When we debate and deliberate over the nature of conventional positions and their obvious anomalies (LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, etc.), Al Horford is rarely a name that drives the conversation. Yet, as Bret LaGree pointed out in a video at Hoopinion, Horford may somehow be the Hawks’ best interior and perimeter defender, their strongest post scorer and one of their finest passers. Horford has such a weird combination of offensive and defensive skills that he should have been a part of the positional discussions all along, and yet he’s widely regarded as a proper power forward playing out of position at center.
That said, how weird is it that a team would rely on their power forward to defend Steve Nash for significant portions of a game? And how often do we see that very same player defend Dwight Howard the very next day? Horford is an incredibly versatile defensive prospect with a wide variety of offensive skills, and yet on this particular team, his shot selection is bizarrely similar to that of a typical center.
Yet Horford isn’t a center, at least not in the archetypal sense. For every hook and counter he hits a face up jumper and defends an opposing perimeter player. He’s not a power forward either, for the very same reason. Does that make Horford deserving of some maligned “tweener” label? Or can we just acknowledge that players like Horford don’t have to fit neatly into those five boxes for the sake of convenience?
From an offensive standpoint, Horford is both center and power forward. Defensively, he’s more important than either position. Al rarely gets his due because of Josh Smith’s out-of-control defensive reputation and the perception that Joe Johnson has retained his defensive adequacy from the wonder years, but there should be no question that the Hawks’ defensive competence hinges on Horford. Without him, the combination of Johnson, Mike Bibby, and Jamal Crawford on the perimeter would welcome opponents into the paint and ask them to stay awhile. Smith is a tremendous help-side shot-blocker, but it’s Horford that’s properly hedging, switching when necessary, and rotating to help every one of his teammates.
Maybe that’s what a center — or a power forward, or a “big” — is supposed to do, but the fact that Horford is versatile enough to defend just about anyone when asked should indicate that strange things are afoot. He’s not a power forward playing out of position, even though Horford told me that he considers himself a natural 4. He’s a “center,” nighttiming as a power forward, defending point guards, helping wings, passing, scoring, rebounding, posting up, facing up, running the high post, living on the low block, and living completely outside the positional designation he’s been so arbitrarily assigned.