In training camp, head coach Ime Udoka marveled at the impact that Al Horford still commanded on both sides of the ball. He looked fresh and had seemingly “found the fountain of youth.” After playing just 28 games with the Thunder last season, he looked sharp in preseason practices and games and projected to be a key piece in the success in 2022. Unfortunately, it seems as though that well has dried up.
He’s missed a game here and there with nagging injuries including six in the league’s health and safety protocols and for the most part, Horford’s availability has been one of his best abilities all year. However, there are marked diminishing returns now from that unexpected trade that sent Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City and set up a reunion with Horford. After rediscovering his three-point with the Thunder and shooting 36.8% from behind the arc, he's yet to hit a groove in his second stint with the Celtics, hitting a dismal 28.3% and by far his worst percentage since adding that to his game in his final season in Atlanta.
He’s steady in the paint, shooting a career-high 82% from 0-3 feet from the basket. Unfortunately, those opportunities have been few and far between. As he’s aged, his game has moved farther and farther away from the paint and now at 35 years old, a whopping 45% of Horford’s offense is shooting 3’s and he’s not making them.
More concerning is his recent role in games that Boston has been expected to win. In four of the last five, Horford has not played many clutch minutes in the fourth quarter with Udoka opting to go with the younger Robert Williams or small with Grant Williams at the 5 or both. Some of that is matchup-based and hot hand, but Horford’s absence is striking considering how much the team has struggled of late closing out games and could have used a veteran presence on the floor. In last night’s heart-wrenching loss to the Spurs, Horford left the game with over four minutes remaining and never returned.
He’s still a solid defender. In Udoka’s switching scheme, Horford can still hold his ground on the block with other bigs and challenge guards and wings on the perimeter. He’s averaging more blocks per game (1.6) than he ever has in his entire career 15-year career. He’s been a big reason why the Celtics have the 7th best defense in the league.
However, the front office could be at a crossroads soon. If Boston’s home-heavy January schedule doesn’t break they way many expect it to — the Celtics are 2-2 so far on the homestand — the February 10 trade deadline could prove to be a crossroads in Horford’s career, too.
His contract status remains curious. When President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens quickly made the deal for him, the trade was considered a swap of one distressed asset for another. Walker’s max deal included an additional guaranteed year, so the Celtics included a first round pick to sweeten the pot to obtain Horford. The $27 million he’s earning this season is the final fully guaranteed year of the deal he signed with the 76ers when he left Boston in free agency. In 2022-2023, only $14.5 million is guaranteed.
For the Celtics, they could simply ride out the remainder of this season and hope that Horford bounces back. They’ll still also have this upcoming summer to use his non-guaranteed year as a trade chip in July for a team (including themselves) looking to clear some cap space.
But if something unexpected comes available in the next five weeks, Stevens would have to listen. Could the Celtics pry away Cam Reddish from Atlanta by absorbing Danilo Gallinari’s contract? Is there a trade that could send Jusuf Nurkic to Boston in a three-way deal? Let’s get crazy: anybody want to roll the dice on Kristaps Porzingis or John Wall?
Right now, all seem like far-fetched ideas and Horford’s slump could just be a blip. Even if it does signal an irreversible regression, Al Horford at 80% is still a very productive NBA player, but at some point, his contract may be worth more than his play on the floor.