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An ode to Al Horford

He’s not wildly productive. He’s “overpaid” in relation to his counting stats. And yet, he is the secret sauce that makes this iteration of the Celtics work both on and off the court. What makes Big Al a coach’s and teammate’s dream?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Hold on one second while I slip into a sports talk radio, hot take, life-is-miserable-and-so-am-I avatar.

You know what’s holding the Celtics back? Average Al Horford. Can you believe this guy is making $26.5 million this year? He’s the 52nd highest paid player in the league, and what’s he giving you? 9.3 points per game! That’s good for … checks notes … 150th best scoring average in the league. Single digits! What a joke. What a fraud. Must be nice to sit back and collect all that cheddar while sitting out the second half of back-to-backs and having five teammates average more points than you.

Did I do that right? Probably not. I inserted a few notes and facts rather than just spouting off extemporaneously about a sport I don’t even watch. Still, I feel like I need to take a shower.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a moment and really appreciate the understated, late-career brilliance of one Al Horford. Not only is he the Celtics elder statesman and honorary team “Dad” since he is two years older than the head coach, he is also the glue that holds this recent contending Celtics era together. His presence is vital both on and off the court. I would argue that, more than any other current Celtic, he makes life easier for every other member of the team, including head coach Joe Mazzulla.

Sometimes life just works out. I actually wrote this article on Thursday, February 23. Then, Mr. Horford decided to go out and validate just about every point I wanted to make in a thrilling 110-107 victory over Philadelphia. Horford swung the entire momentum of the game with his own personal 9-0 spurt to kick off a larger 18-3 run in the last 4 minutes of the 3rd quarter that flipped the script from a 13-point deficit to a 2-point Celtics advantage entering the final quarter. When the Sixers clawed their way back into the lead, it was Horford again hitting a massive 3 to take a 2-point lead with 1:38 remaining. Horford had the legs to bury all 5 of his 3 point attempts in the 2nd half despite banging and bumping with a motivated Joel Embiid for 32 minutes in the post.

Offensively, Horford consistently stretches the floor and provides spacing while holding and shooting the ball at a miniscule rate, which allows his teammates increased opportunities to dribble and shoot. He sets effective screens and shares the ball with willingness and skill. In short, he is the guy everyone wants to play with in a pickup game. Such a dad.

Defensively, despite his advanced age, he still has rare versatility. He provides rim protection when necessary. He has the girth to bang with behemoths like Joel Embiid in the post, and he can switch out onto guards and provide some resistance when required. It is rare to find a big who doesn’t have a glaring deficiency in one of those three areas. In terms of intangibles, his skillset works with any other combination of players, allowing Coach Mazzulla flexibility to deploy a wide range of effective lineups.

In the locker room, he is a calm, trusted, and mature presence. All of his teammates have waxed poetic about his professionalism and demeanor at one point or another. His selflessness and clear prioritization of winning and embracing his role over hunting personal statistics makes it easier for the coaching staff to elicit buy-in from other members of the roster as well. In addition to everything else he brings to the table, my wife tells me he has beautiful eyes.

It is true that his $26.5 million contract is not commensurate with his counting stats production at this stage of his career, but that shallow analysis would ignore all context. In an alternate reality where the Celtics had not reacquired Horford, they would currently be saddled with an unfortunately washed up Kemba Walker making $37M in the final year of the 4-year deal he signed as a free agent in the summer of 2019. Suddenly, Horford’s deal doesn’t look bad at all. Additionally, Brad Stevens has already smartly locked up Horford on a two-year, $20 million extension that kicks in next season. With all of the hand-wringing regarding the exact cost of Grant Williams’ looming contract number this summer, the Celtics already have a better, albeit older, player under contract at a very reasonable number.

While Horford’s days of glitzy statistical production are in the past, he has reinvented himself in the twilight of his career as one of the best stretch bigs in the entire NBA. In fact, there are only 8 players in the league who average two or more made 3-pointers and are listed at 6’9” or taller.

High Volume Shooting with Size

Player HT WT 3PM/GM % Minutes at PF or C* USG% AST% TO% BLK% TS%
Player HT WT 3PM/GM % Minutes at PF or C* USG% AST% TO% BLK% TS%
Lauri Markannen 7’ 0” 240 3 46 25.4 8.4 8.8 1.5 65.7
Michael Porter Jr. 6’10” 218 2.9 4 22.1 4.9 7.5 1.5 60.8
Julius Randle** 6’8” 250 2.7 100 28.9 18.8 11.7 0.8 58
Kyle Kuzma 6’9” 221 2.6 88 27.9 17.5 13.1 1.2 54.8
LeBron James 6’ 9” 250 2.2 100 33.2 33.7 11 1.3 59
Al Horford 6’9” 240 2 100 11.7 11.5 7.5 2.5 60.6
Kristaps Porzingis 7’3” 240 2 100 27.4 12.1 10.6 3.9 62
Marcus Morris Sr.** 6’8” 218 2 87 18.6 9.5 7 1.2 54.4

*According to Basketball Reference’s position estimates.

**I made exceptions for Julius Randle and Marcus Morris Sr. despite them being listed at 6’8”. They were the only 6’8” players on the 2.0+ made 3’s list who might be considered a big rather than a wing or a swing. For reference, the other 6’8” players were Jayson Tatum, Paul George, Keegan Murray, Jerami Grant, and Trey Murphy III.

While shooting with legitimate size is all the rage these days, you can see that it is still quite rare for teams to have players that operate primarily at the 4 or 5 spot that hit a high volume of 3 pointers. Looking at the chart, Michael Porter Jr. is clearly an outlier as a very tall wing player who plays almost exclusively at the 3 spot. Lauri Markannen is more of a jumbo-sized swing forward who splits time between the 3 and the 4 spot. That leaves 6 players in the whole league who play primarily at the 4 and 5 spots with high volume 3-point shot-making: Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, LeBron James, Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis, and Marcus Morris Sr.

From that group of 6, only Horford and Porzingis offer more than negligible rim protection. Additionally, Horford is probably the best defensive matchup out of the cohort for the All-NBA talents the Celtics have to navigate in the East like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The rest of the players either don’t have the bulk to bang with Embiid or lack the footspeed to mirror Giannis.

Furthermore, Horford hits his 2.0 3’s per game despite having microscopic usage and turnover rates and maintaining a very efficient 60.6 true shooting percentage. He spaces the floor for the Jays and his teammates, knocks down shots when he is called upon to do so, and literally almost never takes away from a possession with a bad shot or a turnover. Even his assist percentage, which looks middle of the road at 11.5%, is somewhat deceiving since his career assist percent average is 16.4% (a rate he was at just last season on the Celtics). Although the Celtics are not asking Horford to create for others as a passer as much this year as he has in the past, he likely could if they wanted him to.

Put everything together and what do you have? Only one of the most unique players in the game. A big man who can bang in the post, switch on the perimeter, hit 3’s and pass like a guard, and who doesn’t care one whit how much he has the ball or how frequently he shoots. You have Al Horford. Or, as Jaylen Brown called him, “mi hermano.”

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