I've read a *wide* range of predictions for how Al Horford will play this season. Depending on how he plays it is clear some folks are either going to be really surprised or really disappointed. But if we are being realistic, what should we be expecting from him?
Well, I think any reasonable predictions for Al need to start from the fact that: 1) He has been a very, very good basketball player for many years (5x All-Star, top 20 active player in VORP) and 2) He is currently 35, which is kinda old for a pro basketball player.
So I decided to do some searching and see, historically, how centers who were about as good as AH did in their age 35-and-over seasons. I focused on players born in 1967 or later, so that these guys were 34 or younger when the NBA instituted the defensive three seconds rule and allowed zone defenses (which fundamentally changed the center position). I then chose to look at guys who had at least three AS selections by the time they were 34 and who played primarily center at that point in their career.
I then defined a "quality season" as a season in which the player posted a VORP of 2.0 or greater. VORP is not a perfect stat, but it is higher if the player plays better (which is important) and also higher if the player plays more minutes (which is also important). Having a VORP of 2.0 makes you roughly an average NBA starting center for that year - in 2021 there were 11 centers who put up a (pro-rated) VORP of 2.0; in 2020 there were 14; in 2019 there were 21; in 2018 there were 16. just last year, guys like Boucher, Harrell, Capela, Valanciunas and RWIII all put up a pro-rated VORP of just over 2.0 while guys like Ayton, Allen, Wood and KP were just below. As a testament to how good Horford is, he put up a VORP of 2.2 even in his lone awful season in PHI, where the fit was terrible. And for all the good things that Theis brought to the table in BOS, his best VORP was 1.7 (which pro-rates to 1.9 for an 82 game season).
So ideally, you'd like to see your best center put up a VORP of at least 2.0. So the obvious question is: over the last 20 years or so how often do 35-year old former All-Stars have a "quality season" like that?
Well, first off, there are a bunch of those seasons from four guys: Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitkzi, KG and Shaq all put up quality seasons (and in some cases multiple quality seasons) at 35 or older. However, those are all MVP level players with 14+ All Star appearances. Horford is great, but he isn't in this category. So I'm not going to expect him to play like them.
So how about the non-MVP level guys? How many of them had quality seasons at 35 or older? That list is much shorter, as it consists of just one name: Pau Gasol. That's it. He's the only guy who is in Horford's league who put up a quality season at 35. [Note: honorable mention to Marcus Camby and Vlade Divac, who are not in Horford's league but did manage to tap the fountain of youth to put up one quality season at 35!] And in terms of comps, I'm not sure Pau is a great one for Horford, because at 35 Pau was coming off an All-Star selection at age 34. Clearly Pau had more in the tank than Horford did last year at 34, as Al didn't get significant AS buzz despite playing most of OKC's pre-ASB games.
Aside from Pau, there are a bunch of guys who I would say are Horford-like but didn't manage any quality seasons at 35 or older: Dwight Howard (8x AS), Alonzo Mourning (7x AS), LaMarcus Aldridge (7x AS), Jermaine O'Neal (6x AS), Rasheed Wallace (4x AS), Ben Wallace (4x AS), Marc Gasol (3x AS). And that is just the guys who managed to keep playing until age 35. There are four more guys (Chris Bosh, Yao Ming, Amar'e Stoudemire, DMC) who were about as good as Horford in their prime but weren't even playing at 34.
So to some extent, Horford has already exceeded expectations by playing until age 35. But that doesn't necessarily mean he is likely to re-capture his former glory this year. While many of the names above were washed at 34 (and Horford was not washed last year) many were not. LaMarcus Aldrige was an All-Star at 33. Marc Gasol put in a quality season at 34. Rasheed Wallace was an All-Star at 33 *and* put in a quality season at 34. None of them managed a quality season at 35.
So all that is to say that a reasonable expectation for Horford this year is probably "below average NBA starter". He may shock everyone, morph into the second coming of Pau Gasol and give us above average production at the five. But in all likelihood he will not. And that is OK. Because he will largely be replacing minutes that last year were played by TT and Daniel Theis - both of whom performed like far below average NBA centers last year. Indeed, both of them really performed more like backups. So having a guy who produces like a below average starter would actually be an upgrade for us in the minutes TL isn't playing!
Anyway I found all this interesting and educational and I hope folks enjoyed the read. I of course hope Al bucks the aging trend and performs really well for us, but I also like to have reasonable expectations so that I am not too frustrated in case he does not!