Sunday, June 12, 2011

2010-11 Season Review: Al Horford

Previously: Rick Sund, Larry Drew

The frustration felt and criticism expressed as a result of Al Horford's inability to score consistently against Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls in Atlanta's second-round playoff series loss furthers the notion (one supported both by eyes and data) that Horford has emerged as the team's best player. Following a disappointing, if possibly explicable, post-season performance and an outstanding regular season that reinforced Horford's defensive aptitude and versatility and saw him take on larger, albeit far more perimeter-oriented, role in the offense without sacrificing efficiency, it's a fair question as to whether Horford is the team's best player purely because of the abundance of his talents or because the 2010-11 Atlanta Hawks were just a 44-win team.

The playoff series against Chicago functions as a useful microcosm of the relationship between Horford's talent level and his environment. Al Horford's offensive skills are not of the particular sort or magnitude necessary to score consistently in isolation against a defender as gifted* as Joakim Noah. At least, they're not when matched against a defender as gifted as Noah in the larger context of the lack of off-the-ball movement from which Atlanta typically suffers, the lack of shooters that limits the usefulness of Atlanta's efforts to spread the floor and the excellence of Chicago's team defense.

*That Horford struggled against Ryan Anderson or Brandon Bass (and Orlando's good, but not as good as Chicago's, team defense) in the first-round series is less explicable. Unless the sprained ankle Horford suffered on March 11th in Chicago limited him more than he let on. Prior to the ankle sprain, Horford was averaging 16.2 points and 10.1 rebounds (including 2.7 offensive rebounds) per 36 minutes. For the rest of the regular season, he averaged 13.6 points and 7.7 rebounds (including 1.5 offensive rebounds) per 36 minutes. In the playoffs, Horford's scoring dropped further, to 10.5 points per 36 minutes.

Just as Mike Woodson too often made it easy for opponents to defend Joe Johnson in past playoff series, Larry Drew too often made it easy for Chicago to defend Horford on the block. That neither Johnson nor Horford are apt to make a quick, effective move upon receiving the ball below the free throw line only exacerbates systemic flaws such as having non-respected shooters like Josh Smith, Jeff Teague or Marvin Williams spotting up on the weak side. It's likely not a coincidence that Horford's two best offensive games against the Bulls in the playoffs came in the two games (Game 1 and Game 4) that featured the most ball and player movement from the Hawks. Those were also Joe Johnson's best offensive games in the series.

Though Horford still didn't post a usage rate* of 20% this season, his offensive role increased by more than 10% over 2009-10 without sacrificing any efficiency. It's a fair criticism that Horford increased his role by more than doubling the number of 16-23' jump shots he attempted per game while taking almost one fewer free throw per game. It's a fair question as to whether the dramatic increase of long two-point jump shots from Horford was, in this offense, simply evidence of him demanding the ball in a position he could realistically expect to receive it.

Across the league, 60% of long two-point jumpers are assisted. Generally, big men have more of their long jumpers assisted than do guards, but 92.5% of Horford's 16-23' jumpers were assisted**, suggesting that he took the vast majority of these shots within the context of the offense. That, later in the season, the Hawks ran plays that involved screens set for the purpose of Horford running curls off them to create open catch-and-shoot opportunities lends further credence to this interpretation.

Though the least efficient shot in basketball, the long two-point jumpers from Horford didn't necessarily hurt Atlanta's offense. He made 53% of those long jumpers, the best mark in the league of anybody who attempted more than 25 shots from that range. Horford attempted 373 such shots.

*Let's also keep in mind that Basketball-Reference's calculation of usage does not give partial credit for assists (about which, more below) so Horford's increased role in the offense is likely understated slightly by this measure. In contrast: John Hollinger's usage rate for Horford through the years.

**Comparisons from 16-23 feet: Josh Smith, 85.3% of 328 attempts assisted; Dirk Nowitzki, 81.4% of 460 attempts assisted; Amare Stoudemire, 63.8% of 424 attempts assisted; LaMarcus Aldridge, 82.1% of 379 attempts assisted; Luis Scola 93.1% of 364 attempts assisted; Kevin Garnett, 89.7% of 351 attempts assisted; David West, 85.6% of 353 attempts assisted.

Though Horford has made more than half of his long two-point jumpers over the past two seasons, it's probably not in the team's best interest for them to rely on Horford making jump shots at a higher percentage than Dirk Nowitzki for the bulk of his scoring production. Horford certainly needs to improve his post game, not just to diversify his offensive attack but also to get to the line more often to take more consistent advantage of his pure shooting stroke and, in an ideal world, to draw a double-team consistently enough to take greater advantage of his passing ability.

Horford's assist rate, whether measured per minute played or per individual possession used, exploded last season despite his inability to draw a double team and about 40% of his field goal attempts coming as spot-up shooter. A serious percentage of Horford's assists seem to derive from either offensive rebounds or his willingness to push the ball up the floor following a defensive rebound. If Horford's shots primarily come from within the offense's design, his productive passes primarily come from outside that design. An improved, or at least more diverse, offensive design could create the opportunity for Horford to improve simultaneously as a finisher and a creator.

Al Horford doesn't have to get any better to be a very good offensive player but, through a combination of self-improvement (refining his post play) and potential changes to team construction (Jeff Teague's dribble penetration, Josh Smith drawing defensive attention on the block, playing floor-stretching shooters, rather than Marvin Williams and Jamal Crawford, at the 2 and 3 to get the ball to Horford on the block more often, decrease the defensive attention he draws there and increase his passing options) he could, conceivably, become even better.

Combined with his defensive* versatility, Horford, as is, is good enough to build an interesting and effective NBA team around. Given that the 25-year-old Horford could still improve and the reasonableness of his contract, it's not out of the realm of possibility that an championship contender could be built around him. That the organization for which he plays seems equal parts disinterested in and incapable of doing so has as little to do with Horford the player as Joe Johnson's ridiculous contract has to do with his value as a player.

*I'll reiterate what I wrote about his defense at this time last year:
I'm confident that Horford is an above average defender but I think it's possible that his overall defensive contributions are somewhat similar to Joe Johnson's scoring: more impressive for the circumstances through which they occur than in absolute value. Given a more reasonable defensive brief, it's not inconceivable that Horford (already the superior defensive rebounder) could challenge Josh Smith as the team's best defender.


Unknown said...

You know I appreciate your basketball knowledge and reasoning, so I think much of what you say is on point, but here's where we depart in agreement - I can't bring myself to see Horford as a player that the Hawks can build a championship basketball team around. He's a good young forward and as long as he's at BEST your 2nd best player (preferably your 3rd best) - this team is never going to be that good. He's a good (not on board with very good) - very good would mean he's regularly dropping 20pts.

So, I understand that we like Al, but he's just not that elite to me. Definitely a guy you want, but not a guy I think will ever attain superstar status (or even has the talent to get there).

Bret LaGree said...

I think it's possible that Horford can't create enough shots for himself to regularly drop 20 points a game but I'd like to see him given a chance to be a first or second option for a season before deciding it. It's impossible to average that many points with as few touches as Horford gets.

The most any player has scored per game with a usage rate below 20% in the modern era is 18.5.

Among guys with a usage rate below 20%, Horford was fourth in the league in PPG last season, trailing only Ray Allen (16.5 PPG), Dorell Wright and Danilo Gallinari. Obviously, all three of those guys are benefiting, scoring-wise, from so many of their possessions being used on three-point shots.

Al averaged 15.3 points a game (even with his late season swoon) and averaged more assists per game than any of those perimeter players. As is (and counting defense) he's a very good second-best player on any non-Miami team in the league.

Besides, even if he isn't a guy you can build around I'd like, just once, for this organization to ask more of someone rather than settling for what they can do easily.

Buddy Grizzard said...

Come to think of it, although many Hawks fans are up in arms at the idea of Horford working this summer to extend his range, I think it could help him tremendously. If he's the best long 2-point shooter in the league, why not extend his range and reap the benefit of the increased efficiency of the three?

Obviously you'd like to see him bulk up and improve as an interior defender. Obviously he needs to work on his handle so he can get to the basket more easily (see Dirk consistently going right at Miami defenders off the dribble).

Others may think Al has reached his ceiling but I'm optimistic about his ability to elevate his game. I'm also encouraged by the effect Josh Smith's impending contract season will have on his attitude. And Teague pushing the ball may be the perfect antidote to Joe Johnson's ball stopping. I see the Hawks as a team on the rise.

bobthebuilder112345 said...

ATL_Hawk_Luv, you make an interesting argument regarding Horford, but I feel like the argument lacks clout and any type of convincing analytic statistics. First off, saying that "very good would mean that [Horford] is regularly dropping 20 pts" is a completely ridiculous argument by itself. Scoring, although highly over-praised by the naive media in today's NBA, is only one portion of the game, and as Jamal Crawford himself proves, being an elite scorer does not make you a great or even a "very good" player by itself. A very large number of players in this league could drop 20 pts on a regular basis if given enough opportunities. That is really a moot point. If they are scoring 20 without disrupting a team offense and doing so with respectable efficiency (at least 45% shooting or better), then I will give them some credit. However, I think it's very silly to base a player's worth solely upon how many points he/she can score. There's so much more to the game than that.

With Horford, in particular, it's not necessarily about how many points he scores because he is capable of affecting the game in virtually all facets (similar to Josh Smith, although much more disciplined). Horford is what you call a "complete" player due to those reasons. A player can score less than 10 points and still dominate the game through his passing, rebounding, defense, etc. It's not all about scoring.

Based upon stats, I have to agree with Bret that it's feasible for a championship-caliber team to be built around someone like Horford as long as the team has the correct personnel and plays a fitting style. Now, I'm not saying Horford shouldn't score the ball, but that doesn't necessarily have to be his strongest skill, especially if the makeup of the team involved adept perimeter or post-scorers. Horford may never become an elite scorer, but to be a very good or great player, I don't think he would need to be. Horford has enough other skills for him to eventually dominate games regularly. He's already the best passing big man in the game (statistically), he's one of the top rebounders in the game, he's one of the most efficient scorers in the game and is developing a well-rounded offensive game (assuming he devotes some time to his post game and his driving ability), he's one of the most versatile defenders for a big man, and he's also one of the most disciplined and team-oriented players in the NBA. He has a lot of great qualities that indicate that he could potentially become great someday, especially in the right system. Based upon overall stats and things like Hollinger's PER, Horford is already among the upper echelon of NBA players, and unless he is given the opportunity to have a larger role on a team and the stats prove otherwise, I see no reason why we shouldn't believe what Bret is saying in this article.

Najeh Davenpoop said...

ATL Hawk Luv makes some good points. Al is a very good player. He's also a great example of the limitations of statistics. Statistics show that he is an elite player. But there is no advanced stat that normalizes for the role a given player plays on a team, that will show what Al (or Josh, or Teague) would be if he bore the responsibility for being the go-to offensive player on the team.

Joe had a 53.6% eFG as the 4th option on the Suns the year before he came to Atlanta. He hasn't approached that since then as the first option. I would imagine if the offense was run through Al -- who, for all his talents, still has no go-to low post move and doesn't have the level of confidence in his face up game that would nearly be commensurate to his ability in that area -- his offensive efficiency would probably decrease pretty significantly.

Unfortunately, there is no handy stat that I can use to back that up (that I know of). All I can use are my eyes, which see Al struggle to score against players like Brandon Bass in one on one situations because of a combination of the limitations I mentioned above. Now, maybe the ankle contributed to that, but he hasn't exactly shown an ability to consistently score in one on one situations even when healthy, and like you point out yourself he hasn't shown an ability to consistently draw a double team, which is something pretty much every elite offensive player in the league is capable of doing.

None of that is to say he can't develop a go-to low post move or develop confidence in his already very good face-up skills or become a better help defender, all areas in which he needs work. But to anoint him as a potential centerpiece of a championship contender right now, while all of those still remain major question marks, is premature. Put it this way -- I could make a very similar and pretty convincing argument that if Josh learns how to dribble and finish with his right hand and improves the efficiency and selection of his jump shot, he can be a centerpiece of a championship contender, but that doesn't mean he's close to actually being that.

Bret LaGree said...

Najeh --

I think you and I are largely in agreement. If there's one thing I'd add to clarify my position, it's that the Hawks need to give Horford a chance to use more than 20% of the team's possessions to see whether they have an outstanding complementary player or a true building-block for an elite team.

It would also be just as heartening to see the organization demand Horford improve his post game as it would to see the organization demand that they run so many plays for Josh Smith in the post that he doesn't have a chance to drift on the perimeter.

However, such behavior, which admittedly might expose limitations as much as it would create improvements seems antithetical to the organization's nature.

Horford and Smith (as I'll discuss in the next post) are, in my opinion, too good for the organization (or themselves) to settle for being pretty good without ever taking the plunge to see if they can be great.