Mazz: Horford, not Kyrie, may have been the bigger loss for the Celtics

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY

By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub

I know, I know … it’s only one game. But in the wake of Kyrie Irving’s departure from the Celtics, here’s what we may have all missed.

In many ways, the departure of Al Horford may hurt them more.

Let’s back up here: before Horford got to Boston the Celtics were a young, cute and lovable band of overachieving misfits who were well-coached and generally played together. Isaiah Thomas was their best player. The Celtics won 48 games during the regular season and finished second in their division, then got unceremoniously bounced by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Know what happened the next year? Horford arrived via free agency. The Celtics then went to two straight conference finals (both without Kyrie) and advanced to the second round last season (with Kyrie), which brings me to this:

Under Brad Stevens, the Celtics never won a playoff series without Horford. When they faced good competition in meaningful games, they lost. And they lost convincingly.

If you watched Wednesday’s season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers, you don’t need anyone to tell you how the Celtics looked: it was ugly. And while we all know the Celtics are short on size, we expected that deficiency to show up more on the defensive end. What we didn’t expect was an offense that looked as unstructured and disjointed as it did, which brings us back to Horford.

Sep 30, 2019; Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia 76ers center Al Horford is interviewed during media day at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
Sep 30, 2019; Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia 76ers center Al Horford is interviewed during media day at the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Lest anyone forget, before Kyrie Irving arrived, the Celtics often ran their offense through Horford, a fabulous pick-and-roll player who creates a massive problem for defenses. Against undersized defenders, Horford could go to the rim. Against bigger opponents, he could step out and shoot 3-pointers. Horford isn’t a superstar by NBA standards, but he was a rock the Celtics could go to at pivotal times.

Who, exactly, gives them that sort of inside-outside threat now?

The answer: no one. At least not yet.

Look, here’s the point: if you think the Celtics could surprise us all this season, you might still be right. But they’re going to need something to change. Jayson Tatum is the most obvious wildcard, because he has the length to play closer to the basket at times and the shooting range to go out beyond the arc. But the Celtics don’t have many players who can stress a good defense from just about anywhere on the offensive end because their wing players don't play big.

Following last season, the departure of Kyrie Irving obviously drew much of the attention given Irving’s talent, ego and attitude. With Irving, the Celtics might have been championship-caliber; without him, they drop to more of a contender status. But without Horford, the Celtics now run the risk of dropping into the middle class of the NBA, which has always been a scary place on the league landscape.

In theory, Kemba Walker was supposed to replace at least a little of Kyrie.

But who do the Celtics have to replace Big Al?

You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.