In March 2007, Al Horford and Joakim Noah were teammates at the University of Florida, the frontcourt anchors of nature's perfect college basketball team, on the verge of a second consecutive national championship.
As professionals, Horford and Noah have provided fairly similar levels of value (if by fairly inverse approaches) to their respective teams.
What they share is the ability to complement their obvious strengths, on the defensive end for Noah and on the offensive end for Horford, with somewhat less obvious contributions on the opposite end of the floor.
The bulk of Noah's value comes on the defensive end but he's also a demon on the offensive glass and quite efficient when he scores.
Horford will likely improve both his offensive production and his offensive efficiency for a third straight season (despite being Atlanta's third or fourth option most of the time), but he's also providing solid-to-excellent defense all over the floor, both before and after the opposition attempts a shot.
Now, in March 2011, their paths appear set to diverge. While the Chicago Bulls, losers in the first round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons, battle for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference and embrace the expectations commensurate with such an accomplishment, the Atlanta Hawks, swept out of the second round each of the past two seasons, appear certain to begin the 2011 playoffs on the road, where expectations are measured in the number of games rather than the number of rounds the team will win.
Tuesday night's game, a 114-81 Bulls win, clarified the differences between the teams. The Bulls, and Derrick Rose especially, appeared determined to avenge a March 2 loss in Atlanta. In that game, the Bulls blew a 19-point lead, Rose made just 5 of 21 shots and undermined a 12-assist effort with six turnovers. Tuesday, Rose scored 30 points on 20 shots and earned 10 assists against a single turnover.
The Hawks did not appear as motivated to avenge their 18-point loss in Chicago 11 days ago. But it wasn't a lack of effort that led to Atlanta's failure so much as a lack of options. The Hawks defended to the best of their capabilities in the first quarter but the Bulls made the majority of their shots nonetheless.
Once the respective benches got involved and Larry Drew proved reluctant to play reserve center Zaza Pachulia (with two fouls) or Jeff Teague (at all), things got out of hand. The Bulls scored on their first 13 possessions of the second quarter, the first 12 of which Rose watched from the bench. Chicago's MVP candidate -- the M-V-P chants started in the first quarter, even in Atlanta, and didn't end there -- built the early lead and the Bulls turned a 22-point second-quarter lead into a 29-point halftime advantage, and that into a 38-point lead at the end of three quarters.
But Rose's dominance was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the difference between the two teams.
Most telling, over the course of the competitive portion of the game, was that Rose led his team in field goal attempts while Horford, despite going 6-for-7 from the floor and 2-for-2 from the line, took just the fourth-most shots of the Hawks' starters. Josh Smith attempted as many jump shots as Al Horford attempted shots in this game. The Bulls are, defensively, constructed around Noah's skills but the Hawks are not yet committed to playing through their best offensive player.
That dichotomy doesn't account for the full difference between the teams but it does exemplify the difference between the team trending toward the conference finals and the one trending toward a first-round exit.