Last month, Sports Illustrated published their list of the top 100 players in the NBA of 2019. The Boston Celtics, who are widely expected to be one of the league’s best teams this season, had six of their players named on the list.
Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford were all listed. That should make the Celtics very proud of the copious amounts of talent they have on their squad. The most surprising wrinkle in these rankings was that, of the six Celtics that were on the list, Horford ranked the highest at No. 16.
It should be noted that these rankings are completely subjective – Horford was ranked No. 34 on ESPN’s top 100 list – so once this season concludes, putting Horford up that high could end up being foolish in comparison to the other Celtics. There’s no telling how much better Tatum and Brown could be as they enter another year in their very promising careers. There’s also no telling how good Hayward and Irving could be since they are coming off season-ending injuries.
Should all four of those guys live up to expectations, then Horford could very well be the Celtics fifth-best player in terms of talent. However, talent is not what makes Horford such a valuable player. What makes Horford a plausible No. 16 ranking is that he is the one player that the Celtics can’t afford to lose.
The Celtics have shown adversity when losing their most talented players on paper. Shortly after Hayward went down, the Celtics ripped off a 16-game winning streak because their wing depth kept them strong. After Irving went down, they still came within a few shots of making the NBA Finals because their guard depth kept things afloat. That is not to take away from how crucial both Irving and Hayward will be to the Celtics season, but Boston demonstrated last season that they can do just fine without them. The same cannot be said about Horford.
It sounds odd because when you look at his regular numbers, they won’t blow you away. His averages of 13 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.1 blocks per game have earned him the nickname “Average Al” by some of his critics. What he does on the court doesn’t exactly scream elite, either. For his size, Horford is one of the best floor spacers, dead-eye passers and all-around versatile defenders, among having other skills that he has compared to other players that play the same position.
The reason why his skill set gets overlooked across the league is that we’ve seen bigs who have some of the same skills that Horford does. What separates him from them is that there aren’t that many bigs out there who can do all the things that he can do. That’s what makes him such a special player in this league: His all-around game makes him a rare breed.
Of course, it helps that the league’s evolution in the past several years suits Horford’s game. More and more emphasis is being put on bigs who can play on both sides of the floor, defend multiple positions and shoot threes. He did not come into the league with a reliable three-ball, but always had a reliable jump shot from 15-20 feet.
His all-around game fuels his best attribute to the game of basketball. That is, he simply makes your team better. Look no further than the team’s net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) with him on the floor. Last season, the Celtics were overall a plus-9.3 with Horford, which was highest on the team. He proved himself to be even more valuable when the playoffs rolled around, as he posted a plus-16.8, which, again, was the highest on the team.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of Horford’s playoff performance was his defense. There’s a fair argument that every opponent the Celtics faced in the playoffs had the best player (or two) in the series. A big part of why the Celtics were able to stop them was because of Horford’s ability to defend their best players. Not many guys in this league can stay in front of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Horford may not have been a “stopper,” but he made them work harder for their points.
Even if he doesn’t have high-scoring performances or intimidate as one of the league’s top rim protectors, Horford plays a huge part in his team’s success. What he does can’t just be easily replaced. When Hayward and Irving went down, Tatum, Brown, Rozier, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris all picked up the slack as much as they could. If Horford goes down this season, the Celtics don’t have the personnel to fill the void that he would leave.
That’s not a shot at Aron Baynes or Daniel Theis. Baynes paired well with Horford as one of the league’s best defensive frontcourts after Hayward went down. Theis gradually improved to be a reliable backup before tearing his meniscus. Both of them play well in the roles that are expected of them, but – unlike the guard and wing depth that the Celtics have – those two are strictly role players with limited ceilings. They don’t have Horford’s IQ. They don’t have Horford’s footwork. They don’t have Horford’s three-point prowess (though both have shown that they’re not necessarily inept in that area). They are good at what they do, but can’t be asked to do much more.
The point of all this is that if there’s one player whose potential injury could undo everything that the Celtics hope to accomplish this season, it’s Horford. His abilities make him the jack-of-all-trades as a “tweener” power forward/center of whom the Celtics have no one to replace with.
When the Celtics agreed to give Horford a max contract back in 2016, they didn’t sign him hoping he’d give them 20/10 every night and dominate on both ends of the floor. They signed him hoping to be the perfect big for Brad Stevens’ system.
To do just that, you don’t have to be Kevin Garnett. You just have to be Al Horford.
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