The Helping Hand of Al Horford

At 40-24, the Boson Celtics have positioned themselves beautifully to secure home court advantage in at least the first round of this year’s playoffs. They are also poised to improve on their 48-34 record of last season, marking the third straight season where they have improved under head coach Brad Stevens.

When examining the Celtics’ success, there are a few main factors that consistently come up. There is the stellar play of Isaiah Thomas, currently second in the league in scoring, there are the contributions of Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley, the team's three defensive stalwarts, and there is Stevens himself, a calming presence on the sidelines who happens to be a whiz at drawing up plays.

Then there is oft-forgotten Al Horford. Horford is currently averaging a modest 14 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game. Those are solid numbers, but they may seem a little underwhelming for a player making just about 30 million per year. Numerous criticisms have been levied at Horford this season, and some of them have been fair. His scoring has been inconsistent and his rebounding should be better.

But, it is important not to undersell the impact he has on this Celtics team. He has opened up the court for his teammates, especially Thomas, and has fit right into Stevens’ offensive system (currently top 10 in the league). His assist numbers detail how he not only is capable of making the pass that keeps the offense moving but how he is able to put his teammates in scoring position. Nearly all of the Celtics offensive metrics are better with him on the court, and only Crowder and Thomas himself can match him in terms of quantified impact. Without Horford, the Celtics offense becomes one-dimensional, too dependent on Thomas to score, score, score and then create for others when he’s not scoring.

With him on the court, they assist on nearly two-thirds of their baskets, and that number drops to about 63% when he sits. He can facilitate in any scenario, whether it be from the elbow, the post, after catching in the paint, or leading the fast break himself. He’s always reading the defense and looking to make the extra pass.

Horford also remains one of the only big men in the league whose jump shot has to be respected by defenses. While he is only shooting around 35% from the three-point line, he is still lethal from mid-range. He is shooting just over 50% on shots between 16 and 23 feet, and defenses often have to hedge towards him to dissuade him from shooting such shots. In turn, this opens up open shots for his teammates.

Even on plays where he doesn’t touch the ball, his impact is readily apparent. When he is the screener, defenses cannot fully commit to the ball handler in fear of giving up an open jumper. Here, the league’s premier rim protector, Rudy Gobert, completely abandons the paint, giving Thomas a one on one situation with an open lane in front of him. Plays like this are a big reason why he is averaging over three screen assists per game:

Horford’s best work this season has come in the post. The offense he creates for himself is nothing to write home about, but, according to synergy sports, the Celtics are scoring nearly 1.4 points per possessions on plays where Horford passes out of the post.

He isn’t an overpowering presence down low who is going to command double teams and collapse defenses, but he is patient, and the Celtics as a whole are smart about moving off the ball, setting screens, and spacing the floor around him in those situations.

It isn’t always about getting the assist as well. Often times, Horford is able to be the first link in a chain of passes that lead to the open shot. The Celtics are at their most efficient when he is the fulcrum of the offense, and they get some of the best looks imaginable while playing through him.

 

It should come as no surprise that the Celtics are better almost across the board as individuals when playing with Horford. However, it is somewhat eye opening at just how much certain players improve when sharing the court with the big man. Bradley and Crowder, for example, see their three-point percentages rise 13.9% and 9.9%, respectively, when playing with Horford. When they play with him, they are posting marks reserved for the league’s top snipers, without him, they are below average.

Off Court EFG% 3PT% 3 Point Attempts % FG Assisted
Jae Crowder 49.7 32.9 85 81.4
Avery Bradley 50.4 33.3 93 61.5
Isaiah Thomas 51.8 37.1 194 41.1
Marcus Smart 42.6 28.2 131 55
Amir Johnson 58.5 43.5 23 75.7
Kelly Olynyk 55.6 34.5 110 80
Jonas Jerebko 52.5 34.2 76 68.6
Terry Rozier 44.5 34 97 47.6
Jaylen Brown 48.4 32.1 56 70.1
         
         
On Court EFG% 3PT% 3 Point Attempts % FG Assisted
Jae Crowder 60.7 42.8 208 83.9
Avery Bradley 57.7 47.2 106 68
Isaiah Thomas 55.6 38.8 307 44.1
Marcus Smart 46.3 30.8 117 61.3
Amir Johnson 61.6 36.7 30 81.1
Kelly Olynyk 62.3 40 45 84.2
Jonas Jerebko 59.4 40.6 32 84
Terry Rozier 44.2 35.7 42 57.9
Jaylen Brown 53.2 37.5 32 70.5

With a contract as large asHorford's comes large expectations. On the surface, it’s easy to find issues with how the 30-year-old center has played this season. There will always be calls to do more, especially on those nights when his rebound totals aren’t up to par. But, the Celtics are in the position they are in now because of him. Without him operating at his best come the postseason, it’s unlikely they’ll get very far.

And other players will take note of how Horford’s presence improves the players around him. If he helps them land another star in free agency this offseason, something tells me we won’t hear any more rumblings about the money he’s making.


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