There’s been so much hand-wringing since the season ended about Marcus Smart’s restricted free agency, the potential of a Terry Rozier trade, the uncertainty of Kyrie Irving, the draft, and just a general fog of what’s next for these Celtics. Those are all legitimate concerns, but there’s been something that’s been gnawing at me since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals: what about Al?
Let’s review some of the narratives around the Celtics’ most consistent player under Brad Stevens’ tenure. Is Al Horford worth the money? Absolutely. He’s proven that time and time again over the last two playoff runs. With his underwhelming counting stats, does Al Horford make his teammates better? On the court, the Celtics boasted a stingy 103.0 DefRtg in the playoffs. Without Al, that ballooned to 109.1. On offense, Boston had a 107.2 OffRtg. No Al and that plummets to 99.4. His usage rate was only 18.6% during the regular season, but he had the highest plus-minus at +4.8.
Here’s the catch. Al Horford is 32-year-old. With only two years left on his four-year deal, the five-time All Star is on the back nine of his prime. While his game seems ageless and he’s found ways to conserve energy for the post-season, Mr. Irreplaceable will need to be replaced (or at least backed up) soon. We’ve seen Danny Ainge search for unicorn adjacent players to act as Horford Lite before. Kelly Olynyk served as a capable Horford proxy in his final season in green. Marcus Morris flexed his defensive versatility in the playoffs.
But if we’re looking down the road, This PG-rich, wing-heavy roster has to find that next do-all big man to bridge the gap between their current core of Irving and Gordon Hayward and the young studs of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. CelticsBlog’s Sam Sheehan and Alex Kungu have identified a few potential draftees in this class on their mock Big Board that could be future students at Al Horford Academy like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr., but that could mean spending valuable asset capital to get them. Unless Nikola Jokic or Kristaps Porzingis suddenly become available in July, there isn’t an obvious move that could be made this summer. And even the most optimistic of crystal balls don’t think that the Celtics have any chance at getting Anthony Davis now or in the near future.
So, here we are. Horford is the elder statesman in the room that nobody seems to be talking about, but all I can hear are the seconds ticking off his clock. Every defensive switch he makes onto a quicker guard and challenges at the rim is a tick we won’t get back. Every three pointer he hits is a tock we won’t get back. All those little things that Al Horford does that doesn’t lead to raising Banner 18 goes wasted.
Paul Pierce was 30, Kevin Garnett was 31, and Ray Allen was 32 when the Celtics won their last championship in 2008. We know how quickly their window closed as they entered the twilight of their careers. There’s obviously reason to be excited about the return of Irving and Hayward next year and the encore of Brown, Tatum, Rozier, and Smart, but let’s not forget that Al Horford isn’t going to be around forever.