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.