Even though he hasn't made an All-Star Game since 2011, the Atlanta Hawks center has a versatile skill set possessed by very few big men in the league.
Horford's team missed him sorely last year after a torn right pectoral ended his season in December. With its star center in the lineup, Atlanta won 16 games and lost 13. But with him out, the Hawks were only 22-31 and stumbled into the Eastern Conference's No. 8 slot.
Unfortunately, Horford's shoulder troubles last year were not an isolated incident. He tore his left pectoral muscle in 2011-12, keeping him out of 55 regular-season games.
But the center believes he should be good to go for training camp this fall, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore.
If Horford is completely healthy for the duration of the 2014-15, the Hawks will go from first-round doormats to a legitimate conference contender.
Now, let's find out why.
How Much Did Horford Produce Last Year?
In 2013-14, Al Horford posted career highs in points (18.6) and blocks (1.5) per game, as well as field-goal percentage (56.7) and player efficiency rating (22.0). His numbers put him on par with every All-Star big man in the Eastern Conference, including his own teammate, Paul Millsap.
|Al Horford vs. 2014 Eastern Conference All-Star Big Men|
|Statistics compiled from Sports-Reference.com|
From a pure production standpoint, getting Horford back will be a huge upgrade from what the Hawks got at the starting center position to finish last season. Pero Antic, Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon each began games at the 5 for Atlanta in 2013-14, but none of them averaged more than seven points or five rebounds per game.
The Hawks won't have to deal with starting a bench-level player at the center position if Horford is healthy in 2014-15 and therefore won't have a real weak link in their first string. Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Millsap and Horford are all average or better-than-average players at their respective positions.
How Does Horford Impact the Hawks On Offense and Defense?
Note the players in the above table. Each one of them (except for Millsap, of course) played for a team that was one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference in 2013-14.
In almost every case, the best teams in the NBA have at least one All-Star-level player on the interior, and a healthy Horford gives the Hawks two.
Horford also has a unique skill set that fits Atlanta perfectly on both ends of the floor.
The Hawks' offense relies on screen action and frequent ball movement. But without good floor-spacing, it's hard for an offense heavy on ball movement to thrive.
Part of what makes the 28-year-old center so special is his ability to take the most inefficient shot in basketball and make it a lethal offensive weapon. Horford nailed a remarkable 49.6 percent of his long twos (shots from 16 feet to the three-point line) last year. More than one-third of his field-goal attempts came from that area, often on pick-and-pop plays.
If that seems like no big deal, think again.
Horford's soft touch from mid-range forces rim-protecting big men to leave their comfort zone in the paint to ensure the Hawks don't get two points on a wide-open jump shot. Horford can hit the shot in big moments against good defense, too, as shown by the below game-winner against the Dallas Mavericks and his buzzer-beater against the Washington Wizards (both highlights courtesy of YouTube).
And if Horford is covered too tightly, so what? He's a great passer for a big man, with an average of 2.6 assists per game over his career.
Defensively, Horford is not a stopper by any means. He is, however, a decent defender with good fundamentals. According to ESPN.com, Horford would've placed No. 4 in blocks per foul last season (0.79), trailing only Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka. The ability to avoid fouls is a trait none of the Hawks' other centers possessed in the team's most recent campaign. Antic, Brand and Ayon all averaged at least 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes in 2013-14.
Horford's scoring touch from anywhere inside the three-point line and heady defense will require adjustments from opponents that didn't have to be made most of last season.
How Much Can a Healthy Horford Improve the Hawks?
Quite simply, a lot.
With Horford on the court in 2013-14, the Hawks outscored their opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions, according to 82games.com. When Horford sat, Atlanta's efficiency differential was negative-1.9 points per 100 possessions. The former differential was better than all but three Eastern Conference teams (the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors).
Considering how much Teague and Millsap grew as players after Horford injured himself last season, the Hawks should have a legitimate Big Three in 2014-15. The trio, each of whom is an All-Star candidate, is perhaps only exceeded in the East by LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With the Hawks' young core and a budding mastermind like head coach Mike Budenholzer on the sidelines, Atlanta is a lock for the playoffs and has the potential to be the third-best team in the Eastern Conference with a healthy Horford in 2014-15.
Note: All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise indicated.