NEW YORK - In a league where paying your dues is a tradition scratched deep into the heart of every player and coach to pass through the NBA, what I’m about to say is nothing short of heresy.
But it’s time for the Hawks to start following Al Horford.
He’s emerged as the true leader of this team, in his words and his actions.
I don’t care that he’s only in his second season (and playing marvelous basketball with the Hawks’ playoff fate on the line every night).
I don’t care that he’s the starter with the least amount of NBA experience.
None of that matters when he’s the player that displays the most organic leadership quality every night.
And go ahead and tell me you haven’t noticed (watch our for that rolled up magazine that’s going to hit you across the back of the head right about now!) so I can call you a liar.
You know it, too.
It was on full display Wednesday night, when Horford’s 20 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks only told part of the story.
You probably didn’t see when Horford gathered his teammates near midcourt last night in the second half, when they were on the brink of being run off the floor at Madison Square Garden by the Knicks, and finally said what needed to be said.
He implored them to stop shooting jumpers and to start attacking the rim so they could finish a comeback that started moments earlier with a Josh Smith 3-pointer and then another big basket from Mike Bibby (I know they didn’t listen in the end, but at least the kid said it out loud).
And I know you didn’t see when Horford’s subtle move when Smith was in the midst of being yanked in and out of the game with flu symptoms (in his defense, he really was sick and had to be attended to by a doctor after the game, but I also think Hawks coach Mike Woodson had grown sick of watching Smith fail to block out and keep his man off the glass one too many times) and was sitting two seats away from a timeout huddle, it was Horford that looked over and motioned for him to join the rest of the team.
As Smith moved closer Horford gestured again for him to [and I was reading lips] “get in here. We need you.”
Minutes later Smith drained that jumper that helped initiate the Hawks’ last-ditch comeback effort.
Do you think anyone else even lifted a finger to push Smith back into the mix the way Horford did?
Trust me, they didn’t.
Horford realizes, even if others don’t, that the Hawks aren’t going to dig their way out of their current uneven rut with just one man holding the shovel. It’s going to take all of them.
His championship pedigree affords him a view of things that the rest of us can only imagine. Face it, Horford’s the only guy on this roster that’s been a part of multiple championship teams. So he’s got experience all his elders (coaches and players in this instance) simply do not.
And at 34-27 with Miami, Detroit and Philly all chasing you, it might not be a bad idea to listen to what the young fella has to say every now and then.
I’ve yet to see him cross the line in any way, but particularly in terms of trying to lead. In fact, I think he’s suppressed his natural leadership instincts because he knows some guys just aren’t going to listen. But if ever there was a time to shed that inhibition and do what you know has to be done, that time is now.
The Hawks can’t afford any more lapses like the one they suffered against the Knicks. Charlotte will be just as eager to burst the Hawks’ bubble Friday night. And then comes that home stand, starting with Detroit Saturday, that either makes or breaks this team’s playoff seeding.
When Horford was out for 12 games with a knee injury I had folks arguing me down that he wasn’t the backbone of this team and that too many people overestimated his worth. I disagreed then and I’m telling you now that even if he isn’t the Hawks’ best or most talented player, he is by far their most important player.
Because he’s clear about what his role is, what he has to do every night and how to go about getting that job done. He’ll have his struggles like anyone else from night to night. But you won’t ever have to worry about his motives or whether or not he’s giving every single drop of energy for the greater good.
That kind of focus, especially from a guy still in the infant stage of his NBA career, is impressive.
And let’s be real clear here, there’s no rule that says the leader of this or any team has to be the guy making the most money, the guy with the most talent, the guy with the biggest mouth, the guy with the ball in his hands the most or the guy who is designated as the “team leader.”
Sometimes “the guy” is the one that simply leads without any strings attached.
And sometimes that guy is the new kid or the young buck.
Sometimes that guy doesn’t have an evil or malicious bone in his body.
Sometimes that guy is just the guy with the biggest heart, the greatest desire to win and the temperament to handle anything that’s thrown his way – from friends and foes alike.
Sometimes he’s just a natural.
Hawks fans meet Al Horford, the man who will lead this team (if they will allow him).