When Al Horford signed as a free agent during July 4 weekend, he instantly became the Boston Celtics’ best free agent signing in franchise history.
No knock on Evan Turner and Xavier McDaniel, unrestricted free agents who at one time signed with the Celtics, but Horford – a four-time All-Star and 2010-11 All-NBA selection – was a game-changer the moment he signed.
Horford has impacted the Celtics’ standing amongst other free agents and NBA players (players talk among themselves, by the way), as well as the on-court progress from last season to this season.
“I just thought he [Horford] was just really locked in,” Brad Stevens said following the Celtics 117-104 win on Wednesday against the Minnesota Timberwolves. “We needed him to be really good tonight because Towns is a real talented guy and so Al had that assignment on the other end for a lot of the game.”
Horford offered unique variations in his offensive game Wednesday night, with an array of post moves, drives to the basket, and a number of passes that led to easy looks for his teammates.
As Avery Bradley alluded to in his postgame press conference, “He [Horford] might be the best passer on our team, one of the best passers in the NBA to me. His playmaking ability is amazing.”
Horford concluded Boston’s 43rd victory of the season with 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists. He also shot 9-12 from the floor and was second on the team with a plus-minus rating of plus-15, and was able to help keep phenom Karl-Anthony Towns relatively in check, with 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 4 assists.
The wins and losses speak for themselves; the Celtics sport a 36-18 record when Horford plays and a 7-7 mark when he sits.
What’s more, Horford has injected offense into a unit that finished last season ranked 13th in offense per 100 possessions with a rating of 103.9, with a rating of 108.7, close to five points better.
Thomas owns career-highs in nearly every major offensive category, including effective field goal percentage, a vital mark Thomas had to improve upon in order to make the next step towards superstar. To put in perspective Thomas’ incredible season, only Kevin Durant and Rudy Gobert possess more win shares this season than Thomas for players with a an effective field goal percentage higher than Thomas’ .544.
And out of all of the “little guys” in NBA history, Thomas’ 2016-17 campaign stands alone.
Horford has his warts, including career-worst field goal percentage and rebounding marks – the latter due in part to shoulder surgery and a game that is moving towards the perimeter and less around the hoop.
Horford’s defense has taken a dip, and with a diminished foot speed – highlighted nicely by BBALLBREAKDOWN – opponents have found it easier than ever to get around him.
And despite totaling 76 blocks in 54 games, Horford doesn’t provide the typical resistance of a forceful center, allowing opponents to shoot 60.6 percent on shots in the restricted area, 11th in the NBA among centers with at least 750 field goal attempts defended in the area.
Horford’s offensive production, as well as the sheer leadership he brings from his nine seasons in Atlanta, far supersedes any deficiencies he has in his game at this point in his career.
Horford signed for $113 million in the offseason, an amount of money that would leave nearly everyone’s head spinning, yet the amount given to the 30-year old center was market appropriate – if he hadn’t signed with the Celtics for that amount other teams were willing and able.
Perhaps Horford’s impact can be summarized in this quote from Stevens: “I just think his presence makes unselfish basketball contagious, because he always makes the right play. He probably looks to over-pass at times out of the post. But being able to play through him in the post has been huge for our team, and we need to continue to do that.
Horford ultimately pushes the Celtics up a notch from last season, a pivotal step for a young coach and rebuilding franchise.