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Al Horford’s value as a leader continues to shine

The 37-year-old has helped set the tone for the Celtics season.

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

Al Horford is in his 17th season in the NBA. Horford was a starting center for his first 16 years in the league. However, following the addition of Kristaps Porzingis this summer, the veteran big man was moved into a bench role.

It’s not that Horford isn’t capable of being a starter anymore. Far from it, actually. He’s still the same veteran who helped lead the Celtics to the NBA Finals in 2022 and to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. His game has never been about athleticism and explosiveness. It’s always been based on a high basketball IQ and the ability to control angles on both sides of the floor.

Yet, Horford accepted his role change. At 37 years old, the only thing that matters is winning a championship; how you get there is inconsequential. He may not have known it at the time, but Horford’s willingness to end his 16-year span as a starter in the league likely set the tone for everybody else on the roster.

“I respect the decisions that Joe (Mazzulla) is making, the way that he wants to go right now, and ultimately, I want to win,” Horford told Steve Bulpett of Heavy on Sports in a recent interview. “I’m always ready. I’m always prepared. This is something different for me. You know, I haven’t been in this position before. But right now, I’m just going to continue to stay ready and do what I have to do.”

Boston Celtics v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

All season, we’ve heard the team talk about sacrifice. Putting up lower season averages. Getting fewer touches. Finding ways to impact winning without the ball in your hands. All of these are legitimate adjustments for star-level players. Still, ending a 16-year streak of being a starter feels like the biggest sacrifice of them all. Adjusting your approach to the game, routine, and how you look to exert influence on the overall flow at such a late stage in your career isn’t easy.

Yet, Horford likely understands his position as a leader within the locker room. He’s been a leader since he initially joined the team in 2016, and he picked right up where he left off when Brad Stevens brought him back to Boston in 2021. By accepting a lesser role, Horford once again led by example. Once an influential veteran makes that type of sacrifice, it snowballs throughout the rest of the team.

“And don’t forget (Al) Horford moving to the bench and giving that group an anchor,” an anonymous executive told Bulpett in a separate interview. “Brad (Stevens, the Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations) made some major moves with a team that got to the conference finals, and they were obviously good moves. But guys still had to buy in, and that’s looking more and more like the case.”

Things weren’t easy for Horford to begin the season. He struggled to check into games and find ways to make a difference. Over his first ten games this season, he was averaging just 5.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1 block. Solid counting stats for sure, but his 29.4% shooting from 3-point range was limiting his effectiveness on the offensive end. At this stage of his career, Horford is at his best when he’s nailing threes — it’s what’s led to some of his close-out drives that have either ended in an impressive finish or smart pass.

Fortunately for Boston, Horford has figured things out. In his last ten games, he’s knocking down his perimeter shots at a 41.5% clip on 4.1 attempts per game. His rebounds are up to 7.3, his assists are up to 3 per night, and he’s scoring slightly more at 7.8 points per night. I’ll preface those numbers by noting he has started 4 of those 10 games. Yet, the point stands: we’re seeing a better version of the veteran than we did to begin the season.

Those early-season struggles were always going to be the case, though.

“I’ve always wanted to do whatever I could to help the team win,” Horford told Khari Thompson of the Boston Globe. “And right now, this is where our group is at. For me, at this moment, it’s to come in and bring a spark, bring energy off the bench, raise our level of play every time that I come in, and have an impact defensively. My role is different now, and that’s something that I’m still adjusting to, but I’m still trying to make sure that I put my imprint in every game that I play.”

It’s plays like this defensive possession above that show how Horford is continuing to make a difference for the Celtics. His defensive presence off the bench ensures Joe Mazzulla has an anchor he can rely on when the team needs to lock in. Watch how Horford switches multiple actions from the Thunder, stays connected to the play throughout the different hand-offs, and positions himself to secure a block to end the possession.

What you’re seeing is a veteran who is leading. He’s leading by accepting a new role. He’s leading with how he conducts himself off the court. And in this instance, he’s leading by example on the defensive end.

We see the same form of leadership on offense, too. Watch how Horford sprints the floor in the above possession and how he receives the rock in a scoring position around the rim. Yet, he spots Jaylen Brown open on the strong side corner and makes a quick read to turn a good shot into a great one. Passes like that — where you’re working for the team rather than yourself — are empowering. Again, it trickles down throughout the roster.

“I told him this multiple times, as recently, I think, as this summer, but every first-year NBA head coach should be as lucky as I was to have Al Horford on their team,” Daigneault said of Horford before Tuesday’s game. “And for a guy that has as much experience as he has, not cynical, very solution-oriented, not a know-it-all — he knows it all, but he always channels that toward solutions and toward the team.”

Horford isn’t the only player sacrificing this season. He’s also not the only member of the locker room that’s assumed a leadership role. However, his pre-season sacrifices created a foundation on which the team’s mentality and spirit have been built. You can’t teach that sort of leadership; you can only earn it. Even now, at such a late stage in his career, on a team full of All-Star talent, Horford is one of the most important players on the roster.

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