These have not been a great eight months for the Boston Celtics.
There was genuine excitement about this team back in October. Do you remember it? (It was soooo long ago, it seems.)
A core of Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward was projected to run the Eastern Conference. Add in Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier, and the Celtics’ eight-man rotation stacked up against anyone’s on paper.
Sadly, games aren’t played on paper.
Irving, Morris and Smart had career years. The others either regressed (hello, Rozier!) or remained relatively stagnant. The Celtics eventually caught a groove towards the end of the season, but hope died down with a harder-than-expected series against the Indiana Pacers.
In the second round, Irving and Hayward practically folded, leading to 4-1 series win by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Disappointing seasons happen. But with Irving probably leaving in ironic fashion and Horford reportedly following suit, you’d be pretty hard pressed to see a “sure-thing” NBA situation crumble like the Celtics have.
The case of Horford is just another interesting piece in the rubble.
He surprisingly declined his $30.1 million player option, but did so to secure a cheaper-but-longer term deal with the Celtics. Those talks quickly fell through, however.
Now Horford is ready to test the market, and there should be plenty of suitors for his services.
What he brings to the table
Giving a 33-year-old center a three or four-year deal doesn’t sound smart on the surface. Yet, it may be a reasonable bet for Horford—a versatile big with a skill set that’s aging well.
That’s because he averaged 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.3 blocks last season. Only three other players hit that benchmark: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Marc Gasol.
Horford obviously isn’t a Durant or Giannis-level player, but he still has the ability to affect games in multiple areas.
Horford’s shooting (36 percent on 3.0 attempts) thins out defenses. You can’t afford to run traditional “Drop” coverage with him at the 5, because he can especially burn you on above-the-break threes.
He also has the ability to put the ball on the floor as a driver or drive-and-kicker. Sloppy close-outs from a lumbering big will lead to Horford creating a good look. Switching pick-and-rolls give him a mismatch on the block.
There has been a career-long (slight) annoyance that Horford doesn’t take over games often, however.
He appears content to fill gaps at an elite level rather than be a high usage scorer. As the past two postseasons have shown, Horford can take over when prodded. It just isn’t his preferred role. He recognizes that and still projects as an ideal third banana at this point in his career.
Defensively, Horford isn’t a high-flying shot swatter, but he wins matchups with his smarts and quickness. He especially understands angles and uses that knowledge (and his underrated strength) to force tough looks inside.
His real value comes in space, however. He’s nimble to operate in a “Drop” system, closing out to stretch bigs in a contained manner. On switches, he moves well enough laterally to hang with, and sometimes stifle opposing guards.
In short: Horford can’t be played off the floor on either side of the ball.
There isn’t a team in the league that couldn’t use Horford. Unfortunately for some, he’s going to be well out of their price range. He is likely going to command at least $20 million a year, and that’s a conservative figure.
I can’t imagine him turning down roughly $30 million to take, like, a 4/80 deal. In fact, there are rumblings that Horford has a four-year, $100 million deal waiting for him somewhere.
(As a brief, related aside, I love the idea of Horford joining the Bucks if they could get out of the contracts of Ersan Ilyasova and newly acquired cap filler Jon Leuer. There just isn’t a reasonable way to pull that off.)
So this discussion has to kick off with the LA teams.
At minimum, the Lakers will have $23.7 million to work with this summer. That would put them in the ballpark of a 4/100 offer, though you could argue that’s a poor use of their space considering how bare the rest of the roster is.
From an on-court perspective, I’m not sure how teams deal with a front line featuring LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Horford. Depending on their other signings, the Lakers could run a 5-out offense through LeBron and abuse teams in high pick-and-roll with either Davis or Horford as the screener.
The Clippers don’t currently have a superstar creator but do have a couple of B-plus-players in Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari. That calculus could change quickly if the Clippers get word that Kawhi Leonard is indeed coming.
They have the cap space to sign Leonard outright but not enough to add him and Horford. It would likely take trading Gallinari (1-year, $22 million left) as well as renouncing virtually every cap hold on the books to bring Horford on board.
That would hurt, but a four-man core of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams, Leonard and Horford may be worth it.
If Horford mostly wants to cash out versus truly contending for a ring, the Dallas Mavericks would be a fantastic landing spot. He complements Kristaps Porzingis well on both sides of the frontcourt while Luka Doncic would be a tremendous pick-and-roll partner.
It’s easy to envision both players abusing switches into oblivion.
The Sacramento Kings are on the cusp of being a playoff team and have plenty of cap space to burn. Horford could be the sort of veteran that helps them make the next leap while also complementing their core. De’Aaron Fox would benefit from Horford’s offensive versatility, and Horford’s shooting and passing makes him an ideal partner to either Marvin Bagley or Harry Giles (good lord, the passing chops there).
Still, that type of move would definitely be about chasing dollars more than wins. (And there’s technically nothing wrong with that, by the way.)
The funniest option reportedly on the table would be joining Boston’s division-rival Brooklyn Nets with Irving. It would cost the Nets D’Angelo Russell and a mid-salary piece—perhaps Joe Harris at a little over $7 million.
But seriously, how great would it be for the Celtics-Nets trade of 2014 to come around full circle?
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.