The jubilation of signing Al Horford was hindered by the disappointment of the Celtics swinging and missing in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes. The confetti dropped, but the fireworks failed to ignite.
There was speculation starting in February, then the Adrian Wojnarowski report that the Cs had been eliminated from the running, then the chaotic announcement that he chose to sign in Boston on a four-year, $113 million deal.
Many quickly declared the Horford acquisition the most impactful signing in Cs history. I didn’t find out until after a summer basketball game. Looking back and seeing the team had seemingly missed out then landed him got my heart racing retroactively. By the narrowest of margins, it seemed, the Celts finally had gotten themselves a top-tier free agent.
Eight months later many fans are taking this fortune as well as a great player for granted. Adversarial fans are using his supposed struggles as a way to smear Boston’s success. Here’s a sampling:
Al Horford stinks, breh.— Ry (@JustRyCole) March 2, 2017
Oh wee the Celtics stinks and Al horford robbed the Celtics blind— Arty (@ArtybeingArty) February 28, 2017
Al Horford can hit 17 ft jumpers.... What else can he do? Seriously? So overrated!— John Fortney (@jfort753) March 9, 2017
I’m not trying to single out those people. This is merely a sample of what’s become a popular hot take—that Horford is either overrated, underperforming, not worth a max contract, or, most hilariously of all, that he flat-out stinks. Many even took to the internet to rip him over missing a game to be present for his child’s birth.
Ask Anna Horford, his sister and perhaps biggest fan who has made it her responsibility to fight off the criticism he faces on a nightly basis.
So you think Al should be playing w/ a hurt elbow bc you've supposedly done it before?? You're right, let's just risk further injury, nbd! https://t.co/JVXZ0pgJ4g— Anna Horford (@AnnaHorford) March 7, 2017
Anna has clearly heard the negative noise surrounding Al. Whether or not he has been able to turn a fully deaf ear to it was a different question. One that was finally answered by Adam Himmelsbach in a spectacular Horford feature on Saturday.
The loudest calls against Horford throughout the season have been that his points per game is too small. There’s actually no problem in that department, at least from the perspective of his career and what to expect. His 14.0 points per game this year are just 0.3 under his career average. He was an All-Star in 2009-10, scoring just 0.2 more PPG.
There’s also more to offense than scoring. As Brad Stevens said in the article, Horford may be almost over-eager to pass at times. There are few occurrences where he doesn’t make the right play. A 30-point night can be flashy, but even Isaiah Thomas has shown that a 10+ assist performance can be just as effective.
He’s assisted on 24% of the team’s baskets, while the squad boasts the ninth-highest scoring offense in the league. Let’s say hypothetically all of his 4.9 assists per game (third among players 6’10” or taller) created two-pointers. That’s 24 PPG created by him (including his own points)—a far more respectable “scoring” output. Buckets, rather than an APG number, win games, but that’s what Thomas is for.
Horford isn’t the typical superstar, but the overall impact he has on a game doing a little bit of everything adds up. When he’s on the court the Celts are five points better in terms of effective FG% (which factors threes at a higher rate) and see a staggering jump of 7.2 in offensive rating from 107 to 115. He shoots threes, gets post positioning to score and pass, dribbles effectively, is the top rebounder on the team, can defend multiple positions and blocks shots on top of all of that. He has some Tim Duncan to his game and personality. He’s a silent, fundamental killer. Nothing’s done at an elite level, but the total package packs a punch.
So why do people focus their frustration at him?
The largest, most overarching reason seems to be the contract. When you make over $20 million, there are expectations that aren’t there for players on smaller deals. There’s that notion of “getting what you paid for.” Whenever there’s a loss it only makes sense to look at the guy getting the biggest paycheck and ask what more he could have done. It stinks, when players make a fraction of what owners make, to get mad at a man for earning money, but in a salary cap league it’s a thing.
Fans are paying customers, and when the biggest cap investment is underperforming there’s reasonable cause to question why ticket, merchandise, and TV cash that comes from them is being allocated that way. Only, in this case, I believe the two main reasons fans are expecting more out of Horford are unjust.
First is the expectation factor. The 2014-15 Celts were playing with house money with a makeshift roster that was recovering from a terrible start to the season under Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo. They could do no wrong as Danny Ainge tried to unload and Stevens pushed to win with what he was given.
There were no big-money stars on that squad. It was Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome pushing into the first round against the Cavaliers with a hot finish. They were the castaways, guys whose old teams didn’t want them trying to come together and prove them wrong like the island of misfit toys.
Since that playoff rush, the toys have grown more expensive and well known. With that, there’s cause to expect success.
It began a year ago when the Celts were expected to build on the first-round appearance and did not. They won more games but still went home against the Hawks without advancing. All Horford had to do with last season was helping Atlanta eliminate the Celts. And rumors, a boatload of rumors stemming off his All-Star hug with Thomas.
How many players at Al Horford's size can make this pass with this accuracy? Incredible. pic.twitter.com/2WIkseYjQx— Nicholas Sciria (@Nick_Sciria) October 2, 2016
This plays into criticism of him this year only because many of the knocks on the Celts are doubts that carry over from their postseason loss. Many saw the first-round exit as failing to meet expectations, even though Avery Bradley missed the entire series and other players were severely banged up. Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk even saw their injuries carry into this year.
With Horford came even more demand on top of what the team arguably failed to meet. Despite their enormous strides this season (a record three-point shooting offense, three more wins through 67 games even with only 27 played at full health and Isaiah Thomas attaining one of the greatest single seasons in Celts history), every shortcoming has been magnified.
The playoffs haven’t even arrived, and the cloud of doubt still floats over them. Many are waiting for them to disappoint in the postseason again, and with every slip-up fingers quickly point to the superstar they’re supposedly leaning on. Yet in recent losses to the Suns and Clippers that Horford missed with an elbow sprain, his absence was highlighted as the team dipped to 38% and 41% from the field respectively. In miraculous upset wins over the Warriors and Cavaliers, Boston shot 44% and 46%. Horford was a combined 7-14 from the field with 19 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists between the two.
Every bump in the road, Horford is the target, when in reality his presence propels their success. The Celtics are 7-7 (.500) in his absence as opposed to 35-18 (.660) when he plays.
The other reason for the criticism also relates to expectations, but expectations that are completely outside of Horford’s control. The team has so many assets and isn’t a championship caliber team yet, which continues to frustrate title-hungry fans.
Jeff Clark compared the Celts’ situation now to 2007 on The Bobcast this week. He said when the Celtics acquired Horford but not Kevin Durant, it was comparable to an imaginary scenario of the 2007 Celts completing the Ray Allen trade but not the following Kevin Garnett mega-deal.
It’s an interesting parallel. The 2007 offseason was too perfect. There was the Danny Ainge-Kevin McHale relationship in place, Garnett needed to move on from Minnesota and the Celts had Al Jefferson to send. Having Allen in place was also enticing enough to get Garnett to join. It wasn’t the same case with Durant last offseason. The Celts were left with every piece to become a championship team again except the most important one, and that left a sour taste in the summer of Tom Brady and Olynyk tie-dye shirt recruitment trips.
What’s left is an incomplete picture. Horford is the second man on the squad, and it’s not enough to reach the top. It’s not his fault. Getting him here was pivotal for this journey toward banner 18 to continue. Whenever I hear people rip Horford I think, “Would you rather they have missed out on him too?” The final piece isn’t here yet, but it doesn’t mean it’s never coming. If a big three formulates this summer, people will see acquiring Horford as a pivotal step toward getting there. It just didn’t happen all in one month like in 2007, which should be looked at as a miracle rather than a formula.
What the Celtics have right now is a blessing. They’re already one of the best teams in the league and have the pieces to get to the next level in the near future. Patience is hard, but this year’s success should be satisfying for now.
Every game demands an instant reaction. Blaming Horford for everything that goes wrong with the team isn’t the answer when so much has gone right this season outside of bad luck with injuries. If the team disappoints in the postseason, that’s a conversation to have then, but just because it happened in the spring doesn’t mean it’s what’s in the crystal ball for April and May.
The Warriors and Cavaliers wins showcase the truth on Horford. He’s far more likely to be the key player in an extended playoff run than the goat in an early exit.