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Will Al Horford finally get his ring?

At age 37, Al Horford is still contributing at a level few players his age have. Let’s appreciate it. 

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2023 NBA Playoffs - Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

He’s been described as “the best teammate ever” by Jayson Tatum and named the Celtics’ “emotional leader’’ by coach Joe Mazzulla. And since he was a little kid learning the game of basketball in the Dominican Republic, players and coaches alike have praised Al Horford for his leadership, tenacity, and work ethic.

Entering his 17th professional season, Horford is once again eyeing his first-ever championship. The hope is that the seasoned veteran — a fan favorite in Boston — will maintain the production he’s had in recent years and continue to anchor the Celtics in their pursuit of the ever-elusive 18th banner.

A few days before the Eastern Conference Finals, Malcolm Brogdon told reporters that the team’s collective desire to get him a ring was a significant motivator.

“Al has given this league so much,” Brogdon said. “He’s given this organization so much, these guys so much. And I think a big piece for us is to want to see him go out on top, go out with a championship, go out with a ring. Because he’s more deserving than anybody.”

The Celtics fell short of that goal last season, ultimately getting blown out at home by the Heat in Game 7. In turn, the front office shook things up, flipping Marcus Smart for Kristaps Porzingis in an attempt to bolster the team’s front court. Part of the implied advantage of this trade was that an aging Horford would get a bit more rest in the coming season, and down the road, be replaced by Porzingis, who has a deeper offensive bag and is nine years his junior. If Porzingis manages to stay healthy (yes, that’s a big if), Brad Stevens’ vision could come to fruition.

But, regardless of Porzingis’s health, Horford’s role as a leader of the Celtics next season is as important as ever. With fellow co-captain Marcus Smart no longer on the squad, Horford is far and away the most veteran voice of accountability in the locker room.

Defensively, with Grant Williams off to Dallas, there’s only one proven guy on the roster who can effectively lock down a dominant post player like Joel Embiid. (If we’re being honest, even if Grant had returned, no one rivals Horford’s title as The Embiid Stopper).

Al is 37 now, and expecting a 37-year-old to produce at a high level is always a bit of a gamble. But Big Al is not just any 37-year-old. Upon becoming a three-point specialist, he gave his career new life. On a Celtics roster inundated with talent — but led by an inexperienced head coach — Horford’s steady presence and leadership is invaluable.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Two Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Putting Al Horford’s remarkable longevity into context

Very few NBA players have managed to substantially contribute into their late 30s. In the 2022-23 season, only four players aged 36 or older were regular starters: Lebron James, Chris Paul, PJ Tucker, and Big Al. (I’ll note that 36-year-old Jeff Green and 37-year-old Kyle Lowry also came off the bench to contribute to their respective teams’ playoff runs).

There’s a lot that goes into career longevity. Injury luck and predisposition is obviously a leading factor, but one’s commitment to physical conditioning and nutrition, a desire to continue competing at a high level, overall basketball IQ, and a general playing style all play a role in determining how long a professional basketball career will last.

Horford suffered a few major injuries earlier in his career; he tore his left pectoral muscle in 2012, and his right pectoral muscle in 2013, both of which required surgery. In response, he changed his workout routine, and ever since, he’s enjoyed a relatively injury-free career. Despite being far older than front court mates Robert Williams and Kristaps Porzingis, Horford has historically been the most durable of the trio.

A big part of what has allowed Al to thrive in the league past his athletic prime is his elite three-point shooting, as he reiterated to reporters last offseason. In the first eight seasons of his career, he attempted a grand total of 65 three-pointers. But the last 8? He’s taken 1,952 shots from downtown, a remarkable 3000%+ increase. He credits his Atlanta coaching staff for encouraging him to extend his range, and in particular, former Atlanta Hawks general manager Rick Sund.

“Rick is the one that told me, ‘Man, you have a really good mid-range. You should start shooting corner threes, that’s going to help extend your career,’” Horford told Yahoo Sports during the 2022 NBA Finals. “I used to be a banger down low and posting up. He was like, ‘Man, you’re not going to last in this league if you keep playing like that.’”

In the 2022-23 season, Horford converted on a career-high 44.4% attempts from three, and while that number plummeted to 29% during the playoffs, he established himself as a real threat from beyond the arc, stretching the floor and creating space for his All-NBA teammates.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The ability to shoot threes also means that his defender — generally one of the team’s rim protectors — is pulled out of the paint. Al’s mastery of three-ball has become a cornerstone of Joe Mazzulla’s three-point centered offense.

The journey from the Dominican Republic to Boston

Al’s mother, sportswriter Arelis Reynoso, shared the story of her son’s basketball ascension in an exclusive piece for the Globe in 2018. Born and raised in the Dominican Republic, Al joined his first basketball academy at age 7 after asking his mother to give him the chance. He immediately excelled, focusing on the fundamentals of the game, and eventually moved to Michigan to live with his father, former NBA player Tito Horford. Tito, who has a few inches on Al and can be spotted cheering on his son at many TD Garden games, played three years in the NBA, and several more internationally.

In college, Al led the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships. Al Horford declared for the NBA Draft after his junior year and was selected by the Hawks with the third overall pick. As a pro, he boasts a career winning percentage of 60.6%, good for fourth among active players who have played 1000 games. He has made the playoffs 15 times (every year minus the one he spent riding the bench in OKC), and he has helped take his teams to the conference finals five times.

His college co-star, Joakim Noah, also enjoyed a successful NBA career. Noah, however, is no longer in the league, and has not been a meaningful contributor since 2016, serving as a reminder that it’s rare to enjoy the kind of consistent long-term success that Al has had. Noah has admitted he’s rooting for Al to get his ring, so much so that he’s reluctantly become a temporary Celtics fan.

“I want Horford to get one bad,” Joakim Noah said on the KG Certified podcast in May. “He deserves it. The fact that he can still go playing at a high level. He’s making that team go. It shows the importance of having the right OG. And that’s more than just basketball, that’s in life. Having guys that you could talk to, that have been through every situation. He’s that guy. I’m really proud of him.”

What can we expect from Al next season?

While Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown are primed to take leaps as leaders, Horford will continue to serve as the de facto veteran voice in the locker room.

“You know you have a special leader when guys like Jayson Tatum, a top-5 player in the world, Jaylen Brown, another top player in the world, listen to him,” Brogdon said last year. “They listen to him. They want his feedback. They want his leadership.”

That leadership impacts everyone, from the team’s superstars to its newest additions. When Jordan Walsh was drafted by the Celtics in June, the first person he reached out to was Al Horford.

“I’m ready to work,” Walsh texted the veteran. “Hopefully, I can be under your wing and you can show me the ropes.” Horford is nearly twice Walsh’s age, but regardless, was the rookie’s natural first point of contact on the roster.

Defensively, Al isn’t as quick or as versatile as he once was. That’s to be expected. But, in the 2023 postseason, he still had the highest defensive rating (109.5) of any member on the team. In the conference semifinals against Philadelphia, Al often looked like he turned back the clock on defense, ultimately holding Embiid to just 37.9% shooting from the field — a striking 17% below his regular season average. Tatum walked away the hero after Game 7, but Horford was the defensive stopper.

A ring would cap off a Hall of Fame career

This upcoming Celtics season comes with lots of compelling storylines. Will Jaylen Brown live up to his massive contract? Will Kristaps Porzingis stay healthy and produce at a high level? How will Derrick White perform as the team’s starting point guard?

Most importantly, will this core finally get over the hump and win it all?

A championship would be the first for every single member of this current Celtics roster. If they were to win, they would become only the second team since 2015 to do so with a roster devoid of any previous NBA champions — the Milwaukee Bucks accomplished this feat in 2021.

Al is the highest paid Latin American basketball player in the history of the game. He’s a bronze medal winner, a 2x NCAA champion, and a 5x NBA All-Star. He will be 39 by the time his $20 million extension is up in 2025, and as the Marcus Smart trade reminded us, you can’t ever take another year with an organization for granted.

An NBA title would be monumental for every member of the organization, but for Al Horford in particular, the Larry O’Brien would be the crowning glory of a historic career, the final bucket list item on an otherwise pretty perfect basketball tenure.

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