Funny how the narrative changes depending on what team you play for. Remember when the Hawks won 60 games without a star player? They earned the nickname of “Spurs East” with former San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer leading a team of blue collar, hard-nosed players to the Eastern Conference Finals. Much like the Spurs themselves, they won games by playing brand-X fundamental basketball. A 60 win season was the peak of Al Horford’s tenure in Atlanta, where he held the team’s top win shares in four seasons over a stretch of nine straight postseason appearances. Before drafting Horford, the Hawks had been absent in the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons.
Staying true to the “Spurs East” nickname, Al Horford was Tim Duncan lite to Mike Budenholzer. Here’s Horford’s last six seasons compared to Duncan’s (excluding 2015-16):
On paper, Horford and post-prime Duncan share a lot of similarities, which is a great sign for long-time Celtics fans, especially the ones who fed me horror stories of the mid-90s Celtics that tanked in an effort to draft Tim Duncan in 1997. On the court, however, there are some key differences in how Horford and Duncan operate within an offense, and these differences are why Horford is a perfect fit for the Boston Celtics.
Tim Duncan, when not banking in shots from mid-range, often played like an “old school” center. He was somebody you could feed the ball to and let him go to work.
Duncan, like most centers, would create separation with his shoulder before taking a shot or laying the ball in. From there, he was one of the best we’ve ever seen at creating the best possible shot for himself, a skill that separated him as one the elite.
Horford operates a little differently. Horford is a guy who makes his move without the ball, a rare skill among NBA bigs in today’s league.
As seen in many of his highlights, Horford is always one step ahead of the defense when it comes to seeing a play develop, which leads to a lot of easy baskets. The Celtics earned a lot of points on sneaky backdoor cuts by their guards over the past couple seasons, and the addition of Horford allows them to exploit holes in the defense at another position.
As a dynamic scorer, Horford will also fit perfectly into the Celtics pick-and-pop system they run with Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics are unique in that they like to run their offense inside out sometimes, where the guards are looking for layups while the bigs open up the floor by threatening to hit a corner three. While Amir Johnson fit well into this offense, Horford adds more reliability to the perimeter scoring. Even in transition, the Cs would have their guards rebounding missed shots on defense to look for big men running the floor on the break. As seen in Horford’s highlights, he can outrun most bigs, and even smaller players, from end to end.
On the defensive end, Horford is coming off a career year in terms of blocks, totaling 121 regular season blocks last season after failing to eclipse 98 in his first eight years. It’s well known that the Celtics desperately needed some rim protection, and while Amir Johnson deserves more credit as a shot blocker than I think he got, there was nobody to defend the rim while he was out of the game.
Finally, Horford is exactly the type of player you’d like to see inserted into the Brad Stevens system. I mean, sure, I wouldn’t complain if we lured a freak-of-nature athlete like Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin to run wild and style on the opposition, but Horford is the kind of chess piece that Stevens can use to flex his coaching muscles. Westbrook and Griffin strike me as “me first” players - the type of personalities who want to take charge at the expense of team chemistry. Westbrook’s track record of hero ball and Griffin’s rumored unwillingness to share the spotlight (among other questionable decisions) worry me, while Horford’s background on the Spurs East shows that he knows how to work within a system where the product is greater than the sum of its parts.
If you’re in the camp that the Celtics were strictly one superstar away from contention, then you may be underwhelmed by what the Celtics did this summer. If you’re one of those people: look at the bigger picture. The Celtics, despite making the playoffs the past two seasons, are still in the middle of a rebuild. The team is still reaping the benefits of trading their star players for draft picks and signing some low risk contracts in the meantime, not to mention a trade here and there. Ainge has addressed everything the team needed, and credit should be given where it is due.