If there’s an Al Horford Fan Club out there, then sign me up.
I want the poster, the glossy 8-by-10, the Starting Lineup figure … wait, they don’t make those anymore? How about a bobblehead of Big Al setting a textbook screen? Make sure to include a laminated membership card so I can carry it like a badge of honor. I shouldn’t even have to hesitate to say it: I’m a fan.
If you don’t mind, I’ll also take a flak jacket for the 98.5 The Sports Hub studios.
Horford plays beautiful basketball and it doesn’t matter. His court vision out of the high post? Whatever. A big man shooting 43 percent from downtown? Yawn. Get down on the block. He’s boxing out the other team’s best rebounder? Then he should be pulling down boards like DeAndre Jordan. He’s versatile enough to accept defensive assignments against wings and bigs for the highest-rated defensive squad in the NBA? Doesn’t protect the rim.
Objective measurement says Al Horford can ball. Advanced stats guys love him. Some were even touting him as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate earlier in the season. Subjective measurement indicates the respect of his peers (a 2018 All-Star selection, the fifth of his career) and my eyes show me things like efficient scoring, defensive presence, the angle on a nifty pass, the hustle play to create another possession.
But that’s not what you pay a max contract guy to do. Let Marcus Smart make the hustle plays. None of it is any good if he can’t average 20 and 10.
He’s been in a slump over the last 10 games and his shortcomings have fallen under the microscope. He could be more aggressive offensively. He’s not a reliable scoring option on the block. When he plays center, the Celtics are a below-average rebounding unit. It all came to a head Saturday night in Houston, when Horford submitted a heavily criticized performance against the team with the best record in the NBA. The mistakes in crunch time didn’t help. And yet, as always, the big man was accountable.
With Kyrie Irving taking a seat against the Bulls last night, I had to tune in to see how Horford would respond.
Now, Bobby Portis and Lauri Markkanen aren’t anybody’s depiction of an elite NBA front court pairing. But Horford made a mockery of the situation in his first 10 minutes of play, with nine points on 4-of-6 shooting, two rebounds, two assists, a block, and a steal that led to a coast-to-coast dunk. Boston made a conscious effort to get the ball inside and the team responded with 20 first quarter points in the paint. He set the tone for a blowout.
But it was only the Bulls. And Anthony Davis would’ve had at least three or four rebounds in the first quarter, right?
The last time Irving missed a game, against Portland on February 4, Horford posted 22 points, 10 boards, five assists and two blocks, capping the effort with an old school, turnaround jumper on the final possession to grab the win. But that was only the Blazers. Put him against a good team and watch him disappear. Like a magician.
So, what about the four biggest wins the Celtics have this year: over Golden State, Houston, Cleveland and Toronto? In those four games, he’s averaged a tidy 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists while shooting a hyper-efficient 65 percent from the field (24-37). Pull up the numbers for the 2017 playoffs, when Horford posted 15 points, six and a half rebounds, five and a half assists, nearly a steal and a block per night, converted 58 percent of his attempts and the team went to the Conference Finals.
Still not 20 and 10.
Listen, I’m probably as big a fan of the classic NBA center as anybody. I was raised on Olajuwon and Ewing, Shaq and The Admiral, Mourning and Mutombo. My favorite player was The Chief and Jack Sikma’s footwork somehow made more of an impression on me than his awesome perm. I think I singlehandedly willed the Greg Monroe trade into existence – my appetite for old-school pivot moves is just that insatiable.
We’ve been conditioned to expect All-Star centers to stuff a box score with a flurry of points, rebounds and blocks. Horford gets some of those, just not enough for his detractors. And yet, for a player who started his career during the second Bush Administration, few have been more ready for the evolution of the NBA than Big Al. He added a three-point shot to his repertoire. Teams now expect to run a share of their offense through their big man, and Horford does more than just abide. He can chase guys out around the three-point line on defense. There’s a very short list of guys in the league who possess those skills. That’s why the Celtics paid him and that’s why he’s an All-Star.
Two years ago, Boston was a 48-win team coming off two consecutive one-and-dones in the postseason. Last year, they won 53 games and two playoff rounds. This year, who knows? How much of that success can be attributed to Horford? It’s tough to say without getting yelled at.
Mo Vaughn once famously said, “It’s not about the money,” before the Angels lined his pockets. With Horford detractors, it’s always going to be about the money. He’s currently the 11th-highest-paid player in the NBA. He probably doesn’t deserve to be making more than Anthony Davis. That’s the dictionary definition of “star,” and unless Horford vaults to unprecedented counting stats (numbers the Celtics aren’t asking him to contribute), he’s never going to move past being the guy who was rumored as second-to-last picked at the All-Star Game.
In July of 2016, teams had money to spend. Horford was, without argument, the number two unrestricted free agent available behind Kevin Durant. The Celtics had Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk at center. They needed an All-Star big man, they offered him top dollar, and he became the biggest Boston free agent signing since Dominique Wilkins. It was what the market dictated. Econ 101. Other teams paid guys like Dwight Howard and Ian Mahinmi. Maybe you preferred Hassan Whiteside and his hollow stats. That’s a you problem.
Is Horford’s contract blocking the team from making a crucial move? Do you honestly think he’ll be the reason they get booted from the playoffs? Being a critic is part of the sports radio job description; it’d be a bore if we didn’t call guys out once in a while. Horford’s play has fallen off as of late. But it’s also increasingly evident that there’s pretty much nothing the player can do to satisfy some people. Even as the Celtics continue to find success.
Al Horford is the motor oil for a complex Celtics engine. His unique array of talents makes it possible for this mixture of players to be successful under Brad Stevens. A quart of oil will run you under five bucks under normal conditions. But sometimes the market gets out of whack. That’s the max contract in the NBA. There’s only so much oil, and teams will pay for it. Hopefully, Al Horford’s legacy in Boston isn’t crushed by the weight of his contract like some poor guy who accidentally kicked the jack while he was under his car.
If I put an Al Horford Fan Club bumper sticker on my F-150, will my tires get slashed out in the parking lot? Flynn?
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.