Boston Celtics: Al Horford Continues to Silence His Critics
If you want a good grasp of someone’s basketball IQ, one simple question can get you there: “What do you think of Al Horford?”
The 31-year-old Boston Celtics big-man has been a controversial figure this season, leaving Celtics fans split on how to interpret his time with the team. On one end, you have the doubters, that believe Horford hasn’t lived up to his $27 million-a-year contract. On the other side, there’s those who think Horford’s positive impact is unquantifiable.
Hopefully, his game one performance against the Bucks will finally silence the skeptics.
I wish we could all agree on just how good Horford is. He's skilled at so many things that are pretty obvious if you aren't merely looking at the ball on every possession.
— Chris Herring (@Herring_NBA) April 15, 2018
Game One MVP
“We’re going to ride Al. … With where we’re at, he’s going to facilitate, he’s going to be more of a featured scorer, he’s going to guard Giannis,” said Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens after Sunday’s game. “And he’ll probably run our film session tomorrow. That’s his job.”
Horford’s box-score numbers don’t pop off the page: 24 points, 12 rebounds and four assists on 5/8 shooting. It’s common knowledge that he doesn’t stuff the stat sheet, even in his best games.
That being said, Big Al was fantastic. He was the calming force when things broke down on both ends. Late in regulation and in overtime, Boston gave it to Horford in the post, where he was able to score or draw a foul for a few straight possessions. When the Bucks decided to play Giannis Antetokounmpo at center in crunch-time, Horford used his strength to get Giannis in foul trouble
Horford was great on defense too, matching up with Antetokounmpo for a team-high 37 possessions. He didn’t lock him down, but Al did a solid job of containing the Greek Freak to 5/10 shooting.
What makes Horford so valuable on that end is more than just his ability to protect the rim. He guards a wide range of players without getting exposed. This gives Stevens the freedom to use a switch-heavy defense against teams like the Bucks who will run defenders through a plethora of screens throughout the game. Here, he gets switched onto Khris Middleton, and Horford’s quick hands cause the Bucks’ forward to lose the ball on the way up:
Far From Overrated
A lot of fans have taken a stance that Al Horford is the most overrated player in the league, which makes sense if you’re simply watching box scores and post-game highlights. To those people, in particular, your homework assignment is to watch a Boston Celtics game in its entirety and spend the whole game only watching Horford.
When it comes to half-court sets, take note how instrumental Horford is to everything they run. He often initiates the play, serving as the dimer or just as the primary screen-setter. If not, he’s receiving a pass in the low post to take advantage of miss-match, or making a three-pointer on a pick-and-pop opportunity. Check out this play, which ends in a Horford drawing the post-up foul:
Although subtle, notice Shane Larkin dragging Malcolm Brogdon through these screens, which forces him to initially switch onto Jayson Tatum. Now, when Brogdon gets screened again by Horford he has to switch. Horford and Tatum both pick-up on the mismatch, and get him the ball in the post.
The way Al Horford lurks at the top of the key here has become a staple of the Celtics offense. Al is a great screen-setter and is a master at spacing the floor on potential pick-and-pops.
On a team as inexperienced as the Boston Celtics, it’s key that the young players have someone to rely on when the game gets tight. Horford has been that guy all season — especially since Kyrie went down at the beginning of March.
He became the floor general at the end of game one — as he’s done in many other games this season. These two passes made by Horford in the final few minutes are just another reason he’s far from overrated:
How many big men are able to make these passes, score in the post, guard the other team’s best player and also hit a jab-step three all in the same game?
Is Horford Earning His Salary?
Here’s a list of the top-20 highest salaries in 2017-18:
Now, here’s that same list of players, this time ranked by Basketball Reference’s Value Over Replacement Player:
Al Horford is smack in the middle of both charts. Obviously, he isn’t on the same level as some guys on that list, but if you cut-and-dry look at impact, Horford stacks up decently in the group.
Bringing Horford’s contract into play creates a different debate though. It’s hard to constitute what a max-player should do. Should they make your team better or put up great numbers? Ideally, you’d want them to do both. It’s harder to defend Al Horford because he doesn’t give you a lot of counting stats to grasp onto.
Regardless, Horford makes winning plays throughout the game for the Boston Celtics. Thus, that means more than an empty 25-10 performance in a loss.
No matter the number of smart plays he makes, doubters will never look past the fact he’s getting paid more money than players like Kevin Durant or Damian Lillard.
Al Horford has many strengths to his game. But perhaps the best way to understand his impact is to look at his weaknesses because he has so few.