Al Horford deserves better. This is not to say that his basketball life is all that bad, viewed in the right light. Horford plays for the team with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Under coach Mike Budenholzer, the Atlanta Hawks utilize Horford's diverse skill set well, as if in accordance with some benevolent corporate ethos: We help YOU reach YOUR full potential! They win the games they should, for the most part, and also some they shouldn't.
Watching Horford right now, though, on this team and in this NBA climate, you get the feeling that he could be part of something richer than Atlanta's yearly aspirations. His game, in his eighth season in the league, is a perfect match for this moment in the sport's evolution. He averages 15 points, seven rebounds, and three assists per game, numbers more or less in line with those of his three previous All-Star seasons. Now, as in those previous years, the stats undersell his ability to perform at an expert level most any duty asked of the modern big man. He posts up, picks and pops, leads breaks, flings elbow-to-wing passes, and rotates promptly on defense. He has an accurate set shot and a devastating spin move. When he drops a shoulder and rises for a jump hook, it seems almost like an act of homage, as if he feels a duty to preserve some old back-to-the-basket idiom even as he enjoys the freedoms provided by an increasingly spread-out era.
Modern NBA frontcourts are full of avatars of versatility—Marc Gasol, who a decade ago would have occupied the finesse end of the center spectrum, is now about as traditional as big men get—but Horford's game is uniquely innate. Listed at 6'10'' and 245 pounds, he is quick in bursts and strong in situations that call for strength. Certain players display the patterns of their evolutions with every motion, forever more comfortable with the natural technique than the learned one, but Horford seems to have developed each of his skills simultaneously and to precisely the same degree. He has no pet move, no preference. He is a white blood cell, skimming through the system and doing just what is needed.
Most nights, this is a delight to watch. In a mid-January win over the Chicago Bulls, Horford went for 33 and 10, with six assists and four blocks. He played so well, and so effortlessly, that he seemed to be made of a different substance than his defenders. His passed through their fingers, and his hands plucked rebounds cleanly. At one point, he went up to finish an alley-oop while Taj Gibson committed a preventative foul; Horford simply drifted with the force of the shove and, some five feet from the rim, floated the ball through anyway.
But some nights, what usually looks like mastery starts to look like resignation. In the past week, the Hawks dropped two straight, to Sacramento (somewhat forgivable) and Phoenix (not at all). They are prone to funks like this, stretches when their normally liquid offense gets chunky. They clank 20-footers and throw passes into the second row, Budenholzer massages his eyelids, and this otherwise good basketball team suddenly resembles nothing so much as a piece of performance art about the accumulating frustrations of adult life. Horford, who scored 20 points combined in those two losses to the Kings and the Suns, seems during these periods not so much frustrated as saddened that his tenets of responsibility and readiness can so suddenly become so mysteriously ineffective.
If this aimless, puttering is not the Hawks' normal state—they are 27-19, after all—it is their defining one. Last season saw their surge into new relevance brought to a swift end by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. This season, they seem to have settled into a middle ground between the perennial first-round-exiters of the early 2010s and the floor-spreading, skip-passing upstart of 2014-15 that looked, for a while, like one of the league's best teams. As it is, they have a good chance to make the Eastern Conference Finals, and pretty much no shot at advancing beyond that point. In a city famous for a transformative hip-hop scene and life-sapping commutes, the Hawks fit more comfortably with the second connotation. They are comfortable enough with their air-conditioning and podcasts, their 50 wins and four-seed, but they are stuck.
On those off nights, it is tempting to imagine Horford elsewhere. Put him in Cleveland, where he might prove a better LeBron complement than Kevin Love, or in San Antonio, where he could be as solid a fit as LaMarcus Aldridge. His little arcing cross-lane dishes would become the latest NBA Vine sensation, and his professionalism and selflessness would be lauded more loudly. He is a free agent at season's end; such stuff might not be speculative for long.
For now, though, it's worth taking stock of his unique station in the league. Nobody's dying to watch the Hawks; everything they try to do as a team—the circling style, the tessellations of ball screens—other teams do much better, and to much more significant ends. But there is a special, if small, delight in happening upon Horford at work. His calibrated talent is part of it, but his belief in a certain kind of basketball propriety is just as affecting. Watch the quickness with which he decides to shoot, drive, or pass; the diagrammatic stature of his screens; the arms-up commitment when he protects the rim.
Al Horford deserves better than all this, but he doesn't have anything better at the moment. He is not one of the NBA's best complementary players or part of one of those coordinated juggernauts capable of winning a championship. Instead, he's the hub of the Atlanta Hawks, a team built to disappoint. So while his particular gifts might impress more somewhere down the line, should the Hawks manage to wriggle their way up to true contention or Horford skip town for a less suspended squad, they will never seem as upright, or as plainly decent, as they do right now.