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Will Kristaps Porzingis succeed Al Horford as the perfect big man in Boston?

Porzingis has the ideal skill set to inherit Horford’s responsibilities in Boston’s frontcourt.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics
Boston Celtics center Al Horford defends Kristaps Porzingis.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Al Horford is set to enter his sixth season with the Boston Celtics in the fall of 2023.

Horford, now 37 years old, is entering the twilight of his NBA career. Last year, he averaged below 10 points per game for the first time as a pro, scoring 9.8 in each contest. Two years ago, he rejoined the Celtics via trade in July of 2021, fans were unsure of what to expect from the aging star. They were pleasantly surprised when the five-time All-Star continued to be steady as ever for the Cs.

The staple of the 16-year NBA vet’s time in Boston has been team success. He and the Celtics have failed to make it past the second-round of the playoffs just once during his split tenure. Of course, there was a two-year gap between Horford’s third and fourth campaigns with the Cs, after he skipped town to join the Philadelphia 76ers in the summer of 2019. Though he hasn’t ever had to be the main man with the Cs, the big man has been integral part of Boston’s continued winning tradition. He’s provided great support to the organization’s new pillars — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — as well as other stars who’ve come through TD Garden like Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas by doing whatever is asked of him.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Whether it’s been tough-nosed defense, his ability to sink the three, or the occasional post up, No. 42 has done whatever’s been asked of him in Boston.

But, he’s not going to be able to do this forever, right?

As he continues to inch towards retirement, the question of “who will be the Horford successor?” has been asked by fans and media members plenty of times, during the big man’s second stint with the Celtics.

Well, they may finally have their answer.

Just before the 2023 NBA Draft back in June, it was reported that the Celtics were acquiring Washington Wizards center Kristaps Porzingis as part of a three-team trade. Shortly after the news broke, it was announced that Boston had inked Porzingis to a two-year contract extension worth $60 million, which runs through the end of the 2025-26 NBA season.

Horford’s two-year extension will have expired by then and even if he can play at age 40, it’s doubtful that he’ll still be getting significant rotation minutes.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Luckily for the Celtics, Porzingis’s strengths mirror those of Horford, and should help to fill the void left when he eventually retires or moves on.

Much like the elder statesman, Porzingis is able to be a reliable option from three-point range. For his career, he’s knocked down 35.9% of his attempts from long distance, and is coming off of his second-best display; he shot 38.5% on 5.5 attempts from beyond the arc last year in Washington.

Horford is a better career-shooter at 37.4%, and is coming off of a better season at 44.6% (a career-high!). That doesn’t mean that Latvian can’t still be impactful playing alongside Tatum and Brown. Quite frankly, there’s a good chance that he’s able to take his efficiency from three to another level, while benefiting from the gravity of Boston’s pair of stars.

The benefit of the fit should be a two-way street in that sense. The idea is that Porzingis’s reliable three-point shooting should create more space for Tatum and Brown to operate on the offensive end, while opposing defenses will be more hesitant to sag off of the big man and collapse on the drive — as they do with Horford.

Though the three-point shot has become a major part of the Celtics’ offense and today’s NBA in general, it doesn’t hurt to be able to score the ball down low.

The post up isn’t something that fans see too much anymore from Horford, but early on in his time with Boston it was pretty common. In 2016-2017, his first in green, Horford averaged 3.6 points per game out of the post on 7.5 touches each time. The following year, he saw that average drop by just over a point each game as his touches on the block decreased.

Porzingis posted similar stats from the low block last year. He scored 3.6 points per game — the fourth-highest in the NBA — for the Wizards on 4.0 post ups. On top of that, he was able to have success from the elbow a fair amount too, tallying 2.9 points per game.

Both have shown that they can be effective as the roll man in pick-and-roll offense as well. Porzingis’s 3.4 points per game in that role in 2022-2023 rival Horford’s average of 3.6 points in it (back in that first Celtics season).

These added wrinkles to the Latvian’s offensive game are important because they give Boston a back-up plan for when the threes don’t fall — something they lacked during the playoffs last season.

In those playoffs, the Celtics were 9-1 in games where they shot over 39.0% from deep, and 2-8 in games that they did not. For reference, no team shot higher than 38.7% from distance in the 2022-2023 regular season. That is the epitome of “live by the three, die by the three” basketball.

Finally, Porzingis isn’t solely impactful on the offensive end of the floor. He has proven that he can be a presence on the defensive side of the ball, too — something that Horford has cemented himself as throughout his career.

Boston’s new No. 8 has consistently been amongst the league’s best shot blockers. He’s been within the top-20 players in terms of total rejections in six of his seven active seasons.

Porzingis also finds himself as part of the NBA’s top pick-and-roll defenders. Last season, he only gave up an average of 0.93 points per pick-and-roll. Only Anthony Davis, Steven Adams, and Giannis Antetokounmpo ranked higher than he did as a pick-and-roll defender, per Second Spectrum.

Adding one of the league’s best in that category will be huge for the Celtics. The pick-and-roll was something that opposing teams fried their defense with in the playoffs. The likes of Trae Young and James Harden took advantage of Boston’s weak drop coverage, targeting an older, slower Horford.

Young took over on multiple occasions in Game 3 against Boston, when he hunted Horford out of the pick-and-roll.

In the next round, Harden had similar success on his way to a 45-point Game 1 in Boston.

Though he’s always been known as a reliable defender, Horford isn’t at the level he was back in 2018 when he was named to the All-Defensive second-team. Porzingis’s ability to be the drop defender should do wonders for the Celtics defense.

Make no mistake, the 37-year-old is still a capable defender, he’s just not as sharp as he used to be on the perimeter.

Horford stepped up big in the second round against the 76ers. He took on the assignment of slowing down MVP Joel Embiid and did a fantastic job. Embiid averaged just 25.5 points per game on 42.1%/20.0% splits, albeit coming off of the knee injury he suffered in the opening round.

Horford may be getting up there in age, but he’s still got plenty to give. It wouldn’t be shocking if he and Porzingis were both in the starting lineup for the Celtics on Opening Night. Hopefully, Horford is able to help guide the 28-year-old as he gets acclimated to his new team.

And with the pair’s skillsets being so similar, it only makes sense that Porzingis will be well equipped to take over Horford’s role when the time comes.

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