both half-court and transition situations.

Not that there aren't areas in which Horford can improve on his own. A fair number of the turnovers he committed were due to setting illegal screens. More often than that even, he set a screen in a manner that was certain to draw a referee's notice. His energy often outpaced his technique in that circumstance. When receiving the ball in the post however, thoughts of technique seemed to override his ability to make a move quickly. If he improves these weakness as successfully as he did his free throw shooting* his field goal attempts (certainly) and his field goal percentage (possibly) should increase as his turnovers decrease.

*Horford struggled to make free throws at Florida and early in his rookie season. I don’t think it was widely recognized (It certainly escaped my notice until the writing of this post.) that he finished the year as 73.1% free throw shooter. Horford’s free throw rate (FTM/FGA) was slightly above the league median. Improved footwork and a more dangerous team offense could give him more opportunities to draw foul shots he’s now more likely to convert.

I think it's two sides of the coin to argue whether Horford would more benefit from a new head coach than certain of his teammates or that's he has an established developmental advantage over Josh Smith and Marvin Williams because Horford spent most of the last four years playing for Billy Donovan rather than Mike Woodson. Either way, Al Horford has the ability to improve on his impressive rookie season should he be given the opportunity to do so.

Up Next: Josh Childress

Ballhype: hype it up!


Micah said...

When you get a chance, check out Horford's monthly splits on FT%. The last three months of the season, he was nails. I remember him not being a tremendous FT shooter at UF, but by the end of the season I felt more comfortable with him at the line than almost any other Hawk.

Bret LaGree said...

What Micah's talking about and other free throw notes cut from my post:

Horford pre-All Star Break FT%: 66.2
Horford post-All Star Break FT%: 84.1

Horford Feb. FT%: 92.3%
Horford Mar. FT%: 82.7%
Horford Apr. FT%: 77.8%

Plus he shot 74.1% from the line in the playoffs.

Horford shot 58.2%, 61.1%, and 64.4% from the line in his three seasons at Florida.

CoCo said...

Horford was fantastic and I really think he will provide that low post scoring presence we've desperately needed. I also think they need to bring in an established retired big man to work with him. Or, he needs to spend the summer working out with some proven vet. Either way I think his ceiling is extremely high and I hope they find a coach who can get the most out of him. I know Joe won't like it, but an inside out offense is much better than the 1 on 5 sets he wants to run.

Anonymous said...

The Wages of wins journal ( points out that, statistically, no Hawks veterans showed any significant improvement between last season and this season, outside of Anthony Johnson and Marvin Williams. They came to the conclusion that the main difference between this and the thirty win team the previous season was that we drafted Al Horford.

Any improvement at all from Al this season might just save us from Woodson's awful coaching.