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Magic number: how much should the Celtics play Al Horford to keep him fresh for the playoffs?

In order to maximize the Celtics` big man in the playoffs, Boston will need to play him less in the regular season.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Yahoo!’s Ben Rohrbach reported that it was unlikely that Al Horford would negotiate an extension before deciding on his player option for 2019-2020. He’s potentially due $30M in the final year of his contract, but for a majority of Celtics fans who see Big Al as an integral part--if not the integral part--to Boston’s success, they want him back for more.

Horford turned 32 last month and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Instead of picking up his PO, he could parlay it into some job security with a longer term contract and insure that he wraps up the prime of his career on a contender. The Celtics and Horford should be able to find a number that they’re both comfortable with, but on the floor, they’ll have to carefully manage his minutes just like they would his salary on the cap.

Over the last two years, Horford has averaged 32.3 and 31.6 minutes in the regular season. By comparison, Kevin Garnett played 32.8 and 31.1 mpg in his first two years in Boston at age 32 and 33. Tim Duncan played 34.0 and 33.6 mpg in his age 32 and 33 seasons in San Antonio and would play another nine years for the Spurs. It’s certainly not inconceivable that Horford could not only play 3-4 more productive seasons in Boston, but ultimately finish the twilight of his career in green into his late 30’s.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Keith talked to a Celtics’ official during Vegas Summer League and he suggested that Boston will attempt to preserve Horford (and ease Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both recovering from season-ending injuries, back into the fold) by giving him rest days and limiting his minutes. For the last two post-seasons, it’s paid dividends in April and May.

In an Eastern Conference that was dominated by LeBron James and will feature the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons, having Horford on the floor for the playoffs is the great equalizer. There are few big men like Big Al who can defend quicker 4’s and 5’s and stretch the floor against rim protectors and back down smaller defenders on the blocks.

He’s rarely in the same conversation as Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic as modern day unicorns, but his 42.9 3PG% and 4.7 assists per game last season should put him at the top of the list. But here`s the sneaky value of Horford`s game: because of all the years he spent in the paint as Atlanta`s center next to Paul Millsap, he`s still a bruiser. Horford reintroduced his pounding post game in the post-season that he rarely went to in the regular 82. In the regular season, Horford went into the post 26.5% of the time, scoring 0.82 points per possession (38.2 %tile). In the playoffs, that jumped to 31.9% at a robust 1.12 ppp (78.1 %tile).

Aron Baynes’ 18.3 minutes per game, six points, and five rebounds doesn’t seem like a lot, but Baynes absorbs so much of the wear and tear as a traditional center. Horford averaged 13.3 minutes next to Aron Baynes, allowing Al to slide down to the 4. A healthy Daniel Theis, the continuing development of Guerschon Yabusele, and whatever they can squeeze out of Robert Williams’ rookie year will also alleviate some pressures for Horford. Knock on wood, but outside of a pair of concussions, Horford has been able to avoid major injury and Boston will continue to use their depth to bubble wrap their most important big man.

Horford is the hub of Boston’s wheel. He may not determine how fast the wheel spins, but he keeps everything centered and on track. He’s entering a phase in his career where playing less could increase his efficiency and productivity. Every minute that Brad Stevens can save from October to April means more meaningful minutes in May and June.