Hoop heads love Al Horford. Steve Kerr’s glowing evaluation of his importance to the Boston Celtics prior to the Warriors’ win in Boston earlier this week made Horford’s eye-test loyalists giddy. But lovers and haters of his game unite behind one take: Anthony Davis is preferable.
Steve Kerr on Al Horford: "He's a great player. In many ways, I think he's their key. We know how great Kyrie is — one of the very best in the game — but Al, to me, is sort of the hub of the wheel. Things just sort of revolve around him. I've always loved his game."— Nicole Yang (@nicolecyang) January 26, 2019
That trade off isn’t so simple for the Celtics. Currently handcuffed by Davis requesting his trade over one week prior to the Feb. 7 trade deadline, Boston finds itself in a rare position of trade inflexibility due to an obscure CBA rule, but also because their current center is killing it.
Quietly behind the fanfare of Kyrie Irving’s free agency, Horford can hit the market too, and that’s leverage for him presumably as Danny Ainge pursues Anthony Davis.
Horford, 32, returned from patella tendinitis earlier in the year and has averaged 12.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.2 blocks per game since December 23rd. In Monday’s blowout win over the Nets — Boston’s 12th over those 18 contests — he drew four blocks shy of a triple-double, his fourth straight game with at least two rejections.
He’s played fluidly and assertively and his three-point stroke is back to 40 percent over that stretch. Boston’s getting Horford’s best of late and it shows in their results. Brad Stevens relies immensely on him, not only for his versatility, but for the load he carries at the team’s thinnest position. Even at his age, Horford enjoys the extensive minutes for rhythm, but it does raise questions about the franchise’s future at the 5 beyond him.
The dichotomy of Boston having a player their season would be over without, while simultaneously pursuing bigger and better things at his position is an odd one, but one that both the team and Horford will grapple with this summer should Davis stay in NOLA beyond the February 7th trade deadline.
Horford probably likes the idea of a guaranteed $30.1 million owed to him next season if he chooses to opt into the final season of his Celtics deal. Landing in New Orleans for the 2019-20 season is probably less thrilling. At roughly $158 million in career salary over 12 years into his career, he won’t need to value that money over comfort.
Even if Horford doesn’t figure directly in the Davis negotiations, as New Orleans would have little use for him for one season at massive salary, Davis potentially landing in Boston complicates Horford’s future with the team nonetheless.
If Davis arrives making $27.1 million in 19-20, Gordon Hayward remains at $32.7 million and Kyrie Irving re-signs at roughly $37 million, then that’s roughly $96.8-million of the projected $109-million cap in three players alone. If Horford opts into this situation, the C’s catapult to $126 million in salary before rounding out a starting lineup.
If Horford’s contract isn’t in the Davis deal, Boston will then need to replace the multiple players they send out to match his salary, driving well above the $132 million luxury tax and triggering year two of their clock toward the repeater tax. If, hypothetically, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown exit in the deal, the team may need to field a competitive offer to Marcus Morris to retain wing depth. Constructing a championship team can get expensive and complicated quickly.
The two important dates will be the trade deadline — when we learn if this Davis decision will be pushed to the summer — and the May 14 NBA Draft Lottery, that’ll determine what picks potential suitors in the summer hold. Boston can make a wink nod agreement with New Orleans at that point, but they may not know if Horford is opting in or out of his deal until June 29 — the player option deadline.
Communication is key, but complicated since the Celtics have their interests and Horford has his as a valuable player still producing at a prime level. New Orleans has theirs with upwards of a dozen suitors undoubtedly lining up for the NBA’s best big. For Horford, the Kings, Nets, Pacers and Clippers could hold enough cap space and interest in an upgrade at center to be used as leverage if Boston goes too deep into Davis negotiations.
The worst case scenario is that the Davis sweepstakes runs beyond July 1, Horford opts out and draws interest from other teams with competitive offers, and Boston loses both.
All of this is predicated on Horford’s priorities, and he could be dedicated to Boston for the rest of his career, but it’s also an awkward proposition to sit on the sideline and watch his team pursue an upgrade at his position unless he agreed to come back on a team-friendly deal prior. That’s the best case scenario.
If Boston does land Davis, then retaining Horford isn’t necessary and it could become preferable for both sides to part, but there is such a thing as getting too greedy. We’ve seen this season what too much talent can fester.