Undersized. Natural power forward. Not a true center.
Those are probably the three most common caveats you’ve heard when people describe Al Horford. I think Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said it best however, when he said that he didn’t know what Horford was (by definition of a specific position), other than a heck of a player, and a load to deal with in the paint. Doc is right, and it’s doubtful that any coach or opposing player would disagree. Horford is a pivot man. He is by necessity, because the Hawks need him to be. He is because he has the heart to be. He just plain is. Does it really matter what we call him, or what position he seems to fit the most? Here, in his third year, Horford has become an all-star. Is this a one-time thing, or should we expect to see many more selections?
Why Not Lee or Lopez?
Hard not to be a homer here, but I’ll give it a try. David Lee’s numbers are as close to 20 and 10 as you can manage without it being official. Brook Lopez is right behind him in that segment. So how do they get snubbed, when their rebounding and scoring numbers are better than Al Horford’s? Well, we do have to remember that the coaches are voting for the all-star reserves. As good as Lee’s numbers are, he’s on a losing team. That goes double for Brook Lopez. But with the coaches, maybe that takes a back seat to something else. Like, how much respect they have for these players. How much they like them.
Lee has been a good rebounder for his entire career. A scorer? Not so much. Why? Because he’s never been the focal point of the offense. Nobody ever really took the time to find a way to take advantage of a guy who was capable of this type of efficiency. That is, until Mike D’Antoni came along. D’Antoni’s system allows Lee to rebound like he normally does, but it also called for Lee to get a lot more touches. To illustrate the point, Lee has taken 643 shots so far this year. That’s a far cry from the 618 TOTAL that he took in 2007-2008. So is his offensive production a result of the sudden addition and refinement of a repertoire of offensive go-to moves, or is Lee benefitting from the fact that he’s the team’s only serious rebounder (offensive boards mean shot opportunities as well), and his coach’s system? In the end, what precisely does Lee mean to his team? If he’s out, is there something he does that they simply cannot replace? Is there something that he does that truly drives his team to win (whey they DO win)? Tough questions, and none are to suggest that David Lee is not important to his team. The question is one of true value.
Brook Lopez, in my opinion, finds himself in much the same place that Kevin Durant found himself . As in, a very good player on a very bad team. Lopez has all the tools. He’s got the size (7-footer). He has good footwork and back-to-the-basket skills. He rebounds. He defends. He is also the focal point of his team’s offense. He takes more shots than anybody else. However, of all the players on the roster, Lopez is the only one to play in all 44 games of the season so far. He’s also the only starter to actually start every game he’s played in. Lopez is a lonely guy. You could say he can’t be replaced, but you could also say that there would be next to no difference if he were playing or not. Why? The Nets are losing all the time. Lopez is good, and he will get better. He will get named to all-star teams. But right now, he’s not good enough to do two things: One, make his teammates better. And two, make his team competitive from night to night.
The all-star game selections will always be part popularity game, whether it’s the fans voting the starters in, or the coaches voting in the reserves. Coaches like and respect certain things, and theirs is a perspective different than that of the fans in a number of ways. I truly believe that the coaches respect Al Horford and his value, more than they currently do Lee or Lopez. And why not? Al Horford is the undersized, non-traditional pivot man for a team that is top three in the East. If I could, I’d ask coaches who they gameplan more for: Horford, Lee, or Lopez. I’d ask players who they look for a tougher game from: Horford, Lee, or Lopez?
Josh Smith Gets the Snub
I’m not going to be silly and say I knew this was coming. However, I am going to say that I’m not surprised. I really wanted to see both Josh and Al get the nod as first-time all-stars, but I figured the Hawks just aren’t NBA darlings in the traditional sense. Remember when the Pistons were winning? They had three all-stars if I’m not mistaken. Remember the Celtics in 2007-2008? Three all-stars again. Not to take anything away from those teams and their respective players, but I can’t say it enough: this whole thing is saturated in popularity contest, to a point. Keep that in mind, as I’ll present it from a different point of view, one you may not find all that pleasant, but may hold a kernel of truth all the same.
Josh Smith has been a great player for the Hawks this season, truly taking his game to another level. At a brief glance, any outsider who didn’t pay much attention to the game would probably disagree. After all, Smith has gone down in scoring this year (15.1 ppg) from last year (15.6), and the year before (17.2). On the flip side, his turnovers have decreased, his field goal percentage has increased, and his rebounds have gone back up a bit. Perhaps more significant has been his assist average. Smith always seemed to have a knack for making a good pass here and there, but all too often he would get himself in a bad position to send one, or he’d try to force one. This season, Josh is averaging roughly 4 assists per game, and is in much better control of himself overall.
Smith is all over the court, and has become a middle linebacker/free safety on defense, cleaning up all kinds of mistakes and intimidating the opposition. His value to this team is extremely high. Some say that as Smith goes, so do the Hawks. There are three things that I believe held him back from an all-star bid. Scoring average, scoring versatility, and….popularity. Well, might as well make it four by adding rebounding. Three of these things are related in some ways, while a fourth is not. Can you guess which one? Smith’s value can’t be measured solely by his stats, but at the same time, those stats still tell a tale. Let’s start with rebounding. Forwards Chris Bosh and Gerald Wallace, who did get all-star bids, both average more than 11 rebounds per game, putting them ahead of Smith by more than 2.5 per game. That’s a significant difference, but it might be overlooked if not for the scoring differential. Smith is shooting a career high from the field, but it’s not enough to make a favorable comparison with Wallace and Bosh. At only 15.1 points per game, Smith is out-performed by Wallace (18.6) and blown away by Bosh (23.9). And I think that this is due, in part to a lack of scoring versatility. Bosh and Wallace can both hit the jumper on a regular basis, as needed. Smith cannot, at least not yet. That, and the Hawks are versatile enough on offense that Smith is not required to produce a whole lot. Between the two, Smith gets far fewer touches than Bosh, and is less efficient than Wallace.
Last but not least, there is popularity. The stats alone are hard to overcome. And while intangibles carry weight, they mean different things to different people. Smith is a mercurial talent to seems to only now be settling into his role and his groove. He still has room to grow. He still has room to mature. Wallace and Bosh have already been there, and neither one had some of the rocky moments that Smith had. Officials probably don’t have any particular love for Smith’s whiny, pouty ways. Would it be a strange idea to suggest that coaches don’t either? What if Smith’s scoring was on part with Wallace’s? What if he was a better rebounder? The numbers always help, and they may indeed be the backbone of these decisions. And I’m not suggesting that Smith didn’t make the all-star team because he is not as well liked. But half a season of improved maturity and team play do not an all-star make. Smith will get there if he keeps his mind focused. He certainly has the talent. He may not score like Bosh does. But he can definitely show himself to be better than Wallace. And he can have a greater effect on the game than both. He just has to keep working, and keep maturing.
Was Josh Smith robbed? Depends on who you are, and if you’re comparing him to other forwards. I think he’s right on the brink of making it. Is it fair to compare him with teammate Al Horford when talking all-star bids? Maybe, maybe not. The two are linked, but they are also being asked to play two different positions and to do different things. What does Smith have to do to make the all-star team next season?