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Celtics roster review: Al Horford needs more talent around him

Al Horford was just about everything the Celtics could have reasonably asked for this year, but the team still has a long way to go.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Al Horford’s performance in 2016-2017 was about as good as anyone could have reasonably expected. He disappointed a bit in the regular season, posting his lowest points per game mark in the last five years, shooting the worst percentage from the field of his career, and continuing a disturbing year-over-year trend of reduced rebounding effectiveness that started in 2013.

Horford offset most of those issues by setting a career high in assists and maintaining a healthy three-point percentage (.355), despite an increase in volume, and everything but his low rebound totals disappeared in the playoffs.

That’s important. What Horford contributes in the most meaningful minutes of the year is what really matters, particularly as he ages. If Boston gets even a 75% version of what Horford has traditionally provided in the regular season, and what they saw this year during the playoffs, for the life of his contract, then the big money they gave him will be well worth it.

It is important to note that playing at the same level isn’t limited to individual production. Horford’s greatest asset is that he’s not really bad at anything. He has enough competence on both ends of the floor to fill almost any conceivable role, and that makes everyone around him better. Adding Horford was a systems-level improvement that increased the versatility of the Celtics offense and defense.

Horford’s shooting and ability to attack opposing bigs off the dribble are primary reasons Boston’s was able to score so effectively this year. It breathed space into all of the teams sets, and forced plodding defenders to chase him out to the three-point line.

If they were too slow, Horford would knock down an open jump shot. If they came out a bit to aggressively, he would use his superior quickness to blow by them and either score or find an open teammate, and it wasn’t just bigs that were susceptible. Take a look at how he pump fakes Bradley Beal.

Horford isn’t good enough off the bounce to simply break down his man and go by them in isolation, but he’s tough to deal with in rotation. He can also function as an offensive fulcrum in the post, where he is a threat to score, and a deadly passer.

The Celtics leaned on his ability to facilitate from all over the court throughout the year, but found it to be particularly useful in defeating the Washington Wizards to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Watch him sneak a pass through a tight window to Jae Crowder here.

That’s special, and the fact that Horford can and will make such passes adds another variable for defenders to consider. The Celtics don’t have a lot of players that can create offense on their own, which means they need to rely on schemes and structure to force opponents into difficult decisions. Horford’s blend of shooting, size, and skill gives them all sorts of options in that department.

The same is fairly true of him on the defensive end. Horford was the team’s best rim protector and most switchable big, capable of defending wings and guards for small bursts in switches in the pick and roll. The trouble with that set up is that, unless you are Draymond Green, it’s very difficult to be both those things at once.

Most team’s didn’t have enough talent to make that a problem. During the regular season, Horford could choose one role to play defensively that was most important, or oscillate between them as was need. That became slightly less tenable in the playoffs however, and completely impossible against the Cavs. Cleveland just has too much firepower. Watch Horford over-help on Kyrie Irving here.

Horford knows he’s the team’s best chance at plugging the lane and deterring Irving at the rim if he beats his man, but he is also guarding Kevin Love because he is the only Boston big quick enough to chase him around and closeout effectively, without producing a mismatch in the post. Horford makes a bad decision here, but it isn’t because he is a bad defender. It’s because he is being asked to do too much.

Here’s another instance of Horford worrying about providing sufficient help, and Love drilling a three.

His instincts aren’t wrong. Lebron James, the world’s most devastating basketball force, is moving towards the hoop. Horford simply wants to help his team try to keep James from dunking, but you can’t leave Love wide open in the corner.

Cleveland forces teams to make difficult decisions like this constantly, and they typically result in wide open looks. They are ruthless in searching for those shots, and the Golden State Warriors might actually only be the only team in the entire league qualified enough defensively to handle them.

If the Celtics want to compete for championships, though, that’s the level they’ll have to hold themselves accountable to. They need more talent to reach it. Horford is a start, but if there is one takeaway from this year it is this: Al Horford is a very good basketball player, but he isn’t the second best player on a championship caliber team. He might not even be the third best.

His skill set is immense and diverse. It spans both sides of the court, and it drastically increases Boston’s flexibility in style of play. The Celtics best chance at maximizing Horford’s abilities is to surround him with more talent. If Horford is the Celtics rising tide, they need to make sure they have boats big enough to compete with the likes of Cleveland and Golden State.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Should Boston add some top-tier talent in this and future summers, and Horford provide them with an equivalent level of pay in subsequent playoff runs, then the massive contract they gave him will be easily justified. If the Celtics strike out in the offseason and Horford’s game begins to decline with age, all that money will be viewed a bit more negatively- an albatross the organization will be happy to shed as a new youth movement emerges.

In many ways, perspective on the Horford signing mirrors a perspective on the franchise as a whole. This year was good, but a clear affirmation that the Celtics need more talent (and Horford more talent around him to best leverage his strengths). What’s to come could go any number of ways, and if the ultimate path that Boston follows doesn’t work out, we’ll lament not taking one of the many alternative options.

It’s an exciting time, and it’s easy to get caught up about what could be and what could have been before any of those things have happened. We would all be wise to try to live in the present a bit more. Today, Al Horford and the Boston Celtics had a very good year. What happens next will be fascinating, but let’s deal with it as it comes.

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