It's the nature of his talent that Al Horford's greatness is easy to miss. He was the most complete and reliable unrestricted free agent on the open market this summer, give or take LeBron James and Kevin Durant, a four-time NBA All-Star who would've made maybe twice as many All-Star teams had it not been for a slew of unfortunate upper-body injuries suffered around the middle of his prime years. Horford was the most accomplished all-around player on an Atlanta Hawks team that won 108 games over the past two years, an extremely valuable player who is still getting better—Horford was one of six players six-foot-ten or taller in the entire league to launch at least 250 threes last year, and within that short list, Horford had the highest True Shooting percentage.
Despite celebrating his 30th birthday in early June, Horford was more than qualified to receive the four-year, $113 million contract offered last month by the Boston Celtics. He accepted, immediately raising Boston's ceiling from feisty middle-class mosquito to pseudo-contender. As noted, Horford is just that good, and sure to make the Celtics—and any other team—better. The question, now, is how the Celtics will make Horford better.
The Celtics were attracted to Horford for all the obvious reasons, as any intelligent team would be. But there was more to it than that. Sometimes adding a player this talented requires everyone else to readjust their own responsibilities. Roles and pecking orders will change, usage rates will drop, and, seemingly, the spotlight will shift. But even though he's a two-way star and household name, Horford won't alter Boston's system so much as augment it. He's a perfect fit.
"We played [Atlanta] ten times [last season], so we had a pretty good idea of what they were doing and they had an idea of what we were doing," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told VICE Sports. "One of the reasons we went after Al really hard on day one was because we thought that he fit in really well with how we play."
Over the past few years, Horford thrived within a system that incorporates the same principles Boston has bought into under Stevens. Pass, cut, move, screen, and shoot threes in fast-forward. All of these are enviable qualities in a game that rewards unselfish play, but Boston has also been able to adapt on the fly and assume different forms based on the team they're lined up against.
"The part that's great about Al is he gives you a lot of flexibility to play in different actions," Stevens said. "Whether it be pick-and-roll, off-the-ball screens. Whether they are two-man game or more motion type concepts. He's a good player in all of those situations. There are different ways to play, obviously, but the more skill, the more ability to dribble, pass, and shoot you have on the floor ... people are going to play smaller at times against us, [so] the ability to move laterally at the five and guard smaller guys while at the same time being able to pass it from the top of the key out of a pick-and-roll, or out of the post versus a switch, is important."
It's easy to look at how the Hawks used Horford and assume the Celtics will do just about the same thing. Despite losing to Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs last season—a six-game series that was marred by critical injuries to Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk—it's fair to wonder if Horford looked at his green opponent and saw a younger, better version of his own club.
Both teams won 48 games last year, finished top five in assist percentage, potential assists, and defensive rating while mostly avoiding isolations and post ups. But Boston boasted a slightly higher offensive rating and has a more obvious path to a brighter future, courtesy of their enviable cap flexibility and all those juicy draft picks they own from the Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Los Angeles Clippers. Or, in simpler terms: Walk through Door A and suit up for a team that nearly signed Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, the team behind Door B just courted Dwight Howard. What would you do?
Horford was one of the most effective scorers in the league last season when rolling to the basket or popping out for a jumper, per Synergy Sports. His shot chart looked like a Granny Smith apple and only 22 other players in the entire league averaged at least 15 points with a True Shooting percentage of at least 56.0. That efficient scoring is all sorts of wonderful, but the heart of what makes Horford so special is the unselfishness that will help him blend seamlessly into Boston's fundamental strategy.
"He's very good at passing the ball," Stevens said. "He's very good at understanding where people are supposed to be and delivering the ball where it's supposed to be, and he's also good at not passing the other team the ball. You know, he's a ridiculously low turnover percentage for a guy that probably will handle it a little bit more for us. He's always been very reliable with the ball, and those things matter."
Very few players were as careful last season, relative to their numerous offensive responsibilities, as Horford. Atlanta's assist rate was never lower than with Horford on the bench; related: the team's turnover rate was never higher. He can read a defense, identify the best route and then execute a split-second decision without making a mistake. That's not just unique for a player his size; few players at any position do this better.
Horford ranked fourth among centers in potential assists last season, more than everyone on Boston except Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner. With Turner now on the Portland Trail Blazers, Horford may not only be Boston's first or second offensive option, pending the match-up, but he likely also slides in as one of its primary playmakers.
Horford is ready for it, as he looks to pass even when he's wide open to shoot, and he's the rare big who not only can push the ball in transition, but also reward teammates who run out in front of him. Instead of home runs, most of Horford's passes are effective singles that keep the wheels turning for an offense in desperate need of positive movement. He can even take his man off the dribble and keep his head up looking for cutting targets.
It's a good example of what Horford's capable of, particularly when passing on the move. That's an unstoppable strength when paired with Isaiah Thomas, who teams will hesitate to trap when Horford sets the pick.
"He's a great screener," Stevens said. "He had a great dynamic with a couple of [Atlanta's] cutters, especially Kyle Korver, and he just does a lot of things that unselfish, winning players do."
Here's an example of how transferrable Horford's skill-set will be in Boston. The Celtics don't have any shooters on Korver's level; to be fair, very few teams do. But it's still easy to picture Avery Bradley or Jae Crowder getting free for a wide-open jumper on an identical hand-off action.
His trustworthiness will simplify pick-and-rolls for developing ball-handlers like Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, as Horford's precise jump shot prevents his man from straying too far—not quite Dirk Nowitzki-level gravity, but in the same ballpark. It will also put more pressure on defenses that now have to deal with units that can pass well from all five positions.
Last season, Atlanta saw its volume and accuracy on threes go up with Horford on the court, partly due to quick decisions like this:
Thumbs up for interior big-to-big passing, too:
Most of the time, context is moot when the opportunity to acquire one of the 20 best all-around basketball players in the world presents itself. Any question regarding fit or timing goes out the window, and as those players' agents will be more than happy to remind you, stars hold the power of historical precedent on their side. It's nearly impossible to win a championship without at least one on your payroll.
From that standpoint, every front office's objective is ultimately to sign as many of these guys as possible and then let the chips fall where they may. But when that star becomes available and he naturally complements the players already in place, everything becomes so much easier.
"Al does not have to be the guy that shoots it every time, handles it every time," Stevens says. "He is a teammate and a winning basketball player.... Those guys always help your locker room, they always help the people around them, they're always good for young players to spend time with and learn from. I think everybody will benefit from his presence."
Should Boston simultaneously build through the draft while attempting to add more win-now talent in free agency, it already has the perfect figure in place to put everyone else in a position to succeed. For all the many reasons Boston has to be thrilled about their future, Horford is the biggest reason to be excited right now.
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