Jacob Eisenberg breaks down the Atlanta big man’s case for title of “league’s best center” at the moment.
Who is the best center in the NBA right now?
Let’s determine with a blind test of the best four centers in the league since the All-Star break.
Center A is averaging 14.4 points on 54% shooting, 14.3 rebounds, 0.8 assists, and 2.1 blocks in eight games.
Center B is averaging 15.8 points on 52% shooting, 8.3 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.4 blocks in eight games.
Center C is averaging 13.2 points on 51% shooting, 11.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 3.7 blocks in nine games.
Center D is averaging 23.8 points on 63% shooting, 11.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.0 blocks in nine games.
Now, consider that each of these centers plays strong individual and team defense and also stars for a team in the thick of the playoff hunt. Moreover, each of these centers has also been an All-Star at least once in their careers.
Which player do you take?
Sure, Center C’s defensive stats are impressive and Center B’s assist totals match the numbers of several starting point guards. However, as I imagine most will agree, Center D’s scoring and all-around dominance is overwhelming for this exercise.
Center A is Dwight Howard. While he has long been the consensus top center in the league, most would agree he has lost his grip on the title with his inconsistent play and team chemistry issues throughout the season.
Center B is Marc Gasol. Since Howard’s decline, many insiders have anointed Gasol as the new top center in the league. His overall court awareness is outstanding, and although his block totals are uninspiring, his overall size and presence on the defensive end makes him a contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
Center C is Joakim Noah. Coming off his first All-Star selection, Noah has notably improved on offense and plays as hard as anyone in the league every night. With his absurd 23-21-11 block performance on Feb. 28, fans are starting to recognize that Noah is legitimate.
Now, here comes the surprise:
Center D is Al Horford. Surprised to see Horford own such a dominant stat line? If you are, it is probably because Horford is a microcosm of his Atlanta Hawks team – consistently successful and even more consistently overlooked.
Of late, however, Horford has been more than just “successful” and “overlooked” – he has been downright dominant and ignored. With 20-plus points in 10 of his past 11 games, Horford is playing the best basketball of his life.
Think about it: How many centers in the league are consistently trusted to start his team’s fast break after a rebound? How many of those also are considered automatic shooters from 15 feet? If any remain, how many of those are not yet in their primes? Any besides Horford?
When you factor in Horford’s tremendous locker room presence and on-court intensity, it is clear that he deserves more consideration as the league’s best center.
“The only thing different that I’m seeing is that he is really playing within himself on everything that he’s doing,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “There is no hesitation now when he gets the ball on the offensive end, particularly on the pick-and-roll. He’s looking for his shot and he’s being a bit more aggressive.”
For a team that has dealt with the losses of Joe Johnson’s scoring through an offseason trade and Lou Williams’ scoring through a season-ending ACL tear, Horford’s production has been indispensable for the Hawks (34-26).
“I think that we are playing through me a lot more as a team. I am having the ball a lot and I’m just making plays,” noted Horford. “I feel like I am in a good offensive rhythm right now.”
That’s a severe understatement. Consider this: While Tyson Chandler leads the NBA in field-goal percentage at nearly 65 percent, he scores all of his baskets exclusively from put-backs and alley-oops. Horford, on the other hand, is shooting 63 percent from the field since the break, with most of his baskets coming from mid-range.
In fact, for the season, only leading MVP candidate LeBron James has shot more efficiently at as high a volume as Horford.
“He’s playing the way we know he’s capable of playing,” Hawks forward Josh Smith said. “He’s doing a great job. He’s always been a consistent and efficient player on the offensive end. He is a great passer and now he has that 15-foot jump shot down-pat.”
Horford is playing so well at center that it is hard to remember that he is technically not playing his natural position. At the trade deadline, Hawks GM Danny Ferry made it known that he was interested in acquiring a center to allow Horford to slide back to his college position of power forward.
However, in games this season in which Zaza Pachulia has started at center and Horford has moved to power forward, Horford’s all-around numbers are actually slightly worse. With rosters increasingly moving away from the traditional big-man rotations and Horford consistently progressing with his post game, Ferry may want to keep Horford right where he is.
Miami’s success with slender Chris Bosh at center has made it apparent that traditional big men are not as necessary as they once were.
“In the East, we can get away with playing Al at the center position,” Hawks guard Deshawn Stevenson said. “He does an awesome job of scoring at center and he’s a mismatch there on both sides.”
In fact, metrically speaking, Horford’s mismatch is evidenced as he accompanies Brook Lopez, Al Jefferson, and J.J. Hickson as the only four starting centers with a PER over 20.0. In Estimated Wins Added – another metric stat gaging value – Horford and Lopez are the only two pivots with over 10 wins added for their respective teams.
When you consider that Horford is significantly more proficient on the defensive end than
Lopez, it is worth noting that his gaudy metric numbers actually ignore some of his greatest attributes: tenacity and hustle.
“He’s been really active defensively which is getting his offensive game going,” Drew said.
“Spectacular,” Hawks guard Devin Harris said. “He’s been spectacular. That is all I have to say.”
Because it seems that Horford has been among the league’s better big men for years, it is easy to forget he is 26 years old and just reaching his prime. Despite playing in the NBA a full season longer than Gasol, Horford is actually a year-and-a-half younger than him and more than a year younger than former Florida teammate Noah.
With Josh Smith’s possible free agency departure looming this summer, Horford is tacitly assuming a bigger leadership role for the Hawks.
“I’m starting to hear him be more vocal,” Drew said. “As a coach, I always embrace when my players are vocal in the right way, especially out on the floor. He is a guy the players respect and look up to.
“Certainly his role, as far as being one of our leaders, is huge. If we are going to take that next step, it will because of a guy like him stepping to the forefront and leading our ball club.”
With Horford locked up until 2016 for a relative bargain of $12 million per season, he very well may be the most valuable asset in the entire NBA. For an Atlanta organization consumed with questions about its future, Horford’s emergence as the leader on and off the court for the long term is the only sure thing.
“Becoming the leader has just kind of happened,” admitted Horford. “When I have something to say, I will say it to our guys. With more experience and time under my belt, I’m speaking out a little bit more. The only thing I want from the guys is to come out here and play hard, especially with defense. We have enough talent here offensively that I know we can play with anyone.”
Originally published on Sheridanhoops.com on March 9, 2013