Old man in the key: Al Horford and the NBA fountain of youth
Like the left-handed reliever in baseball, the NBA big man of old has rarely spent time in an unemployment line. After all, you can’t teach height.
But that also means we’ve seen a number of legendary big men become dinosaurs right before our eyes.
Think Hakeem on the Raptors. Shaq’s “Big Shamrock” stint in Boston. Or one-time wunderkind Moses Malone, looking like two decades of carrying the load in the low post compressed his spine and lopped a couple inches from his Hall of Fame frame.
The Celtics’ Al Horford was anything but the archetypal aging big man last season.
Unlike some of his now-extinct peers, the Florida product has stayed relevant. He developed a reliable offensive touch from the outside and has remained nimble defensively through 15 years in the league – a particularly valuable skill in Boston’s switching system which will continue to be deployed to some extent by new coach Joe Mazzulla.
Horford only got stronger in the postseason, punching the clock for 35 minutes a night and posting a near double-double on 52 percent shooting.
But entering the 2022-23 NBA campaign, the 36-year-old stands 17th in minutes among active players. Much has been made of the fact that he’s older than the coach. And with Robert Williams’ continued recovery from offseason knee surgery, the Celtics need him more than ever.
Daniel Theis – who Boston deployed when Williams couldn’t go in the playoffs – is now a Pacer. Grant Williams remains an invaluable bench piece but can’t guard behemoths. Luke Kornet and Noah Vonleh haven’t been part of an NBA rotation in years. And if Blake Griffin isn’t completely washed, he’s at least been through the gentle cycle.
Horford announced on media day that he’s prepared to play back-to-backs this season and has said he feels so good he wants to play two or three more years, which would push him close to the age of 40.
While Mazzulla certainly wants to keep his big man healthy for what projects to be another deep playoff run, a 36th birthday in the NBA is no death sentence. If the pursuit of his first NBA title isn’t enough, Horford can look to two Celtics legends who provided workhorse efforts in their late-30’s – Robert Parish and Kevin Garnett – for inspiration.
Most recently, KG prolonged his twilight, posting 15 and eight in 30 minutes a night as a small ball five for the death rattle C’s of 2013 (the one with Jason Terry instead of Ray Allen). He ripped down nearly 14 rebounds per game in a six-game playoff loss to the Knicks – a series the Celtics certainly could have won had Rajon Rondo not shredded his knee.
The Chief’s turn-back-the-clock efforts at 37 earned him a Sports Illustrated cover. Could Parish have used a breather? Probably. But a string of bad draft picks, projects that didn’t work out (Stojko Vrankovic, anyone?) and various Bird and McHale maladies meant Parish would be counted on. The Tai chi practitioner did his job for a 56-win team, averaging nearly 17 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs before suffering an injury against the Bad Boy Pistons (didn’t everybody get hurt against those guys?)
Horford has the plum position of playing alongside Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and talented teammates who can carry the offensive load. Obviously, the hope is that Williams returns to fortify the defense and give him a break. But this remarkable NBA career has at least one more chapter.
When Al Horford turns 37 next June 3rd, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll have a game that night.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.