Al Horford has always been a good basketball player, but at age 35 and entering his 15th season in the NBA, questions about whether or not he might soon be staring his basketball mortality in the face were well-founded. Horford has put any concerns to rest to start the year.
He’s been arguably the Boston Celtics’ best player, providing a steady hand on offense and stellar defense as both the team’s nominal power forward and when serving as the lone big on the court. Horford has taken to head coach Ime Udoka’s switch-heavy approach.
He keeps down on pump fakes and uses his quick feet and broad frame to keep smaller, faster players in front of him.
Horford has impeccable timing digging down to disrupt ballhandlers headed toward the basket and providing help as a weakside rim protector without losing track of his own man. Horford has looked downright spry in his rotations and defense of the basket. He’s averaging 2.3 blocks per game, almost double his career average.
Horford is excellent when the Celtics deploy more traditional schemes for defending pick-and-rolls as well. He’s an expert defending the ballhandler and roll man simultaneously as his teammates recover to the ball.
There is almost nothing Horford can’t do defensively, with the possible exception of guarding the league’s very best off-the-dribble threats. Boston is benefitting as a result of his polished defensive skill set. The Celtics have been 9.1 points per 100 non-garbage time possessions better defensively with Horford on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. They’ve posted a ludicrous 98.9 defensive rating in those minutes.
Unfortunately for Boston, the exact opposite has occurred on the offensive when Horford plays. The Celtics have scored 10.3 points fewer per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in his minutes, per Cleaning the Glass.
Boston has been absolutely abysmal shooting the ball from beyond the arc with Horford on the court (28.1%). Some of that is his fault. He’s shooting just 28.0 percent from deep to start the year. That number should normalize over the course of the remainder of the season, and the percentage Horford’s teammates shoot from three should rise as well.
Boston’s defensive performance with Horford in the fold is built on a stronger foundation, with much less of their success able to be explained as the result of random shooting outcomes in a small sample.
The film on Horford shows a player that will be immensely valuable as shots begin to fall around him. He’s a very good passer who makes quick decisions that help to keep the ball moving in the halfcourt.
Horford can facilitate from the elbows and post up small defenders in a pinch. He loves to face up, drive middle, turn and then use his frame to protect little hook shots and fadeaways by the basket.
Horford is a good screener both away from the ball and in the pick-and-roll. He can space the floor as a pop man (our at least theoretically he can), pressure the rim with strong rolls, and make good decisions as an outlet on the short roll if teams opt to double ballhandlers.
Nothing Horford does offensively is the kind of thing you can build an offense around, but it all makes everything else run more smoothly. He connects one action to the next seamlessly and helps his teammates to shine. That’s immensely valuable next to players like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Dennis Schroder.
Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise. Everything Horford has excelled at this year is exactly what has made him such a valuable contributor for the entirety of his time in the NBA. The fact that he’s continuing to do them at a high level this deep into his career is the real feat. The Celtics are poised to benefit from it significantly.