In the Hawks’ preseason home opener Al Horford caught a glimpse of NBA nirvana. San Antonio, a sanctuary of sameness in a volatile league, was in the building.
Where Horford begins his seventh season with his third coach — and third set of philosophies — Tim Duncan is still on his one and only after 16 seasons with the Spurs. Duncan has four NBA titles. Horford has a half-dozen early postseason exits (but also a $60 million contract, expiring in 2016, to cushion the disappointment).
No one would have begrudged Horford a twinge of envy that evening. “That’s something you want to aspire to. I don’t know if I necessarily envy it,” he said postgame.
“We are trying to build something like that here.”
In charge of that construction — or de-construction as may be the case these days — is a former San Antonio executive (Danny Ferry) and a former San Antonio assistant coach (Mike Budenholzer). Whether the transplant of the Spurs model to Atlanta will ever take is a dicey question.
More immediately, what faces Horford is trying to thrive in yet another transitional season, which begins for real Wednesday in Dallas.
They come and go. The Johnsons, Joe and Anthony. Mike Bibby. Marvin Williams. Josh Smith. Horford hasn’t gone anywhere, standing literally and figuratively at the center of each makeover. Once the new Piston Smith took his flighty game to a bankrupt city, Horford became the most veteran presence on the Hawks and the de facto face of the franchise. A franchise that, according to Vegas betting lines, would do better than expected to win 41 games.
“I don’t think you can focus on (low expectations). Our whole mentality is being the best team we can, and I don’t know what that is yet,” Horford said.
Into the great unknown he goes with a new coach, a new system and a greatly renovated roster that is high on international intrigue but low on name recognition. Horford now has someone with whom to swap Spanish — Gustavo Ayon — but has very little working knowledge of either German (Dennis Schroder) or Macedonian (Pero Antic).
All Horford needs to see him through this season is Budenholzer’s new playbook and the complete Rosetta Stone collection.
He doesn’t seem disoriented sharing a locker room with strangers. “You have to be able to adjust, and the people who do that the best are the teams usually successful,” he said. “Last year we embraced the challenge and just went with it. This year it’s no different. We know what we have to do, know we have to try to figure this out as fast as we can.”
For this new group, Horford will serve, as he has with every other version of the team, as the competitor-in-chief. Last season was statistically his best — 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. The player who came into the league with a highly questionable shot has developed a quite useful mid-range game. He will be leaned upon even more for scoring, defense and leadership until Ferry can use his growing cap space to import some meaningful free-agent help.
As the Spurs’ chief assistant, Budenholzer, on the rare occasion when he faced the Hawks, always had to account for the undersized and underestimated center’s intensity.
“Al’s ability to consistently run the floor was something we always talked about. We were concerned about him outrunning us in transition,” Budenholzer said.
“The second thing was him rebounding and pushing the break himself on the dribble. He’s unique as a big as someone who can rebound and push it and make a good decision — find an open shooter, find a guy for a layup.”
Now that Budenholzer has come over to Horford’s side, he intends to put those traits to good use in his pass-happy motion offense (as well as polishing a little low-post jump hook). The turning of Philips Arena from “Highlight Factory” to “Ball Movement Warehouse” began last season when the Hawks finished second in the NBA in assists. That should accelerate more with a Spurs-centric offense as well as the necessity to emphasize design over individual talent.
Ball movement is not a sexy commodity. A team that figures to win maybe half its games is not an easy sell. The loss of Smith eliminated from the roster the one player capable of inspiring a decent bar fight.
Tell us, then, oh team leader, what is there to draw us into this new season? What is the marketable identity of this collection?
“More than anything, it is a team that plays with high energy; that defensively gets after it, is flying all over the place. And on offense, it’s about having high assist totals, sharing the ball, really playing with each other,” Horford said.
Further, enlighten us as to who on the roster may benefit most from the coaching change. Who should we look for to blossom under the Budenholzer Way?
“It’s going to be big for Jeff (Teague, the point guard) because I think he’ll be able to create a lot, both his shot and shots for other people,” Horford said.
“A guy like Kyle (Korver, 3-point specialist), who’s spotting up all over the place, it’s going to be good for him, too. Really the offense is designed for everyone to benefit. Even the big guys. I definitely think Jeff first. If he keeps that high motor, it’s definitely going to benefit him.”
Horford has reason to be unsettled. At 27, he is entering his competitive prime while his team is undergoing a transformation that seems to require a step backward. He is still waiting for the Hawks to acquire a starting-quality center in order to allow him more favorable matchups at power forward. Rather than slipping into a comfortable routine, he is adapting again to a new coach and system.
All the while, he also is the one counted upon to be the voice of certainty in an uncertain arrangement.
“We need him to be a leader of our team, need him to hold people accountable. I think he’s embracing that and looking forward to it,” Budenholzer said.
“I think we have a good thing going on here,” Horford said, thus declaring his intentions to remain patient and wait on a franchise to become as stable and dependable as he.