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Al Horford can thrive as complementary third star

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Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward have never played with a big man with Horford’s facilitating and spacing skills.

NBA: Boston Celtics-Media Day Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most uncontrollable aspect of building a modern “super team” is projecting how the trio or quartet of star players will coalesce, both on and off the floor. General managers stockpile assets with hopes of one day ascending to the super team status, but one ill-advised front office decision could crumble team harmony and ruin championship aspirations. Coaches are tasked with trying to maximize everyone’s talents, but there are only a finite number of shots to apportion.

Oftentimes, players who are accustomed to launching 18+ FGAs per night are asked to change their style. Ray Allen had to deal with that here. Carmelo Anthony will have to do the same in Oklahoma City. Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge were once dominant low-post scorers who have transformed into glorified spot-up shooters. It’s the burden of carrying three or four ball-dominant players. It’s uneconomical to minimize the capabilities of a max-salaried player. Thus, identifying and fielding stars with complimentary skill sets is critical for coexistence.

Al Horford played marvelously in the 2017 playoff run, shooting 58.4% and averaging 15 points, 7 boards, 5 assists and a block per contest. He saw extended minutes at center, battling for eighteen games against the brute forces of Robin Lopez, Marcin Gortat, and Tristan Thompson. Horford became a go-to scorer by necessity, putting the team on his back after Isaiah Thomas was sidelined by a hip injury. In short, Big Al was unequivocally the Cs’ best two-way postseason player.

In retrospect, it’s remarkable how well Horford played in a miscast role that doesn’t particularly suit him. Volume scoring isn’t his expertise, but after Thomas was shut down for the final three playoff games, the 31-year-old big man was thrust into an isolation offensive role. Horford doesn’t single handedly take over games. He’s never averaged over 18.6 PPG, and isn’t particularly striking when trying to create his own shot. He has a few reliable post moves, a turnaround jumper, and can attack the occasional closeout, but on a championship caliber team, Horford is better suited as a supreme role player. And that’s completely fine.

The gripe that Boston’s media talking heads have against Horford is simple: Why hand out $25+ million per year to an undersized center who averages 14 PPG and gets to the free throw line only twice per night? Isn’t that a waste of a max salary contract?

Horford will never become the heat-check scorer than some critics demand of a max-salaried player. In order to uncover his true value, you need to dig deeper into his intangibles and rarified skill set. He prefers to take a backseat in the scoring department, and that’s not because of age or decline. Horford is at his best when helping to create advantageous opportunities for his teammates—and that’s rare for a frontline star player. Unlike some max players who necessitate volume shots to remain engaged, Horford almost never forces low percentage field goal attempts. Horford’s importance in other schematic areas is what makes him an ideal third star, so long as he has ball dominant scorers to compliment.

With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward now aboard, Horford can settle back into his natural facilitating role from the outside and high post. Big Al can manage his low-efficiency attempts and prioritize spot-up shooting instead. He shot an impressive 51.8% eFG on catch-and-shoot attempts last season, per Synergy. As you can see from his NBAsavant heat map, he loves launching the straightaway 3, and those attempts will almost entirely stem from the defense overplaying to Irving, Hayward, and the other primary ball handlers. In turn, Horford’s ability to lure opposing bigs away from the basket is paramount for Boston’s space friendly methodology.

Pick and Roll/Dribble Handoff

Horford will be essential in helping Irving adjust to Boston’s ball movement focused system. Cleveland’s offense was station-to-station, with limited off-ball movement and an abundance of isolation. Kyrie has perhaps the most brilliant handles of any player in this generation, but his occasional over dribbling won’t fly in Brad Stevens’ motion based scheme. Irving will likely be asked to move more without the ball, and that’s where Horford’s facilitating skills come into play.

Isaiah Thomas led the league with 228 points off of dribble handoff (DHO) plays last season, per Synergy Sports. DHOs are a variation of a pick and roll, with the ball-handling guard trying to use the handoff and subsequent screen to get between his defender and the basket. Once the offensive player can get his defender on his hip or back, he can slither to the basket with the option to either finish at the rim or distribute to floor spacing shooters.

Big Al is arguably the best (DHO) screener in the league. He sets sturdy back-breaking picks and is adept at knowing exactly how much physicality he can use without getting whistled for an offensive foul. Horford’s screen setting won’t show up in the box score, but his versatility is critical for the DHO to succeed.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Opposing bigs have to respect Horford’s range, and that will open up countless driving paths for Irving, who is already one of the league’s elite finishers at the rim. Irving didn’t have that luxury with Tristan Thompson last season, and the added spacing should give an enormous boost to Irving’s ambidextrous and deft layup skills. If Irving senses that the opposing big is trailing him for the chase-down block, he can simply kick back out to Horford for a straightaway 3.

What further separates Horford from other DHO bigs is his decision making and cerebral intellect. Most DHO bigs either 1) make the simple handoff or 2) fake the handoff and immediately pick up the dribble beyond the arc. Horford’s skills offer many more variations. He can fake the handoff and either make a strong right-handed drive or hit the diving guard (Kyrie) over the top after setting the screen. Watch here how Horford can create two different looks off of the same set.

After releasing the ball to his teammate, Horford comfortably toggles between screening and rim running, popping out for jumpers, and slipping the screen entirely.

There aren’t a lot of big men with this kind of offensive utility, and Horford could teach a graduate-level course in setting screens and facilitating from the perimeter. In turn, Irving will see the same kinds of opportunities that Thomas benefitted from. Horford’s ability to help Kyrie get free is an enormous luxury for the guard. Big Al even can fake the DHO altogether to make crisp precision passes to backdoor cutters.

Similarly, Hayward should enjoy more maneuvering room playing alongside Horford, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. At 6’8”, Hayward is an advanced p&r ball handler, and ranked 12th in the league in effective field goal percentage in those situations last season, per Synergy. Hayward worked as a p&r facilitator on 28.6% of his usage, two times more than any other kind of play type.

The below clip shows a prototypical Hayward p&r in Utah. The Jazz often coupled him with two conventional bigs. Here, the Jazz front court features Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, both non-shooting threats. As Hayward starts to get downhill off of the pick, you’ll notice that the painted area is heavily congested with Portland defenders. The Blazers know that Favors (the screen man) can be neglected behind the arc, so Hayward draws the simultaneous attention from his own defender and Favors’ defender. Meanwhile, Gobert is hanging on the low-post block, anticipating a potential putback or drop-off pass. Gobert’s man adds a third obstacle for Hayward to decipher. Because of Utah’s lack of floor spacing, Hayward frequently encountered heavy traffic around the rim on p&r plays. Hayward became proficient at pulling up for 10-15 foot jumpers, as he does here. But how nice would it be if he could drive into a completely empty lane?

This summer, Hayward moved from an average shooting team in Utah (13th in 3-pointers made per game) to an elite one in Boston (3rd most). Gobert and Favors, Utah’s top front court players, combined for three total 3-pointers last season. Horford and Marcus Morris, who are likely to close out games in the Celtic front court, combined for 204 distance shots.

The increased spacing will be palpable for Hayward in a 3-5 p&r with Horford. Al lacks the ideal explosive leaping ability that you’d want in a roll man, but his combination of shooting and an adroit touch near the rim should be enough for him to gel with Hayward. Horford popped out for jumpers on 60.2% of his p&r plays in which he was the roll man, and his dual-threat capabilities keep opposing defenders honest. And with two or three fewer defenders to confront, Hayward will benefit from a wide-open lane and won’t have to make as many rapid decisions as he did in Utah.

Realistically, the DHO and p&r plays can be interchangeable for Irving and Hayward. Both plays are designed to free the offensive guy from a trailing defender with options to score or facilitate. Both newcomers are proficient decision makers, and each should see plenty of usage handling the rock. Having a supremely skilled big man will only add to their effectiveness in Stevens’ contemporary system.

Passing/Facilitation

In addition, Horford’s passing abilities will make life easier on Hayward and Irving. Leading all NBA big men with 5 assists per contest last season, Horford alleviated a ton of pressure on Isaiah to constantly manufacture his own shots. Al’s instincts and feel for the game at sharp as a tack at this point in his career, and his simple presence as a versatile facilitator causes unbalances in the defense.

Hayward became an All-Star in Utah’s slothfully downtempo offense (30th in pace), and as the only reliable shot creator in Utah’s offense, he drew incessant swarms of trap blitzes and double teams. He joins a Boston team that had the 8th fastest pace last season, and is reportedly looking to run even more this season. In Horford and Irving, Hayward finds the two best playmakers that he’s ever been with (sorry Boris Diaw). With so many talented parts on the floor, plus the benefit of frequent transition opportunities, opposing defenses won’t be able to zero in on Hayward as easily anymore.

In Cleveland, Irving may have been listed as a point guard, but in reality, he was often forced into a heavy off-ball role when LeBron James was orchestrating the offense. That didn’t just happen occasionally—it happened for large segments of every game. As a result, Kyrie blossomed into a dazzling off-ball scorer, scoring 1.258 PPP on catch-and-shoot opportunities, well above the 0.999 PPP league average.

Hayward and Irving were top-tier spot up shooters last season, ranking in the 84th and 85th percentiles, respectively. Stevens will be able to deploy both of them in the Isaiah Thomas-Avery Bradley mold of off-ball shot creation, i.e., using staggered screens, curls, cuts, pin downs, flare screens, and more. The Celtics primarily relied on Horford’s passing from the high post or top of the key, but in watching his playmaking, you’ll see the variety of schemes that he excels in. The Celtics scored 1.207 PPP with Horford on the floor in 2016-17 versus 1.038 without him, per NBA-Wowy.

When groups of star players join forces together, one is often relegated to the corners for spot-up shooting only. That’s why it’s difficult to integrate three or four ball-dominant players into one system. It’s what makes us wonder if we’ll ever see Love and Aldridge return to their old ways, whether Klay Thompson could succeed as a high-usage facilitator on another team, or how Billy Donovan is going to appease three attention-needy players in Oklahoma City.

“I know people can say...you’ve played against them over the years and things like that,” Horford recently told CSNNE.com. “But it’s not the same when you try to work together and figure things out. So really getting to know these guys, figuring out what they like, their spots on the court. It’s only five practices, but you start to get a sense of how they want to play.”

Big Al’s selfless nature is contagious, and it manifests in the way that the Celtics moved the ball last season. His willingness to put aside personal notoriety is refreshing. In an era where the league is littered with overinflated egos, there’s a reason why Danny Ainge jumped at Horford but balked at DeMarcus Cousins. Predicting chemistry is a legitimate element for constructing a contender, and Horford’s lead-by-example mentality can stabilize locker-room culture. With so many new faces, we should grant the Celtics a forgivable adjustment period to figure everything out. He’s the eldest statesmen of the four 2016 holdovers, and he’ll help to internally manage the overhauled roster.

*All non-referenced statistics are from basketball-reference.com

*All salary information is from RealGM.com