Big Al’s Big Impact
The impact of Al Horford’s signing with the Boston Celtics has had an immediate effect on improving the team far beyond what they were last year. In a free agency year that was littered with mid to below average players, especially in terms of big men (Hello Timofey Mozgov), the C’s got the pick of the litter in Horford. The 15-16 Celtics used a rotation of Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Tyler Zeller at center, who all had different spurts of over achievement but collectively averaged 8 PPG and 3 RPG throughout the season. With Sullinger, the team’s top rebounder, exiting and good ol’ stone handed Johnson playing the most at the position last year, bringing Horford in was an upgrade before he ever played a single minute in a Boston uniform. But what specifically has made Horford one of the most integral parts of this year’s success?
Horford’s reputation of a big man who can stretch the floor was a big part of why the C’s brought him into the fold, a great space maker that allows for a more open style of play. Horford is smooth on his feet and the way he operates with the basketball in hand with deceptive post moves are and an almost European styling this play. Horfords contributions around the basket have been immeasurable for the Celtics this year, who finally having a consistent inside scorer, in recent years. Not a single Celtic big man has averaged more than 10 PPG since 13-14 and Horford currently sits at 14.1 and just a shade under 7 rebounds. When Horford has struggled at times, shooting a woeful .388 FG% and 10 PPG in February, one cannot dismiss his scoring contributions as non-essential to the success of the C’s. During the month, the Celtics went 9-4 but in the final four games they were 1-3, a stretch where Horford was playing some of the worst basketball of his career. In those 4 games, Horford went 11-34 and 1-12 from 3-point territory. In games where he has struggled offensively, say .450 or less, the Celtics are 16-10 meaning when he shoots above that mark, they are 25-10. While not the key cog in the Celtics scoring attack, he is an important one. When Horford doesn’t make his shots, the team is at a huge disadvantage. They essentially play at the level of last year’s squad, assigning a huge value to Horford’s offensive presence on the floor.
But with a team as fast as the Celtics, Horford’s ability to get inside hasn’t resulted in only more scoring this season from the center position but another of Horford’s greatest contributions has been his ability to find the open man towards the perimeter. Horford is second on the team in assists with 5.1 per game, which not only is good enough for a career high, it also is the highest rate for any center in the league. The scheme Stevens employs often has Horford catching the ball at the wing and backing down towards the lane to draw in other defenders. This often leads to a free man streaking along the 3-point line or another lane for a player to penetrate the paint. The threat of Horford’s inside scoring has led the Celtics to expose slow moving defenses who can’t track fast guys like Thomas or Avery Bradley on the outside. This aspect of Horford’s game not only benefits his box score but highlights the unselfishness of a guy who is typically is a scorer. His PPG is the lowest it has been in five seasons but his willingness to share the ball with the open man has led to success team wide.
Aside from numbers, there are other contributing factors to Horford’s positive effect on the Celtics. In his press conference before they played the Bucks last Wednesday, Horford admitted to being a more vocal leader as the season has gone on. “If the message needs to be said, that’s what I’ll do.” This quote not only shows Horford becoming more comfortable with his new team but the words of an NBA veteran with National Championship and playoff experience. While no doubt Isaiah is the leader on the floor and Marcus Smart, the emotional spark plug, Horford’s roll is to be the wise calming presence on and off the court, a player with postseason experience to guide the ship during the playoffs, something Boston has lacked in their last two appearances. Of course, there is his defensive efforts too. Horford ranks in the top 20 of block % with 3.4, the same as two time defensive POY runner up Draymond Green. While not a top defensive player by nature, his efforts have been an absolute upgrade over the former players that used to play center in Boston except for Sullinger. Horford is a better two-way player than anyone else in the previous three seasons and that alone carries a lot of worth.
When the Celtics brought Horford in last July, it wasn’t the true superstar they needed but a key piece on a team that has improved every year and seems only a single player short from being mentioned with the other top dogs in the NBA. A big part of where they are this season is the addition of Horford. While perhaps not as high profile or as exciting as other players in the league, what he has done for the Celtics can be simplified into this fact: with Horford, this year, the C’s are 41-20, and without, are 7-7. While the sample size isn’t the biggest, there is a large disparity from the way the team performs with vs. without him. If he wasn’t brought to Boston, it would have been another year of rotating centers and by the looks of things, the C’s would have never achieved the win total they have thus far. When looking at what Boston has done by upgrading a singular position, the impact of Al Horford is impossible to overlook.