Al Horford Vs. Joakim Noah: Who Ya Got?

This is from Monday afternoon, and if you're into abstract discussion of big men ideology and self-indulgent responses to fellow media members, then you're in luck! Let's talk about Joakim Noah and Al Horford.

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Al Horford Vs. Joakim Noah: Who Ya Got?

Okay, so I've just spent the past two hours immersed in a Twitter debate surrounding Al Horford and Joakim Noah. No, that sentence will not make my resume one day.

But as they always say, if you're going have a debate, best to do it in the most senseless arena imaginable. YAY TWITTER. Anyway, if you follow me on Twitter, I apologize. There's nothing worse than someone that tweets too often. It's why I've unfollowed every athlete and/or rapper in the universe except for Kanye West. So, sorry again. I'm really not one of those people. To balance it out, here's something I would have tweeted if not for the hubub over Horford:

When Mondays get bleak, I think about Marissa Miller's iPod bikini: http://bit.ly/9osB4l.

See, that would have been a good tweet. But I was being attacked! Tom Ziller's one of my favorite writers around, mainly because he's one of the more rational, level-headed people I've ever encountered in sports. He's a breath of fresh air. Where others (including me) tend toward sweeping judgments and bold proclamations, Ziller's tendency toward sanity always keeps us grounded. It's great.

But sometimes we disagree. Like last year, I wrote this about Chris Bosh:

As much as Chris Bosh has progressed this year, he's still a power forward that plays like a small forward. That's problem number one. It would be one thing if he were just a 6'10 small forward, but he's not. Bosh is a very skilled power forward, and while that makes him a matchup nightmare for teams, it also means that he's settling for jumpshots in crunch time. Not because he's some dead-eye jump shooter, but that's all he can do. He's a finesse player that relies on jumpshots, and in crunch time against tough defense, he's not driving past anyone.

... Bosh may blame his teammates and talk about wanting to go somewhere else to win, but come on. His entire time in Toronto, the Raptors have been a finesse team, overly-reliant on jumpshots, and easily bullied on the defensive end. Who does that sound like? Hmm...

And a day later, answering Bosh's critics, Ziller put together this graph charting Bosh in relation to the other star forwards of his day:

Pf25scortz_medium

As he explained in his column:

So we're left with this: Bosh is an elite scorer, one of the best of his generation at his position to this point, and Bosh is a really strong rebounder for his position, even compared with the best PFs of the era. He compares favorably to MVPs and first-ballot Hall-of-Famers in these two categories at this point ... and these happen to be pretty danged important categories.

While the skeptics cajole about Bosh failing to deserve all the attention sure to be heaped upon him come July 1, know that he is worth the attention, and that assuming he stays on the upward path and isn't struck down by injury, he'll be well worth a max contract.

And going by the numbers, Ziller clearly had a good case. But look at this Miami Heat team. Can anyone seriously look at that group and not cite Bosh as the obvious weak link in the Big Three? And for all his "elite scoring", Miami's biggest problem is exactly what I mentioned a year ago—he's still a power forward that plays like a small forward. He can't score inside.

His numbers may look great, but against a team like the Celtics, he withered and settled for 18-foot jumpers. That's not an indictment of character or even an indictment of his talent. But it's a perfect example of why Bosh was overrated by all the people who put him in the same class as Wade and LeBron James. In big games, against tough defense, he's not nearly as valuable as his numbers suggest.

And just wait: all year long, then especially in the playoffs, Chris Bosh will stick out like a sore thumb among the Heat's big three. He's a good player, but he's not striking fear into Boston and L.A.

Heat_medium

I got to thinking about that earlier, when Ziller and a few others were taking me to task for my opinions on Al Horford. It all started when Horford signed his Atlanta contract extension, prompting Nate Jones—another awesome voice in the NBA blogosphere—to ask whether people valued Horford over Joakim Noah.

Picture_17_medium

And I said, "Unless a big man can be a dominant scorer (Horford can't), I'd rather have defense, rebounding, and passing (like Noah)." Then Ziller said, "Horford is arguably a better defender, Noah a better rebounder, and they are equals as passers. So I'd take the better scorer." It started cordial, but as the conversation unfolded, we hit an impasse. It ended with this, "your rationale was that Horford's 14 "disrupts" the ATL offense; that is bad rationale, and I cannot abide bad rationale." So let me explain my rationale here.

Ultimately, it comes down to what you want from your big man. What Horford gives a team in scoring comes from the low post. What Noah gives a team in scoring comes from (mostly) garbage points. By any measure, Al Horford's the more polished weapon on offense, and if you needed a basket and had to choose between these two, it's no contest. But it's not that simple.

For Horford to succeed on offense, he needs to be the focal point for a given possession. That means teammates getting him an entry pass, balancing the floor, and giving him space to create in the post. It hasn't slowed down the Atlanta Hawks, who were a top-five NBA offense last year, but Horford comes third and sometimes fourth in their offensive pecking order, behind Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Jamal Crawford.

If they wanted him to become dominant at what he does—scoring on the block—Atlanta would have to change the rhythm of their offense. A good post player is as much a responsibility as a luxury; to get the most out of a player like Horford, it takes effort. Look at the Houston Rockets teams from the past decade; with an offense running through Yao, a better scorer than Horford, they still struggled to cobble together a championship formula. And with Yao injured the past few years, the Rockets have been able to get more out of guys who would have otherwise been afterthoughts.

By contrast, Noah is a weapon for the Bulls regardless of whether Derrick Rose feeds him on the low block. He operates out of the high post, uses his passing to break down defense while teammates cut off him, and then he crashes the boards. Where maximizing a good post player involves a complex balance within an offense, Noah's impact is simple.

If Horford can become a dominant scorer on the low block, then he's worth the investment it takes for Atlanta to get him involved. But if he's going to score 16 to 18 points-per-game for his career, wouldn't it make more sense to have someone like Noah, who makes an impact without his team making an effort to get him involved, has proven a terror in the playoffs, rebounds better, and changes more shots on the other end?

Again, it comes down to what you want from a big man in 2010.

The list of dominant low-post guys is dwindling. Pau Gasol, Al Jefferson, Tim Duncan, Amare Stoudemire, Zach Randolph, and ... Who else? Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins look like they'll get there, but otherwise, it's a short list of guys that make it worthwhile to run an offense through the post. If you think Horford can one day join that list, then locking him up makes sense.

Until he does, Horford will score 14 points-a-game—the prototypical good-but-not-great big man—and Joakim Noah will continue to be a difference-maker with his energy for Chicago. Go re-watch last year's playoff series vs. the Cavs and tell me that Joakim Noah's not a major piece of what makes Chicago so intriguing for the future.

So what do I want from my big man? In the absence of a guy that can score 25-a-game down low, I'll take the difference-maker who changes a game with his energy.

Joakimnoah_medium

So to all the people on Twitter attacking my rationale and questioning my sanity this afternoon, that's my final answer. Quibble with the reasoning if you want, but in general, Joakim Noah's more valuable than Al Horford.

And I'm okay being alone on this one; after all, remember when people said all that Chris Bosh skepticism was ridiculous? I couldn't help but think back to that last week, when Bosh looked completely outclassed by the Celtics big men, pulling up from 18-feet, clanging jumpers off the back rim. He was outclassed, overwhelmed, and just... Irrelevant. You know who he reminded me of?

Al Horford against the division-rival Magic:

12 Games 47% FG 8.6 ppg, 5.533 reb

Or maybe the Celtics:

11 Games 46.365% fg 12.0 ppg 9.8 reb

Or the Lakers:

6 games, 40.66% fg 7.5 ppg, 8.66 reb

Or the Cavaliers:

10 games, 44.282% fg 9.9 ppg, 9.2 reb

Or Noah's Bulls:

10 games, 49% fg, 13.53 ppg, 10.4 reb

Or in the playoffs:

27 games, 48.6%, 11.5 ppg, 8.3 reb

Nobody's saying those numbers are bad, but they're clear on one point. Against the great teams in the NBA, Horford's only good. It's not like choosing Noah over Al means shortchanging a young Tim Duncan. Meanwhile, here's Noah's playoff numbers in the playoffs:

12 games, 51.9% fg, 12.1 ppg, 13.1 reb

Who would YOU want?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to Twitter...

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