Discussion of the Hawks frontcourt always begins with Josh Smith, but perhaps as big of a storyline this season is the return of Al Horford. Horford went down 11 games into last season with a torn pectoral muscle and, while the Hawks overcame the injury (very impressively), his presence was missed on and off the court. The disappointment of losing Al that early was twofold; first, he was coming off of a career year and seemed primed to continue that development, and second, the frontcourt tandem of Smoove and Horford had the potential to be one of the best in the league (in the strata of Gasol/Bynum and Gasol/Randolph). Horford's emphatic return in the Boston series (where he appeared at times to be the only player trying) gives hope once again that this year can see Al/Josh duo ascend into the ranks of the elite.
Al's 2010-11 campaign was another All-Star performance for the soft-spoken former Gator. He averaged 15.3 ppg, shot 55.7% from the field, had 9.4 rpg, and had a career high usage rate of 18.5% (next highest 2009-10 16.6%). He got off to a slower start to the 2011-12 season prior to the injury as his usage rate went back down to 16.3%, but he continued to shoot the ball well at a 55.3% clip and was averaging 12.4 ppg and 7 rpg.
This season, Horford seems to fit (as nearly everyone on the roster does) perfectly into the new motion offense. He is one of the premier pick-and-pop players in the league, possessing a deadly mid-range jump shot from both the elbow and the baseline. He is also a solid roll man who has a great basketball I.Q., and has developed a very impressive array of post-moves. In a very limited sample size (35 possessions) Horford led the league in post-up scoring averaging 1.2 points per possession (PPP) and shot 59.3%. His spot-up shooting was equally impressive with 1.03 PPP on 31 possessions, shooting 51.7%.
Synergy comparisons from 2010-11 (with Horford) and 2011-12 (without Horford) don't show much difference, in fact the Hawks numbers improved. However, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn't think the Hawks frontcourt is in better hands with Al healthy, and his injury actually allowed the Hawks to find some talent they didn't know they had.
Zaza Pachulia (perennial winner of the fan favorite title) took over in Horford's place last season and stepped up tremendously. Zaza averaged 7.8 points and 7.9 boards per game in 28.3 minutes per game. His production as a starter was even better and he routinely flirted with double-doubles during his 44 games as a starter. His Synergy stats show his strengths and weaknesses. Zaza was a very good roll man averaging 1.09 PPP and (surprisingly) was very good in transition averaging 1.43 PPP (good for 12th in the NBA) and scored on 75.5% of his transition opportunities (either FG or FT). His overall offensive production was solid, not great. He averaged 0.91 PPP (179th in the NBA, slightly above average), but was not particularly efficient in the post only averaging 0.63 PPP on post-ups. His turnover rate was 14.2% due to a tendency to fumble passes in the post when he wasn't expecting them (he seems to not expect them a lot). Defensively, Zaza allowed 0.87 PPP (257th in the NBA, slightly below average) with most of the damage coming against him on spot-ups (1.02 PPP allowed) and isolation (0.93 PPP allowed). His post defense and pick-and-roll defense was solid (actually above average) and he is well versed in using his body to frustrate players with his physicality and general disregard for the well-being of opponents (ask KG). Zaza is no stranger to playing big minutes for the Hawks, but his role on a contender was never bigger than last season.
The diamond (grill) in the rough for the Hawks last season was Ivan Johnson. Johnson (owner of a checkered past to say the least) was surprisingly kept on the roster after training camp and made Larry Drew and Rick Sund look brilliant by providing a lot of energy and production off the bench at the power forward and center spots (also provided some headaches on and off the floor). Ivan played 16.7 minutes per game for the Hawks in 56 games and averaged 6.4 points and 4.1 boards. He shot the ball at a very nice 51.3% from the field and hit 72% of his free throws. Defensively, Ivan was terrific last season ranking 40th in the NBA in PPP against allowing just 0.74 PPP. He ranked 3rd in the league against pick-and-roll roll men allowing just 0.59 PPP, was 56th against isolation allowing 0.66 PPP and was 55th against spot up shooters allowing 0.8 PPP. He is still a bit raw in the post, but continues to develop and become a better defender with his technique.
Johnson's intangibles may have been more important than his tangible statistics. Actually, let me let Ivan's words speak for himself. "I'm not the leading scorer or whatever, so I have to do the little things" (from a very brief talk I had with him this preseason). Ivan sets bone-crushing screens, dives after loose balls, and has become a master of giving opponents a well-placed, undetected elbow to the ribs. His return this season was in question, but Ivan seems quite happy (as happy as Ivan can be) with his role on the Hawks. He will play a major role this year off the bench as a back-up to both Josh Smith and Al Horford, and his offensive production will likely go up.
Rookie Mike Scott provides another offensive weapon at the 4 for the Hawks. Scott's role with the Hawks was unknown entering camp, but he picked the offense up rapidly and made his niche in the Hawks rotation (rare for a rookie under LD). He's a phenomenal pick-and-pop shooter and is nearly automatic when he spots up from 12-18 feet (was told by LD and other Hawks evaluators he was the best mid-range shooter in the whole draft). His defense needs work, but he's a very strong kid and seems to be improving daily. He rebounds better than expected at 6-foot-8 due to his determination and physicality on the glass. He can provide another option for Drew off the bench and would pair well with Ivan in a small line-up or Zaza against smaller 4's but bigger 5's.
Johan Petro assumes the Jason Collins role this season (he has 6 fouls and will use them against big centers), however, he's a tremendously poor defender, while Collins was solid against big men. He's 7 feet tall, is not quick on his feet, a poor pick-and-roll defender (0.96 PPP against last year), overall a poor defender (361st in the NBA with 0.92 PPP against overall), and could not fit more poorly in a team concept predicated on speed. So why do we keep him? For the same reason we had Dampier or Twin in years past, to foul Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, and other 7-footers weighing more than 275 to keep Al/Zaza/Ivan/Josh on the court. Petro has a decent mid-range shot (not a jumper), makes his free throws (shot an impressive 84% last year), and is a better rebounder than was Collins (who I'm convinced was unaware he was 7 feet tall), so it's not all bad. However, Petro's role on the team already has become an issue, and he will be one of the two left off the 12 man active game day roster on a regular basis unless a star big man is on the opposing bench.
The Hawks frontcourt is in better shape than it has been in the recent past. The main rotation of Josh, Al, Ivan, and Zaza is very solid and allows many options for Larry Drew in terms of match-ups. Mike Scott has been extremely impressive early on and Anthony Tolliver (discussed in Part II) has been working out at the three and the four with both being able to provide an offensive boost with their mid-range shooting. The Hawks backcourt has been lauded this offseason, but the frontcourt will be more important to their success. Smoove and Al are both great and can be nightmares for opposing defenses while providing a solid defensive presence in their own right. Zaza and Ivan are two of the best reserve bigs in the league and each bring intense effort and physicality to a team of smaller players. With so many question marks about perimeter defense, the frontcourt will have to be solid providing help defense in the lane and on screens, keep the opposition off the offensive glass, and pull down defensive boards to launch the much talked about Hawks fast-break.