I was wrong about Al Horford.
In fact, many of us were wrong about Horford.
Last season for the Celtics, Horford averaged 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. He also shot 47 percent from the floor, almost 36 percent from three-point range, and 80 percent from the free-throw line (according to basketball-reference).
Those are fantastic numbers. So, what was my problem with Al?
Well, for someone who signed a four-year, $113 million contract as a max big man, I expected more.
Don’t get me wrong, those are good numbers. But as a whole, when I was watching Horford play, I did not think “star.” I thought “complementary piece.”
Last season, Horford was not consistently aggressive enough on offense. To be the number two option behind Isaiah Thomas, Horford should have been shooting the basketball more than 12 times per game and be scoring more than 14 points.
In addition to his offensive tentativeness, he was also not a great rebounder last season. Grabbing 6.8 rebounds was simply not good enough for your best center/power forward.
I even heard from certain sports media members last season that rebounding is not his strength.
You are telling me that we signed a big man to a max deal whose skill set does not involve rebounding?
You can understand my frustration.
We all know Horford’s intelligence is off the charts. He is clearly great at setting screens, moves well without the ball, and is a fantastic passer, which showed with his high assist numbers.
But you do not pay a big guy max money to simply be a smart player who sets screens and can pass. You can find other players to do those things.
What you need a max big man to do is score consistently, grab rebounds, and be a defensive force.
Even on defense, he did not jump off the charts last season.
Although he is an above average on-ball defender, he was not necessarily a shot blocker and he did not appear like a defensive stopper in the post.
This is what I, and many others, thought about Horford last season.
WEEI sports personality Lou Merloni even called him “Average Al.” TV personalities constantly questioned whether he can be part of a big three that contends for a championship.
In many regards, I agreed with the negativity that surrounded Horford last season. However, this season is a different story.
This season, “Average Al” has changed everyone’s perceptions about him.
Horford is averaging 15.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game this season. He is shooting 56 percent from the floor and an astonishing 49 percent from 3-point land.
Yes, you read that correctly. Al Horford is shooting 19 for 39 from three-point range. He is a career 35 percent three-point shooter.
It shows you how a player can improve their outside shooting if they work on it over the offseason (are you listening, Marcus Smart?).
Not only is Horford shooting an incredibly high percentage this season, including scoring a season-high 27 points in Milwaukee, but he has done it an impressively efficient manner, especially in the fourth quarter.
Against the Bucks, Horford shot the lights out all game long and made big shots down the stretch.
Although Horford is shooting even less than he did last season, at just over 10 attempts per game (he should still be shooting more), he has made important shots late in games when they need it.
In addition to his shooting, Horford is also rebounding the ball much better this season (two more rebounds per game than last season) and has stepped up his game defensively. There has been a lot of talk on the Celtics broadcast on NBC Sports Boston that he should get the defensive player of the year this season, and they are not crazy.
When you add up Horford’s high shooting percentages, clutch scoring, outstanding rebounding, terrific defense, high intelligence, great passing, and his terrific screen setting, this is a big man worth paying max money.
Comparing Al Horford and Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett played for the Celtics for six NBA seasons. I do not have to get into what made KG such a positive impact on the Celtics team.
We all know. Although he slowed down and became less explosive towards the last year or two in Boston, KG’s tenure in Boston was one of complete admiration.
Despite only playing six seasons, there have been talks about retiring KG’s jersey. They probably won’t do it, but the fact that it is a conversation at all speaks to the type of impact that Kevin Garnett had on this basketball team.
If I compared Al Horford to Kevin Garnett last season, I would have been crazy. Did you read my rant earlier?
Kevin Garnett brought a championship to this city, and there is no way that the Celtics would ever think about retiring Al Horford’s jersey when he ultimately retires or leaves Boston.
At least that’s what I thought last season.
However, when you examine the statistics and overall game of these two players further, it becomes apparent that they are more similar than they are different.
In Kevin Garnett’s career with the Celtics, he averaged 15.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. He shot 52 percent from the floor and did not shoot many three-pointers.
Let me re-state Al Horford’s stats this season with the Celtics so that you can see the similarities.
This season, Horford is averaging 15.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. He is shooting 56 percent from the floor and an astonishing 49 percent from 3-point land.
His numbers this year are actually better than KG’s stats on average. It is important to remember that KG’s numbers steadily declined as he got older. For example, in KG’s first year, he averaged 18.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. But after that first season, his numbers were pretty consistent across the board, and there was no season that dramatically skewed the data.
The point is this: looking at just the stats, one can argue that this year Horford is even more effective than KG was in his six-year stint with the Celtics.
Comparing Al Horford and Kevin Garnett 2007-2008 Season
Let’s examine in further depth Al Horford’s game this year compared to Garnett’s in the 2007-2008 season during their championship run.
This is the year KG averaged 18.8 points and grabbed 9.2 rebounds per game. This was by far his best year with the green and white, and this year was not exactly representative of Garnett’s stats in his six years in Boston.
However, it is interesting to examine KG’s best year in Boston in relation to Horford’s year this season because it is telling of how special of a year Horford is actually having.
In terms of overall offense this season, Horford ranks in the 85th percentile among NBA players. He is in the 95th percentile in making spot-up shots, 86th percentile in pick and roll plays, 88th percentile in catch and shoot scenarios, 69th percentile in transition offense, and he is in the 48th percentile in post-ups (according to Synergy).
Remember that Horford is often more of a pick and pop player than a natural go-to post player.
In 2007-2008, Garnett ranked in the 90th percentile in overall offense among NBA players. He ranked in the 62nd percentile in spot-up jumpers, 48th percentile in pick and roll plays, 55th percentile in catch and shoot scenarios, 83rd percentile in transition offense, and in the 89th percentile in post-up plays.
To summarize that information, in KG’s best season with the Celtics, Garnett was more effective in the post and in transition, while Horford is more efficient shooting the ball and in the pick and roll game.
Their Overall Game
I want to be clear: I do not think that Al Horford is better or even the same player as Kevin Garnett. Garnett mentally was on a different level than most players who ever played the game, and he was better at defending the paint than Horford. In addition, you cannot quantify a player’s game simply by looking at the stats.
However, not only are their stats similar, but Horford and KG are similar in many aspects of their game when you get outside of the stats.
For example, as discussed earlier, both players make their teammates better. Whether it is setting a screen, moving without the ball, playing smart help-defense, or making quick passes to cutting guards, both Horford and Garnett make little plays that do not always get on the stat sheet.
In addition, and more importantly, both players are known as high IQ, unselfish players who are leaders for their team.
If you remember Doc Rivers talking about Kevin Garnett, he always said that he wanted him to shoot more. The same can be said for Al Horford.
Doc Rivers told WEEI a while ago that Garnet was “the single best athlete that I’ve ever been around as far as being a team guy. He’s as ‘team’ of a star as I’ve ever seen. A lot of stars are stars, but he’s unselfish, to a fault at times, but every coach should be able to coach Kevin Garnett just to see what a true team player should be.”
Like Doc praised KG, Brad Stevens has also praised Horford for his unselfishness, and his overall positive impact on the team.
The biggest thing about KG was the leadership he brought to the locker room and the court.
Although Al may not be as loud as KG, he brings his own kind of leadership to this young group of players.
In the offseason, Brad Stevens said on a NESN broadcast of practice that Al’s “words carry a lot of weight. When he does speak, everybody listens… He stays pretty consistent on what’s important, and that is the team success…. Everybody really respects him for the way that he plays, but more so for who he is.”
The only real difference between Horford and Garnett is that Horford seems mentally sane and does not bang his head against the hoop pole before the game starts (Remember when that used to seem normal?).
Besides the psychotic nature of KG, these players’ games and personalities on the court are surprisingly similar.
As I mentioned, Al Horford is significantly better this season than last year. However, I have not explained why this change occurred.
In large part, I think you have to look at the addition of Kyrie Irving and the subtraction of Isaiah Thomas.
As special as Thomas was offensively last season, he just did not make his teammates, especially Al Horford, better like Irving does.
Irving has created easier shots for Horford this season. Irving has a unique ability to hold the ball for the last possible second before kicking it out to create the best opportunity for his teammates.
That gives Horford and other players more space to shoot the ball, and may partially explain his higher shooting percentage. When players have more time and space to shoot, they are often more successful.
Against Oklahoma City this season, Irving and Horford’s chemistry in the second half of the game was crucial in the Celtics comeback win.
The problem with Thomas was that his size often limited his ability to pass out of tight windows. He could often get stuck and turn the ball over, where Irving can cleverly pass out of tricky double teams.
The combination of Irving and Horford almost reminds me of the chemistry between Rajon Rondo and KG.
I think most of us would take Irving and Horford any day in that pairing.
The addition of Irving to the Celtics may be the best thing that ever happens to Al Horford’s career.
Who knows, after his Celtics tenure, maybe we will talk about retiring Horford’s jersey.
Who would have thought that?