Hawks' Horford still waiting on big-man help
POSTED: Oct 19, 2013 8:46 PM ET
Al Horford has matched up with heavier and taller centers for six years.
The center position has been good to Al Horford.
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He's earned two All-Star bids playing center. He earned his fortune and fame in the NBA playing there, though he was never projected to play it after starring as a power forward alongside Chicago Bulls All-Star center Joakim Noah on back-to-back championship teams at the University of Florida.
But when the Hawks picked Horford with the third pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, after Greg Oden and Kevin Durant came off the board, they already had a starting power forward in Josh Smith and a starting small forward in Marvin Williams. So in order for all of them to fit into the lineup and rotation, someone would have to make the sacrifice and play out of position.
The rookie Horford stepped up and helped the Hawks make the playoffs, where they put a first-round scare into the eventual champion Boston Celtics, under the assumption that things would change. In fact, after that first season, he was told that he wouldn't have to labor in the low-post against guys two and three inches and 30 and 40 pounds bigger than him any more.
Six straight playoff appearances later, Horford is still waiting on someone to deliver on that promise. The Hawks' previous regime never did locate a starting center capable of allowing Horford to move back to his more natural position. And a boat load of cap space ($34 million give or take a few bucks) wasn't enough to lure Dwight Howard home in free agency.
So Horford enters his seventh NBA season in the same mode he did his first, ready for whatever bumps and bruises come with playing center but hopeful it doesn't last forever. Only this time he'll do it with seasoned veterans like Paul Millsap and Elton Brand, themselves undersized power forwards .
"Yeah, you're right about that," said Horford, who watched free agency come and go without Hawks general manager Danny Ferry bringing in that starting center to help take the load off down low. "That's something that I did question when it didn't happen. It takes a toll on your body physically that outweigh you like that. But the way that they have portrayed it to me is we're trying to play faster, get up and down the floor and get the pick and roll movement going. It's not the ideal scenario for me, but I have to work with what I have and make the most of it."
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If Horford sounds a bit skeptical, it's with good reason. The Hawks are in the formative stages of one of the more challenging transitions of any team in the Eastern Conference. They are trying to rebuild on the fly, staying in the playoff mix while they do it, and completely change the culture and bones of their operation.
They wiped clean their core group from those six straight playoff appearances save for Horford and to a lesser extent point guard Jeff Teague. They have just three players on the roster this season listed at 6-10 or taller, Horford (6-foot-10, 250 pounds), and power forwards Pero Antic (6-foot-11, 240) and Gustavo Ayon (6-foot-10, 250). Even in a league where "small ball" has become the rage, that lack of size will put the Hawks at a decided disadvantage far too often.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer is well aware of that perception. But he's also confident that the style of play he is bringing with him from nearly two decades of work as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs and the personnel added will give Horford every opportunity to play to his strengths night in and night out.
"Our weaknesses are to be determined," Budenholzer said, pushing back on the conventional wisdom that the Hawks are going to be vulnerable up front. "That's what training camp and the preseason are for. We looked forward to working through anything that needs addressing but we feel good about the competitiveness of our group and the collective high basketball IQ of our group."
With the floor spread the way Budenholzer likes it and the Hawks getting up and down the floor the way he envisions, Horford won't have to worry taking the pounding he's taken in the past against bigger centers and even some power forwards who have clear size advantages over him.
Horford and Smith made a habit of using their speed, athleticism and versatility to routinely outplay center-power forward duos that held that size advantage over them. But they had chemistry and history together that does not yet exist between Horford and his new running mates.
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"We'll get there," Millsap said. "It'll take a little time but we'll learn each other's tendencies and get into a comfort zone working together and be fine. We've [all] been around the league long enough to know that you have to complement each other and learn how to be effective with the guys that are in the trenches with you. I've done it before, we all have. I'm not worried about that at all."
Truth be told, Millsap is every bit as tall and just as bulky as Horford. He'll be able to shift over and play some center, as will Brand, whose veteran savvy has helped him play significant minutes there throughout the latter stages of his career.
"There's no question," Horford said. "Paul is definitely skilled and even a guy that I might have underestimated like an Elton Brand, he's going to be really good for us if he stays healthy. And Paul is due to have a really good year. That's encouraging. My biggest thing is I'm going to try and take care of my body as best I can ... yeah, I was under the impression some changes were going to happen. They didn't happen. And I have to deal with it and adjust to this new style of play."
Horford has to do more than just adjust if the Hawks are going to avoid the lottery and remain among the Eastern Conference's playoff elite. He has to flourish in this new system and in this new style while trying overcome the same obstacles he has his entire career.
1. The Hawks don't have easy target Josh Smith to blame anymore when things go awry, on and off the court. It'll be interesting to see who takes the heat if things don't go well early on.
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2. Horford's best work often came on the receiving end of the two-man game with Smith. He'll have to generate his own offense more often now.
3. Gustavo Ayon could be a surprise player for the Hawks this season, filling in on the frontline rotation where Zaza Pachulia was a staple in recent years.
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