Horford Returns to Boston With Unfinished Business

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The Eastern Conference is oozing with talented teams heading into the season, as the contenders were kept intact and the teams at the bottom of the standings all improved tremendously over the offseason. Several teams are especially intriguing when you factor in the big moves that the Chicago Bulls and Miami HEAT made and of course the Brooklyn Nets returning to health with their trio of stars.

The Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia is getting more uncomfortable with each passing day and all eyes will be on the Milwaukee Bucks to see if they can repeat as champions. One team operating under the radar is the Boston Celtics. That is an odd statement to make about an organization that is arguably the most successful franchise in the history of the league.

Boston will look much different this season, but there will be plenty of familiar faces playing inside at TD Garden. It all starts with their two star wing players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The dynamic duo has been carrying the load for the Celtics in recent years but will need to start having success in the postseason as they enter their prime years.

Leadership has been an issue with this team over the course of the last few seasons, but that issue was likely addressed back in June when they brought Al Horford back to town.

Horford spent three seasons in Boston from 2016 to 2019 and appeared in 208 games. The big man was named to the All-Defensive team in 2017-18, and also made his fifth appearance in the All-Star game. The Celtics finished 2nd in the East that year and were one game away from a trip back to the Finals, but fell to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7.

Boston has had quite the makeover since the end of last season, both in terms of the roster and the coaching staff. When Danny Ainge stepped down from his role as president of basketball operations, Brad Stevens was a natural fit to take his place. The first order of business for Stevens was to hire a new head coach, and he found the perfect man for the job in Ime Udoka. The next item on the checklist was to address the point guard situation.

With Kyrie Irving’s unpredictability and Kemba Walker’s unreliability due to injuries, Boston has not been able to find much consistency at the position. They had to wait for some things to play out, but they got a steal in the one-year deal with Dennis Schroder at just $5.9 million. While he is not a traditional play-making point guard, Schroder brings a lot to the table including toughness and effort that will make him a fan favorite with Celtics fans.

Like Horford, Enes Kanter is also returning for a second stint with the team. They acquired Josh Richardson from Dallas to help on the perimeter but keeping two of their own players for the foreseeable future was one of their best decisions of the summer. Both Marcus Smart and Robert Williams got new contract extensions, keeping the core of this team intact. With the growth and development of Williams, Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard, the future looks bright in Boston.

Horford is far from the player that he was in Atlanta, and even in his first stint with the Celtics. That being said, he is still a vital contributor to this team. Joel Embiid is one of the most difficult players to defend in the league. Before he made the move to Philadelphia, Horford was Embiid’s kryptonite. The two have squared off 13 times in their careers, with Horford’s team winning ten of those games, including four of the five playoff matchups. Embiid’s efficiency dropped dramatically in matchups against Horford, and the two are division rivals once again.

The Celtics did not give Williams a four-year, $54 million contract extension to start games on the bench. Horford, being the veteran that he is, knows this as well. While figuring out the starting lineup and rotation will be one of the riddles for Udoka to solve, there is a scenario where both big men could be on the floor for the start of games. The two-big lineups that several teams have toyed with would allow Boston to capitalize on their size. Horford has plenty of experience playing alongside a fellow big man.

Should Boston opt to play small ball, they can easily surround their two star players with the likes of Schroder, Smart and Horford at the center position. Having two guards on the floor would help the ball movement and lessen the load of play-making duties assigned to Tatum and Brown. The key here is that with Horford’s return, the Celtics now have more flexibility and variety that they can use to match up better with their opponent.

Despite only playing 28 games last season, Horford still looked very good. He scored 14.2 points per game, which was his highest average since the 2015-16 season, his final year in Atlanta. His rebounding and assist numbers were solid, his shooting was very consistent and his defensive skills were not diminished at all. His numbers will likely take a dip this year in his new role but his leadership and experience are immeasurable assets for this team.

The continued development of Williams under the study of Horford will be incredibly important for this team as they push forward. While Tatum and Brown are the cornerstones of the franchise, Williams has a massive upside that the organization hopes can be brought to fruition with Horford’s help. The two are very similar in terms of their versatility, size and defensive mindset.

Boston is expected to be in the middle of the pack in terms of where they slot in out East. The conference has two elite teams at the top with Brooklyn and Milwaukee, and three teams at the bottom that are rebuilding. The Celtics are essentially part of a ten-team battle that will play out over the course of 82 games.

The roster has the talent, the coaching staff has the hunger and the front office seems to have the right blueprint. Should these ingredients all come together as they hope, the Celtics could be well on their way to an 18th banner sooner than some people expect.