The Boston Celtics were one win away from the 2018 NBA Finals with a chance to beat LeBron James on the TD Garden floor. Unfortunately they were unable to get the job done, shooting 7 of 39 on their three-point attempts and falling victim to James’ postseason dominance once again.
However, it was still an incredibly successful season for the Celtics. The team suffered season-ending injuries to its two best players but still won 55 games and made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. There are many who deserve credit for the team’s unexpected success, and Al Horford has to be towards the top of that list.
From the time Horford decided to sign with the Celtics to now, he has been a symbol of stability during a two-year period of constant turnover and uncertainty.
After leading the Celtics to a 53-win season and Eastern Conference Finals berth, Horford was one of four returning players on the roster for this season. That presented its own challenge with integrating two new star players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward while a rookie and second-year player were expected to play key roles. Then Hayward went down for the season five minutes in to the opener, leaving Horford and Irving to adjust even further.
The Celtics sprinted out to the best record in the East behind a 16-game winning streak, filled with unprecedented comebacks. Boston was poised for a possible NBA Finals appearance until Irving was ruled out for the season, eliminating all hope of a deep playoff run. Boston made it a lot farther than everyone thought, hanging their hat on the defensive end with Horford as their anchor.
Horford played primarily at the center position last season, but with Aron Baynes’ insertion into the starting lineup he was able to slide to a more suitable role relative to his skill set. The change led the Celtics to a league-best defensive rating throughout the year and an All-Defensive second team selection for Horford.
Compared to last season, Horford seemed to have increased his lateral quickness, especially on the defensive end. This has helped him pick up quicker guards and wings off of switches, making it even harder for teams to score on the Celtics’ defense. His ability to win his matchup as the primary defender against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons in the first two rounds of the playoffs played a major role in Boston advancing to the conference finals.
Horford’s playmaking ability was still a key strength for the Celtics offense, and he increased his three-point percentage from 35 percent a year ago to 42.9 percent this season, ranking tenth in the NBA—pretty impressive for a player who started consistently shooting threes two years ago.
His scoring average was the lowest it’s been since his second year in the league, but this year was arguably Horford’s best in overall impact. From providing superb defense and offensive versatility to taking on the primary leadership role for a group of talented but inexperienced youngsters, there wasn’t much more you could ask for out of the 31-year-old veteran.
This section is probably better suited for a name like “The Nitpicking,” because that’s the extent of Horford’s shortcomings this season. Some basketball minds have grown sour on Horford because he doesn’t play like a traditional big, scoring 20-plus points and grabbing 10 or more rebounds per game. While that’s a mostly ridiculous way to think about him, some of Horford’s problems on the court stem from his new-era style of play.
Because he is such a skilled and willing passer, Horford tends to defer to his teammates in spots where he should take the shots himself. During the season and in the playoffs, the Celtics’ offense would struggle to score for several minutes at a time, mostly due to the fact that Horford didn’t get enough paint touches.
While his teammates are responsible for ensuring that Horford gets the ball down low enough, he has to make sure they remember he’s there. He showed a pretty reliable post game during the playoffs, and with Irving and Hayward coming back, the Celtics could probably use an inside presence at times with perimeter-heavy lineups.
Horford signed a 4-year $113 million contract two summers ago with the Celtics, which means he is entering the third year of that deal in 2018-19, making $28.9 million. The fourth year on the deal has a player option where Horford can opt out of a $30.1 million salary and become an unrestricted free agent again.
He is eligible for an extension this summer, but it is unlikely the Celtics re-sign him before the season starts. Horford will be 32 going into his final year of the deal, and if Boston wants to retain him for a price lower than his max contract, they’ll probably wait until after he opts out of the fourth year. If they sign him this summer, the $30.1 million can’t be opted out of.
The Celtics will have contract extensions for Marcus Smart, Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier staring them in the face over the next two years. Given the harsh penalties of the luxury tax, Boston’s front office will have some tough decisions to make. This makes Horford’s contract and age interesting.
Horford is a vital part of this team’s success, but it’s hard not to notice that he is on a different timeline than Irving (26 years old), Hayward (28), Tatum (20) and Brown (21). In the short term Boston can look at ways to keep him at a fair price for both sides, while looking for a potential long-term replacement in the draft or via trade/free agency.
The Celtics are rumored to be interested in Texas center Mo Bamba, but I’d be surprised if they move up in this draft. The salary of a top pick this year would make it very difficult to re-sign Smart and stay away from the luxury tax before next summer. Boston could look at Rozier’s increased trade value after starting in place of Irving, as well as their four potential first-round picks in next year’s draft, as a way to find an heir to Horford.
In terms of next season, Horford is primed for a lot more time at center again with Hayward returning to the starting lineup. With a full roster on opening night (sans Marcus Morris), Brad Stevens went with a combination of Irving-Brown-Tatum-Hayward-Horford. It’s a lineup that poses numerous mismatches and problems for opposing teams on both ends, but takes Horford out of his preferred power forward spot.
As mentioned before, Horford seemed more spry this season compared to last. He is listed at 245 pounds on nba.com, and he might need to bulk up a bit to manage the physical demands of playing center full time. Boston is more equipped to help Horford than last season if they bring back Baynes and have a healthy Daniel Theis in the rotation, so it isn’t a major concern, just a notable storyline heading into next year.
Horford has draw considerable criticism for the amount of money he makes, and it’s growing increasingly difficult to deny his value to the franchise after the last two seasons, especially in the playoffs. Boston has some decisions to make regarding their front court’s future, but they don’t have to worry about much in the short term with Horford leading the front line.