In times of dramatic change, it is comforting to anchor oneself to a solid touch point to regain balance. The roster has changed so much this summer that I find myself using Al Horford as that touch point. He’s a solid, steady, and reliable performer, and he bridges the gap between last year’s team and this one.
Two years ago the team’s identity was that of an upstart, overachieving group of underdogs. Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Marcus Smart worked hard to earn the league’s respect, and they were able to put together a solid 48-win season. However, when the playoffs rolled around they weren’t taken all that seriously.
Al Horford’s arrival gave the Celtics legitimate credibility. He increased the talent level and provided them with a veteran All-Star presence. They still were not considered serious contenders for the title, but they were in the “one LeBron turned ankle away from making the Finals” category.
His arrival also signaled to the rest of the league that Boston was increasingly becoming an attractive destination for NBA stars. Kevin Durant may have passed on Boston to join the juggernaught out west, but the Celtics were in his top 5.
Fast forward to this past summer and we saw that Gordon Hayward did choose the Celtics and Kyrie Irving was ecstatic about leaving LeBron James and landing in Boston. Once again the Celtics upped their top-end talent level and are stepping up their credibility (not to mention expectations).
However, that didn’t come without cost. Gone are most of the guys that built this team. Gone are the guys that recruited Al Horford and even Gordon Hayward. Marcus Smart remains, but he’s still an unfinished product. Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown remain as well, but both are still damp around the earlobes. In short, there’s very little outside the coaching staff connecting last year’s team to this one.
In the gap stands Al Horford. If you squint your eyes, you can still see Al setting screens at elbows, receiving an entry pass, and finding a cutter or a kickout for a scoring opportunity. Except now, instead of Isaiah Thomas curling around those picks, it will be Kyrie Irving. Instead of Avery Bradley cutting backdoor, it could be Gordon Hayward. Instead of Jae Crowder shooting from the corner, it could be Jaylen Brown.
The offense is bound to look a little different as Brad Stevens works to maximize his new players’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses. At the core, however, the fundamental tenets remain. Spacing, ball movement, and intelligent read-and-react decision making are critical to Brad’s system and happen to be what Al thrives at.
Much has been written and said about how his production matches up with his salary, but to me that’s missing the point. His role is fundamental to making those around him better (3rd on the team in +/-) and less about the counting stats.
That isn’t to say that he doesn’t have areas that he could improve. There were times last year when the team needed another scoring option, and he was slow to pick up that burden. His defense (in particular on pick-and-roll coverage) seems to have taken a step back.
Still, he figures to be just as important to the team’s success this year as he was last year. He may have to play more “center” than he did in the past, but his role shouldn’t be dramatically different.
What is perhaps a bit more cloudy is his role on this team in the future. Danny Ainge specifically pointed out how the 25-year-old Kyrie Irving fits the team’s “timeline.” The 27-year-old Hayward is solidly in his prime. Much of the rest of the roster skews to the younger side.
So what does that mean to the 31-year-old Al Horfod and his future with the team? He’s under contract for two more seasons (including this one) with a player option for a 3rd. Nobody knows just how productive he’ll be by the end of that contract, but any shortfall represents the premium the team was willing to pay in order to secure his talents for the first few years.
However, if the Celtics end up having a shot at trading for Anthony Davis, then Horford’s contract is the logical one to include to match salaries going out (presumably with picks and/or young players attached as well). It is hard to come up with another big-name player that would fit the team’s needs and be available on the market, but nobody was expecting to see Kyrie Irving change teams either.
In the meantime, Horford remains, and he bridges the gap between the previous era and the upcoming one. All the attention will be on Irving and Hayward and even Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But the constant, steadying force will still be Al Horford.