Al Horford is back.
"It's a bigger appreciation...I'm so happy to be back in Boston," Horford said at Media Day on Monday. "I appreciate even more what it means to be a Celtic and represent Boston. Looking at the group we have here, I'm even more excited."
Al Horford signed with the Boston Celtics as a free agent back in 2016 and was the first "big fish" the franchise acquired in their rebuild. Horford joined a roster that was headlined by Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley.
Over the next three years, Horford would embark on some of the most successful seasons of his career, making the conference finals twice in consecutive years. In his brief time, Horford also oversaw a colossal shift in talent level; where there was once Kelly Olynyk and Gerald Green one year, tere was now Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Marcus Morris.
After the dumpster fire of the 2018-19 season, Horford signed a four-year, $109 million deal with the Philadelphia 76ers as he chased a championship ring. Unfortunately, he failed to develop chemistry with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. New head coach Ime Udoka, who was an assistant coach with Philly at the time, spoke about coaching the big man and what he expects from him this upcoming season.
"We had a big lineup in Philadelphia. He worked well off of Joel Embiid. He is obviously a cerebral player who can pass the ball, shoot the ball, do some things on the perimeter, and take advantage of mismatches. Most teams only have one big out there, and for the most part, that would usually be on Joel.
What didn't work well was us putting him in the best position in Philadelphia to take advantage of some of the mismatches he had. But we're looking at some different things with Al. He's so versatile, and he kind of got back to who he was in Oklahoma City last year to some extent. He's looked great in the gym and is in tremendous shape."
Horford averaged 13.5 points, seven rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game during his first run with the Celtics. In the two years since he left, those numbers slightly dipped to 12.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists, but in a brief stint in Oklahoma City, he looked like his old self and should be fresh after playing only twenty-eight games for the Thunder.
Even when Horford was struggling, his numbers remained relatively consistent because his impact on the game is felt on multiple areas of the floor. However, it quickly became clear that the Thunder were looking to move on from the 35-year-old, but no trade materialized during the season. When Brad Stevens moved from head coach to President of Basketball Operations in the offseason, his first move was to jump at the opportunity to reclaim Horford.
Horford is entering a locker room full of familiar faces, not just those he left two years ago but also former teammates and coaches from around the league. Josh Richardson was a teammate of his during his ill-fated season with the Sixers. When speaking about his own decision to come to Boston, Dennis Schroder noted that Horford was a big reason he chose the Celtics in free agency.
"I had a great time in Atlanta with Al. He's a great guy; his family, just being around him and his mentality, his chemistry with all the teammates in the locker room, is important for me as well. I knew when I was coming here, Al Horford has got the locker room under control. To be in that environment and to play with him again — I'm excited."
It's that levelheadedness and leadership that has so many players excited to see him back on the Celtics roster. Robert Williams gushed when asked about having Horford back on the team. "I was just talking to Al and EK (Enes Kanter), and they're some of the biggest influences on how my life has been going in this game, on and off the court. With Al, watching him as a family man and taking it to the professional side. And Enes, watching some of the things he does, making 30 rebounds, it's just great energy and always positivity."
Horford will again play a mentor role to some of the team's younger contingent, everything from his professional approach to the game to how he takes care of his body.
One player who should thrive under the tutelage of Horford is Grant Williams. Both players share a high basketball IQ, play a balanced game on both sides of the floor, and neither has elite-level athleticism.
"I feel like it's going to be a great opportunity (to learn from Horford). Al, the player that he is, makes it easier for everyone around with, no matter who he's playing with,” Williams said. “He's so gifted when you see him play. You see all the skills that he possesses: shooting, passing, ability to cut, ability to read the game."
Looking ahead to this season, we already know that Horford brings a calming presence to the Celtics rotation and will provide much-needed spacing for the likes of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Furthermore, the veteran big man's passing ability will help take some of the playmaking load off the shoulders of Boston's two budding star wings. Horford's ability to play on the perimeter and impact games as a stretch big will give the Celtics added versatility in their rotations and should help some of the younger players like Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard find extra space on the floor.
With the Godfather now back in the locker room, and presumably the rotation, the Celtics will look to his leadership and calming demeanor to help steady the ship when the seas get rough. Horford's leadership has been missed in his two-year absence, and now, with a roster full of multi-skilled veteran talent and a two draft classes looking to make an impact, we can understand why so many players on the roster are excited to have him back in a Celtics uniform.