Horford, Hawks still learning ropes of new system

Horford, Hawks still learning ropes of new system

Published Oct. 21, 2013 5:14 p.m. ET

ATLANTA — Near the tail end of Monday's practice, eight Hawks players were locked in a 4-on-4, half-court struggle governed by traditional basketball rules with one clear exception: two dribbles per man. Two dribbles only. 

With star forward Al Horford looking on from one corner of the Philips Arena practice facility as he met with media members, notable teammates such as Lou Williams, John Jenkins and rookie Dennis Schroeder were locked in the live-action drill meant to emphasize spacing, movement and communication — all three being staple concepts in new coach Mike Budenholzer's motion-oriented offense (or, really, any productive NBA offense) imported from San Antonio. 
There's a learning curve involved here, one with an indefinite timeline. 

Entering his seventh NBA season under his third different coach — the fourth different system he's played in since 2007, if including his senior season under Florida coach Billy Donovan — Horford said there's a no set timeframe for when a team stops thinking and starts reacting within a new system.

"These are just new concepts for us," Horford said. "Today, that's why I was so encouraged, because I felt offensively we got a little better, whereas with the first few weeks it's been hard for us with the offense. 'Are we forgetting to make this cut? Are we in the wrong place?' It's a process."

Though that process is admittedly tougher on the Hawks' guards who dictate the offensive sets, specifically Schroeder and starting point Jeff Teague, Horford is a little farther along on the learning curve than most — positive news for a franchise looking for its veteran big man to step into a leadership role in wake of the departures of Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia during the past two offseasons. 

Horford and, to a lesser degree, Teague are the two remaining staples. And while Teague is more vocal than ever, it's clear the organization will look to the guy who averaged a double-double (17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds) while coming off an injury-plagued 2011-12 season. 

Even in his introductory press conference, Budenholzer name-dropped Horford more than any other current player, saying, "The roster starts with Al Horford." If that foundation is going to be the leader — his new coach described his leadership style more as the put-your-arm-around-someone's-shoulder type — he'll first need to grasp how exactly his coach wants him and the team to play. 

That could take some more time.

"(Horford's) got a high basketball IQ. He's been playing a long time. He understands a lot of the concepts and things that we're trying to do," Budenholzer said. "He's still learning, too. They're all, at times, you can they're just trying to figure out where they're supposed to be much less where the other four guys are supposed to be."

So what kind of offensive concepts are we talking about here? 
Well, in vague congruence with Newton's third law of motion, every action causes a reaction. For example, according to Horford: "If Kyle Korver is cutting down the lane, that triggers me to go up to the elbow. And it's like constant movement and we have to make sure that we're on the same page because if we aren't then we look stupid. You know? It just messes it up. ... For me it's just more of being in the right place at the right time."

Film sessions have been constructive and a 106-104 preseason loss to the Spurs, runners of a now-familiar system, on Oct. 17 gave an upfront and personal look at just how things can be done with the likes of Tony Parker (17 points) and tim Duncan (16 points) — the projected future Hall of Famers whose roles Horford and Teague will aspire to fill this season.

Will it all come together soon enough? The Hawks open up the regular season against the Dallas Mavericks in nine days (Oct. 30); they are on the clock. Judging by recent comments, the team is moving in the right direction but may still be functioning within a simplified version on that night. 
Not that the team cannot win without fully mastering this system — a process that will require more than seven exhibition games, to say the least — but the preseason results (1-4) have not been overwhelmingly positive. That's to be expected.

"You're out there — I feel like at times you're thinking a lot because you're trying to be in the right places, learn all the new concepts," said Horford, who is averaging 13 points in 28 minutes per outing this preseason. "I feel like we are making improvements and getting better and figuring out where we're supposed to be on the court. But it's gonna take a while."