Who's better: Aldridge or Horford?
Two of the NBA's brightest young bigs do battle in our side-by-side analysis
By Chris Palmer
ESPN The Magazine
Aldridge and Horford are two of the most promising young big men in the game.
In this space we'll break down the best individual matchup of the week to see who's the better player. But toss out career accomplishments or potential. This is about ability -- strengths, weaknesses, intangibles -- and who gives his team the best chance to win. It's about the only thing that matters when you step on the court on any given night -- who's better right now.
They may never be one-name superstars, but LaMarcus Aldridge and Al Horford are among a small handful of the best power forwards in the league. While Horford plugs perfectly into Atlanta's scheme as a do-it-all complement to Joe Johnson, Aldridge has exceeded expectations after being thrust into the role as the Blazers' go-to star.
Despite a shining résumé Horford isn't mentioned with the game's elite and, residing in a Western Conference crowded with stars, the oft-overlooked Aldridge has been outplaying more heralded opponents all season. Aldridge has given defenses fits with his length and shooting touch while Horford plugs away with no-frills consistency.
So now two soft-spoken, versatile bangers go head-to-head. Both have their teams in the middle of heated playoff races. Horford is the owner of two All-Star appearances. Aldridge has none. But who's actually better?
ALDRIDGE: THE JUMP HOOK
It's often difficult for young players to exhibit accurate touch on jump hooks in game situations, because they're typically aggressively guarded shots. No such problem for LA. His soft hands release the ball with a delicate spin, giving him terrific touch around the rim. His length affords him an unusually high release point that is comfortably out of reach of most any defender's outstretched arm, which allows him the luxury of not having to rush or force a shot. His is a true half hook, which means his off shoulder faces the rim upon release -- putting his body perpendicular to the backboard -- making it nearly impossible to block. It's a big reason he's scored 36 points or more six times in the past two months.
HORFORD: VERSATILE DEFENSE
Horford is one of the most versatile defensive forward-centers in the league. Teammate Josh Smith
is more likely to grab highlight love thanks to his showy blocks, but Horford's lunch-pail style relies on efficient mobility and well-timed rotations. He's deceptively strong, which makes it difficult to back him down, but Horford is possibly Atlanta's best perimeter defender as well. In a Nov. 7 game against the Phoenix Suns
, he guarded Steve Nash
out top on no fewer than nine second-half possessions using his wingspan and lateral movement to make it difficult for Nash to initiate Phoenix's offense, even once forcing a shot-clock violation. "He does everything on that end of the floor that you could ask someone to do," says teammate Jamal Crawford
ALDRIDGE: OFF-HAND SCORING
Aldridge has the coordination, dexterity and skill to pull off just about every move in the book. But Aldridge prefers his dominant shoulder when he has his back to the basket. In almost 65 percent of his possessions in which he catches the ball on the left block, he spins toward his left shoulder. In effect, he limits himself to half the lane, making him easier to scout and defend. He'd do well to mix up his looks inside by spinning right to a fadeaway or facing up to use the dribble in either direction to finish at the rim. "Our goal this summer is to master that right block," says Blazers assistant coach Bill Bayno.
HORFORD: POST MOVES
Unlike Aldridge, the Hawks forward's options on the low block are fairly limited, and the moves he does have are a bit robotic. Unless he makes a quick move, Horford struggles to get his shot off against bigger defenders. He's not enough of a threat to command a double-team, which limits passing opportunities out of the post, so he's often forced to make something happen on his own in isolation situations, which the Hawks would like to avoid. Until Horford develops a reliable array of post moves, his touches on the block will be limited, leaving Atlanta with a fairly one-dimensional attack.
ALDRIDGE: TIPPED BOARDS
Aldridge has a knack for tipping the ball to himself in crowded situations around the basket. When he's being bodied up or simply isn't in position to firmly secure a rebound, he'll take advantage of that length and those soft hands to deftly tap the ball out of reach of the opposition and into his. And when tapping it to himself on the offensive glass, after pulling it in, he goes up for a shot without bringing the ball below his waist, severely limiting the defense's time to react.
Horford finds teammates in a variety of different situations all over the floor for scoring opportunities. But he's become quite adept at grabbing offensive rebounds 6-8 feet from the basket in the midpost and quickly flipping the ball to a cutter or spot-up shooter for a quick shot before the defense can regroup. Horford's craftiness and game understanding when delivering the ball is paying obvious dividends; he quietly leads all power forwards and centers with 3.6 apg.
Aldridge is extremely coachable. When the Blazers wanted him to be available to work out in the summer, he blocked out the entire month of August. This season they asked him to become more aggressive and get to the line more often. (He's averaging 5.9 FTA per game, up from 3.8 last year.) But most importantly, they needed him to lead. After injuries took out several key Blazers, Aldridge emerged as Portland's vocal leader and emotional core. "He was pushed into that role and has responded incredibly," says Bayno. "It's not a natural thing for him but he knew how important it was for us."
HORFORD: DIRTY WORK
Horford is an extremely bright player who loves to analyze even the most mundane game scenarios and his selflessness allows the more spotlight-hungry stars to bask in the glory in the name of preserving team chemistry. But his true value is thoroughly enjoying the little things most stars would just as soon leave to someone else. Whether it's setting picks, getting his arms in passing lanes or chasing after loose balls, Horford seems to gleefully go about doing the little things that can make all the difference. "He loves diving on the floor," says former teammateMike Bibby
. "That's when he's in his element."
"LaMarcus is extremely long and quick and has been rebounding the ball at a very high level this year. He always poses matchup problems for me because he's good at everything. I like how he runs the floor so well, and it's one of the reasons he gets so many alley-oop dunks. He's fun to play against, because he poses a lot of challenges and as a player you always like going against tough competitors."
"Overall Horford's just really solid to me. He knows what he's in the game for and never tries to do too much. Al always brings a level of consistency in everything he does. Just a tough dude. But his best asset is his comprehension of the game and his smarts. He's a team-first guy who knows how to play the game the right way. He's the kind of guy who's never going to get a lot of pub, but he's always going to be there. He'll be an All-Star for the next 10 years; I'm sure of it."
Aldridge is a GM's dream, a rare athletic talent with a handful of go-to moves and a strong desire to get better.
Due to the crush of injuries in Portland, Aldridge was thrust into the lead role in Rip City and has responded admirably with a career year that has produced highs in every major category except field goal percentage. Since Brandon Roy went down on Dec. 15, Aldridge has averaged 26 points and 10 rebounds.
"He's the best player in the league who's never made an All-Star Game," says a Western Conference scout."
Aldridge is a matchup nightmare for nearly everyone he faces at forward and center. Against All-Star forwards Love and Blake Griffin, who have been bothered by his length, Aldridge averaged 25.6 points while the Blazers went 6-0.
Horford is forging a rep as a tough-nosed defender but is just 115th in the league in blocks per 48 minutes. Aldridge doesn't block many more shots but rotates quicker and, with long arms and a hair-trigger vertical jump, he routinely discourages would-be penetrators.
As skilled as Horford is, his best fit will always be as a third option who can give his team consistently strong defensive play and much-needed hustle. And that's exactly what he does. With Aldridge embracing the role of franchise player and making good on his vast potential, he leaves Horford behind on the NBA's second tier while he looks to join the elite class of players in the game.
Chris Palmer has been a frequent contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com's NBA coverage since 1999. Follow him on Twitter.