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Let's Have An Honest Discussion About What Al Horford's Return Brings The Celtics

Adam Glanzman. Getty Images.

Now that a few hours have passed and we've been able to digest the news from this morning, it's time to get serious and have a real honest discussion about the return of our beautiful-eyed Al Horford. 

To put it simply, both extremes are incorrect when talking about this return. This is not 2016. It's not as if bringing in Al Horford for another go around suddenly sounds off the alarms to cue the duckboats. The same way the other extreme is not true. Al Horford is not some completely washed up player that has no business being in the NBA. He's not the player that we saw in Philly. Brett Brown was a moron and that fit was terrible. 

The truth is, the answer is somewhere in the middle. That's why it's important to talk about Horford realistically, not just how we remember him in his first stint and not just how he looked as a Sixer. The OKC Horford was a 28 game sample, so while that had encouraging signs, I'm also taking it with a grain of salt. His flaws didn't matter on that team because they had no interest whatsoever in winning basketball games. That is very different in Boston. His limitations and regression matter more the same way his skillset and positives mean more. 

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So, let's look at it all. How he could help, the concerns that are more than valid, and what it means for the rest of the roster/how this team can get back to playing. I understand there is also a financial/contract benefit to this move but I don't really care about that right now. I care about the on the court product above anything else. While we don't know who the coach will be or what that system will look like, we do have a pretty good idea of what Brad likes and how he likes to play.

How Horford Helps

1. There are a few things that Horford will bring to this offense that have nothing to do with any potential regression due to his age. The first is his passing. Outside of Rob, this team does not have a big who can pass the ball as of now. Think of how the offense looked in his first stint. Being able to have a big who can stand on the perimeter and pass the ball is a major benefit. We know this not because Al thrived at this in his first stint, but the same is true when we see Rob do it. We begged for there to be more playmaking on this roster, and that is exactly what Horford brings. He averaged 4.6 assists a game in his first stint and a huge part of that success came from him finding off ball cutters at the top of the key. Sets like this were nowhere to be found whenever Rob wasn't on the floor

We all want less isolation right? Well, this is one way to get that. Put the ball in the hands of a player who you know can trust to make the right play and find easy buckets for your best players. Think of how different this is from what we saw with Tristan Thompson. 

With Horford, they are adding a player that had a 23% AST% during his first stint, and hasn't been below 19% in each of the last two seasons. To put this into perspective for you, Marcus Smart had a 23% AST% last season. If Horford replicates what he did in his first stint, he becomes tied for the best playmaker on the team. Rob was at 14% last year and Thompson 7.2%. That is a massive upgrade. 

2. We can welcome back a legit pick and pop option. Once Danny traded Daniel Theis, this sort of went out the window, even with Rob healthy. They did not have a stretch big who you could honestly rely on to make spot up three point shooters. Al's pick and pop game is still an asset that does not rely on his athleticism. He shot 36.8% from three last season, and here's how he did as a spot up shooter

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1.15 points per possession / 42.8% F% / 79th percentile

That's essentially the exact same production as what he did in his final season in Boston. As a catch & shoot player when it came to threes, Horford shot 36.6% last year, 35% in 2019, and 36% in 2018. That's still very much a solid option for a team that desperately needed that safety valve last season. Given the fact that he already has chemistry with Smart/Jaylen/Tatum, three guys who you assume will handle a majority of the offensive initiation, that's a positive for sure.

3. Whether it was Grant or Mo Wagner or Luke Kornet, the Celts did have an issue when it came to playing big men with actual consistent NBA talent. That's now not as much of a problem after this trade. Even if you want to tell me Horford will drop a few levels, it's still better than what was currently available. Having a legit NBA big man in the rotation who you can rely on and know what you're going to get is pretty important. It allows the next coach to be flexible with his lineups, play Horford and one of the Jays or Fournier with the second unit and perhaps now you won't see those 6 minute scoring droughts with the second unit.

4. Horford's post offense isn't terrible. He shot 50% on post ups last year which isn't too far off from his 53% in his last season in Boston. The point is, how many times can we see Tristan Thompson become a black hole in the post only to leave a jump hook short. Considering you're also adding a guy who can pass out of the post, this should help. Again, post moves don't really require quickness/athleticism. 

5. Often times we see Celts bigs get attacked in switches or in P&R. Horford will help there. He ranked in the 98th percentile in Philly at defending the P&R ball handler and the 98th percentile in his last season in Boston. I feel more comfortable with him trying to contain someone than I do Tristan Thompson, that's for sure.

Horford negatives

1. For starters, he is not the same caliber when it comes to his post defense. In the first stint, we knew Horford as the Embiid stopper. He ranked in the 94th percentile as a post defender when he first arrived, but that number dropped in each of his final 2 seasons. So I would hold off on this idea that they just brought someone in who is going to handle Embiid by himself. Not in 2021. In his 28 games last year, Horford ranked in the 6th percentile in post defense. He allowed players to score 61.5% of the time and they shot 65% averaging 1.27 points per possession. While Horford should be able to help as team defender, he has not shown that he can be that lock down post defender we first saw. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

2. If you remember Horford's tenure at the end, his lateral quickness and defensive versatility looked like it was becoming an issue. That's not going to magically change now that he's in his mid 30s. He looked a step slow, and that's the truth.

3. I'm concerned about playing two bigs again. It's why what Brad now does with Thompson is so huge. We just saw what it looks like when he plays next to another big and it wasn't great. My thought is they would go with a similar look we saw in his last year in Boston. Something like a Smart/Jaylen/Fournier/Tatum/Horford (if Rob is out) is probably more likely. I would not play Rob and Horford at the same time.

4. Which brings me to my next point. This trade does potentially limit any sort of development from Rob, which is the last thing we all want. Who knows if the new coach will love him as much as we do, but I feel like we need to see what Rob looks like with the starters. Is Horford going to be cool coming off the bench? Who knows. I just know this is a huge season for Rob and what his future might look like, so I don't really love something that could potentially limit his development.

5. If we were to look at a healthy Kemba and a healthy Horford, the team from a talent perspective is worse than it was before this trade. That's just a fact. That doesn't mean the impact will be worse, but from a talent perspective, the Celts as we know them to be right this second have less individual talent available.

So do I think Horford can help? Absolutely. But I can't stress it enough, this is not the same Horford we saw the first time. He does bring a skillset that this roster needs and that's a good thing, but we shouldn't pretend like his issues we saw towards the end of his first tenure no longer exist. It's now even more important to see what Brad does with the rest of this offseason. How does he use the Hayward TPE? What happens with Fournier? What's the point guard situation? There are still a ton of unknowns still on the table.

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