Chris Paul is 36. He’s played for five teams in his sixteen seasons in the NBA. And this year could be his year.
There are a couple of Chris Pauls vagabonding around the league, max contract veterans living out the back nine of their decorated careers. Russell Westbrook is still putting up triple doubles in Washington and was a key component in the Wizards’ miracle run to close the season. Kyle Lowry, another aging point guard, finds himself at a crossroads as he hits free agency after eight seasons in Toronto and could still be a key contributor to a contender.
But nobody is having a moment like Chris Paul is now — even if he’s currently out of the Western Conference Finals and in the league’s COVID health and safety protocols. After reinvigorating his career in Oklahoma City last season, the Point God has guided this young Suns team in their first trip to the NBA Playoffs in eleven years. Phoenix completed their bubble season back in August a perfect 8-0, but it’s been Paul that has truly elevated them to this next level and potentially poised to go all the way.
For the Celtics, there was some thought that this role could have been filled by Kemba Walker. After finding success with Isaiah Thomas then Kyrie Irving at the point, plugging in Kemba seemed like a perfect fit, but after a series of unfortunate injury luck, Walker just wasn’t the turnkey solution and last week, he was dealt to the Thunder for Al Horford and Moses Brown.
Stevens’ first move—a big one—is widely considered to be a cost-cutting deal to buy the Celtics flexibility in the short and long term. And while it does save money on the cap sheet, Horford’s potential impact on the floor could be greatly undervalued today and be the driving force for a resurgence this time next year.
For the record, this isn’t to say that Walker was a problem or not as effective as his PG predecessors. On the contrary, it's to suggest that he too could have benefitted greatly from a playmaking big like Horford. And for what it’s worth, when asked if his free agency in 2019 would have ended differently had he known that Walker would eventually sign in Boston, Horford told The Boston Herald, “I don’t want to get caught up in the past,” he said, “but, yeah, that would have been totally different.” Ah, what could have been...
So, when Kemba first arrived in Boston, he publicly took a very humble approach to his place in the pecking order of the team. Despite his max contract, he understood that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were at the top of the totem pole and whatever opportunities he got wouldn’t come at the expense of their development. This was their team and he was only along for the ride. For all of Kemba’s great qualities on and off the court, he wasn’t exactly the kind of player that proverbially “made his teammates better.”
As refreshing as Walker’s vibe was coming off of two tumultuous seasons of Kyrie, the Celtics didn’t ultimately need a vet to play third fiddle to their two rising stars whenever the team needed a little extra scoring; instead, it’s possible they needed a vet to be the rising tide that that lifted all boats.
In his first comments following his introduction as Boston’s new President of Basketball Operations, Brad Stevens hinted at what The Horford Effect has been and will be, saying, “the opportunity to add Al who makes significantly less money and is a really good player who has corporate knowledge of this environment and is really excited to be back in Boston and has a really good feel for not only playing with our guys but has also made them better.”
In this All-Star season with the Suns, Chris Paul averaged 16 points and 9 assists after rehabilitating his game and reputation last season with the Thunder. Horford made similar strides in his brief stint in Oklahoma City, too. After a crash-and-burn year in Philadelphia where he was miscast and misused, Big Al averaged 14.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in twenty-eight games for OKC before being shut down because he wasn’t exactly being average at all (OKC was 11-17 with Horford, 11-33 without him). Those stats are in line with his three successful seasons in green and it’s not farfetched to think that Horford won’t match those numbers again.
But for Stevens and the Celtics, the production isn’t so much of a concern as where it’s coming from. The Suns experimented with Eric Bledsoe and Ricky Rubio next to Devin Booker and even had Booker run point, but it wasn’t until pairing him with the steady hand of Paul did the Suns really take off. The same theory could apply with Horford as he returns to the Boston frontcourt.
After Big Al’s departure for Philly on a four-year, $104 million contract, Brad Stevens tried different players at point forward to approximate Horford’s production. Two years ago, he used Gordon Hayward in the middle of the floor and before a slew of injuries knocked out Hayward for large chunks of the year, Hayward was having his best season in green and arguably of his career. Last year, Boston struggled to find consistency with their center rotation, trying out double big lineups with Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson or playing extremely small at times. With the prodigal dad returning, there’s some hope that he’ll provide stability in what arguably the Celtics’ most inconsistent year of the Danny Ainge era.
There’s no guarantee that Horford can replicate the success the team had when he anchored two straight trips to the conference finals. He turned 36 earlier this month and hasn’t played in an NBA game since late March. But we know Al. It’s really an argument that makes itself because, well, Horford has done it before. Yes, he’s older and yes, the cast around him is different, but there’s a complimentary nature to Horford’s game that just fits perfectly on the parquet.
There’s a gap between peak Celtics Horford and peak 2021 Timelord (and for that matter, peak 2021 Theis), but you could see the value of having a dynamic player at the hub of Boston’s offense and defense. Horford doesn’t do anything particularly great and in his advanced age, he may not be able to handle over thirty minutes a night anymore. But he doesn’t have to be great. Average Al will be good enough.
“His ability to pass, his ability to play a couple of positions, certainly stretch the floor against bigs, and his ability to guard different guys are all very good,” Stevens said. “But his impact on others and his ability to lift others is one of his great strengths.”
There’s a little quirk in Al Horford’s contract. Next season, he’ll make $27 million in the last fully guaranteed year of his deal. In 2022-2023, the Celtics are only on the hook for $14.5 million of the final $26.5 million. However, if Boston makes The Finals, that number jumps up to $19.5 million or fully guaranteed if they raise Banner 18. So, while the motivation to make the move might have been financially motivated, don’t be surprised if Horford blows up all those plans and pulls a Chris Paul.