BOSTON — Al Horford never considered leaving the Boston Celtics this time.
After last season’s turnaround into an NBA Finals run, his individual rejuvenation and with unrestricted free agency looming this summer, he expected a contract extension to get done eventually. This week — despite no apparent urgency — he wanted to get it over with.
“There are more important things that we need to focus on and now seemed like a good time,” Horford said Friday at shootaround. “I just wanted to get it done and just focus on the season and not have anything linger. (I’m) very excited, I’m very happy. My family, we’re very happy about it. This is where we wanted to be, so now that we know that that’s over with and we can just focus on continuing to do the things that we’re doing here, and continuing to put in the work every day and continue to build what we’re trying to build here.”
Horford signed a two-year, $19.5 million deal that’ll reduce his pay by $16.9-million compared to the final year of the contract he originally signed with Philadelphia in 2019 he’s playing on this season. Jason Glushon, Horford’s agent, secured two years of near of guaranteed salary approaching the full mid-level exception for a veteran big man who’ll be approaching 39 at the deal’s conclusion.
The Celtics retained a player who emerged as their rock during their NBA Finals run and started this season scorching hot from three (48.8%), a defensive stalwart at center and a respected leader in the room. Boston, considering Robert Williams III’s uncertain health and Grant Williams’ looming restricted free agency, had incentive to address Horford’s future now.
“Boston, I feel a real connection here with the people and what the Celtics are about and it’s something that just really excited me,” Horford said. “Brad (Stevens) believing in me and bringing me here is something that’s special and I’m really grateful.”
Kemba Walker’s knee injury and the 76ers’ decision to dump Horford after a tumultuous first year in Philadelphia to the rebuilding Thunder created a perfect storm that led to Horford’s unlikely return. Stevens’ ascension to president and good relationship with Sam Presti also played a role, as did Horford’s willingness to take a seat in favor of younger players and focus on rest, recovery and family time during 2021. Oklahoma City traded Horford for Walker and a first-round pick despite the more than $70 million remaining on his contract.
The thinking, with Horford owed $53.5 million on his contract, and potentially less if his 2022 NBA Finals incentives didn’t hit, was that the deal saved the Celtics some money. Instead, Horford’s return changed everything with a dominant defensive season not too far from what Boston witnessed during his first stint. He saved the team’s season with 30 points at Milwaukee in Game 4 of their playoff series on the way to his first conference title.
“I feel like we’re building something really special here, and it’s something that I want to be a part of,” he said. “It’s kind of the reason I came here in the first place.”
Horford takes back-to-backs off now, plays the perimeter almost exclusively on offense and doesn’t light up the box score on the average night. Extended stretches of minutes can challenge him and his production soars when he gets multiple days of rest, but few centers contest more shots, have the ability to switch across more positions, or boast the strength to front the league’s best big men like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That keyed Boston’s postseason push and remains as a result of a methodical weight-lifting regimen.
He never imagined playing over 15 seasons and until this age, even though Amelia, his wife doesn’t understand the fixation on a 36-year-old’s age in the sports world. Eventually, changes in his habits and role in the modern NBA allowed him to see a more sustainable future, and now he has no plans to stop playing anytime soon.
Horford officially made Boston home, and increased the odds he retires with the Celtics team he’s accomplished the most with. Despite losing opportunities to win in the two years away from the team, he has no regrets about taking the path that led him back to Boston.
“It’s part of my journey,” he said. “I’m grateful, my faith has been very big throughout my career, my life, but especially my career. Me leaning on God and praying a lot and understanding that I have to go through different things in life to get to where I want to get to, and I’m very grateful to have that guidance and I don’t regret anything I’ve done. I know that everything has been for the better for me, and it’s positioned me in this place right now.”