The last few weeks haven’t been kind to the Boston Celtics.
The Kyrie Irving debacle has completely changed the trajectory of the once-thought NBA Finals contender. As the season degraded, their chance to retain the star guard, and maintain a long-term window for title contention, did so with it.
And, now, with the free agent frenzy upon us, another big name is primed to leave Boston.
While many expected Al Horford to decline his player option and re-up with the Celtics for the foreseeable future, Horford has reportedly changed course. Now, the 33-year-old is expected to hit the open market in search of greener (and more lucrative) pastures — just not Celtics green.
Horford isn’t the top player available this summer. But, while he is often overlooked, there is a lot that he can do for a team on the court. A two-way player unlike many others in the NBA, Horford can contribute at a high level on both ends of the floor. He may not single-handedly take a team to a title, but Horford is the type of hard-working, team-first player that is essential to get there.
Any team could make use of a player like Horford, and there are plenty of potential suitors out there. But which could prove the best fit for the big man next season?
The Mavericks are building something special in Dallas.
The rising star power of recently anointed Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic is obvious. But a pairing with fellow European star Kristaps Porzingis — who, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, is expected to receive a five-year, $158 million contract from Dallas — could rocket them into contender status.
Porzingis hasn’t played in over a year due to a torn left ACL suffered in February 2018. It’s certainly fair to question how the rust from the prolonged absence could affect his game, but Porzingis was a dominant force with the New York Knicks prior to his injury and had his own look of a star in the making. Should he find that form upon his return, the pair could form one of the more dominant duos in the Association.
But, with the cap space they should have after Porzingis’ deal, why not take it a step further?
Pairing Porzingis with Horford would not only allow Horford to slide from center to his preferred position of power forward, but it would create a formidable defensive duo. Horford has proven time and time again that he is one of the best defensive players, let alone bigs, in the NBA while the 7-foot-3 Porzingis has the advantage over almost any matchup in the paint. Together, the two would almost certainly dominate.
Aside from the defensive prospects, Horford would form quite the offensive duo — and lighten the load — with the young Doncic. Horford, who averaged 13.6 points and shot 36% from three-point range last season, would be an excellent pick-and-pop partner for the soon-to-be-sophomore and could take on some of the scoring responsibilities that fell to Doncic last season, especially after the deadline deal that jettisoned Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews and DeAndre Jordan.
Horford, at times, could act as an offense initiator as well, providing more time for Doncic to rest as he won’t have to dominate the ball.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have big aspirations this Summer.
Namely, Kawhi Leonard.
Los Angeles has been tied to Leonard dating back to last season and, despite the fact that Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship, they have continued to be connected to him. Leonard, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, is set to meet with the Clippers at the start of free agency.
Regardless of what goes down with Leonard, the outcome shouldn’t preclude the Clippers from going after another big name free agent. Whether to pair him with Leonard or otherwise, Horford would fit nicely alongside a solid Clippers’ roster in a seemingly wide-open Western Conference.
It’s not as if Horford would be the only major piece for the Clippers — three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, alongside Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet headline a talented Los Angeles roster that held their own against the Golden State Warriors in their first-round series. But it is clear that the Clippers and they just need someone to push them to that next level.
While Leonard is the dream scenario (and a pairing with Horford even better) just Horford alone could be enough to take them there.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers roster is a bit bare right now.
Of course, on the eve of free agency, almost every team has the look of an empty cupboard. But for the Lakers, who shipped out much of their under-contract roster in order to acquire Anthony Davis (and later open up another max salary slot), there is some serious work to be done.
The Lakers have the talent; Davis alongside LeBron James could dominate the court with three other players plucked off the street. But the biggest question for the Lakers now is what to do with that extra max slot: do they split the salary into multiple players, or go for the star free agent home run?
The former may be the better choice, but should Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers opt for the latter? They also, reportedly, have a meeting with Leonard, but Horford may be the best fit for the Lakers (and their only choice, should things continue the way they have thus far with Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker).
Horford, alongside Davis, James and Kyle Kuzma, would form a potent offensive foursome, regardless of whatever other pieces the team can convince to sign on. Both Horford, Davis and Kuzma can all stretch the floor, which would completely open up the inside for James to get downhill and drive to the basket. Horford could also serve as a nice pick-and-pop option for James.
As with Doncic and the Mavericks, Horford could also bring the ball up the court at times, further reducing the offensive burden on James.
Defensively, Horford could help pick up the slack for a 36-year-old James, who could look to rest on defense (as he has in recent seasons) to stay fresh for an inevitable stretch run.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans could be a tough sell to a veteran like Horford.
After a postseason appearance a year ago, the Pelicans saw their record plummet to 33-49 this season while their best player, Davis, demanded a trade.
But, after some managerial magic (and some draft lottery luck) from recent hire David Griffin, the Pelicans are poised to experience the biggest of bounce backs, armed with Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday, the massive haul acquired via the Davis trade and potentially more than $30 million in cash. An NBA title may be out of the question, but a competitive season culminating with a postseason run may not be too far off.
And, there is some interest in Horford, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times
Throwing money at Horford wouldn’t be a terrible investment, either. While he may not propel them to a title, Horford would instantly become one of their most important, multi-faceted assets. Yes, his on-court contributions would help them win games — pick and pop with Jrue Holiday and spacing for Williamson could prove integral to an offense that wasn’t exactly great last season — but his veteran poise and presence may be the most important thing someone like Horford could bring to New Orleans; despite the hype, Williamson is still a rookie, and a veteran like Horford could make a world of difference for him, fellow freshman Jaxson Hayes and the other youngsters coming in via Los Angeles.
At this stage in his career, Horford may be championship or bust. If that’s the case, don’t expect much out of the bayou. But, the money would seem to be there for the taking, it’s on Horford to cash in.
The Kings could be in the market for a center.
Willie Cauley-Stein ‘needs a fresh start’ according to his agent, a move that would leave a void at the center spot in Sacramento. Of course, they have a plethora of young bigs that they could try at the five, but Harry Giles is an unproven commodity while they may opt to deploy Marvin Bagley III at the four-spot.
Enter Horford, who could not only serve as an impact starting center, but a level-headed veteran in the locker room of one of the youngest teams in the NBA.
The Kings were a major surprise last season; expected to be one of the worst teams in the Association, the Kings were in the postseason hunt until the last days of the regular season. Similar growth from their home-grown talent — Bagley, De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, etc. — plus the addition of Horford could launch them into the thick of the Western Conference playoff pack, something huge for a team that hasn’t seen the postseason in over a decade.
That lack of success could also be a deterrent though. Should Horford look to ring chase in his next contract, an upstart Kings team (not unlike the Pelicans) may be a tough sell. But the fit is there and, if rings are secondary (i.e. Horford is looking for his last chance to cash in big), the Kings could be an ideal landing spot for him.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder showed interest in Horford back when he was a free agent in 2016 and, looking for something to right their postseason wrongs, it isn’t a stretch to think they would have interest three years later.
General Manager Sam Presti would have to pull off some serious salary cap gymnastics to swing a deal (through either free agency or via a sign-and-trade) — whether that be moving some combination of Steven Adams, Patrick Patterson Dennis Schroder or Andre Roberson or something else entirely — but Horford could be the remedy that Oklahoma City is desperate for.
While Paul George looked like an MVP candidate at times, Russell Westbrook — despite the fact that he averaged a triple-double for the third season in a row — took a major step back and held them back in the postseason. Horford would be an immediate upgrade over Adams as a floor stretcher, as his presence on the outside would prevent teams from rushing the paint on Westbrook drives or focusing solely on George when he has the ball.
Defensively, Horford is stout and, while he may not have the reputation Adams has on that end of the court, there wouldn’t be much, there shouldn’t be much, if any dropoff from the center spot should the Thunder manage to swap one for the other in the coming days.
While he isn’t the marquee free agent this summer, Horford could be one of the top additions as we look back on this offseason. He isn’t a game breaker in a traditional sense, but the impact he has — doing a little bit of everything on the court — is enough to transform a team. With the right pieces around him (already in place or otherwise) he could push any team into the ever-growing of contenders.
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