NBA players are becoming more versatile as the years pass. It used to be good enough to only excel at skills that were traditional to a given position: point guards passed, shooting guards shot, and centers rebounded. That ideology is no longer. Nowadays, players must possess skills that will help them in any given situation on the floor. They must make plays that athletes at their position aren't accustomed to making.
The benefits are obvious. Having a player like this on a team allows for more options, which in-turn, makes it more difficult for the opponent to defend. This creates mis-matches. A traditional center will have trouble defending a more mobile big, and similarly, a traditional point guard will struggle getting rebounds when their opponent has a knack for getting large on the glass. In each year's draft, we see more players like this emerge, and they've been chosen with significantly high picks. Look at Ben Simmons as an example. He was chosen two years ago with the #1 overall pick, and he's averaging 18 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists this season. Because of him, the Philadelphia 76ers are a bubble playoff team.
The Boston Celtics have a few of this type of players on their team, and have assimilated to the position-less NBA gracefully. We can attribute their success this season to their deep and versatile squad, and I think it all begins and ends with their big money big man, Al Horford.
Horford has forever been overlooked for his lack of rebounding. People see that he's listed as a center, and they expect him to grab double-digit boards every game. They fail to recognize the other areas where he shines, and they're blind to how his array of skills can help a basketball team succeed. There's more to an NBA contest than just rebounding.
For one, he's a center who can pass. I've said it a few times, but I'll reiterate it here: Al Horford is the best passing big man in the NBA. He sees the court unlike most players, even guards, and has the skills to get his teammates the ball through tight spaces. He's also one of the more unselfish players in the league, and is never hesitant to make that one extra pass that will lead his teammate to a wide open shot. This is something that is rarely seen among guys who play the four and five.
Of all centers in the NBA, Al is one of only three who are averaging over five assists per game, ranking second in the category. He leads the Celtics with 5.4 assists per contest, and the only guy ahead of him in the league is Draymond Green, who is putting up a colossal 7.1 dimes per game. I consider that stat to have an asterisk next to it, as Draymond plays for the Golden State Warriors; a team that has some of the best shooters in NBA history on their roster. Any Joe Schmo can kick it out to Steph Curry, who will work his magic.
Horford is also one of the best shooting bigs in the league. He is one of five centers who are averaging 1.5 three-pointers per game, and out of all of them, he's the most efficient. Check out these numbers among shooting centers:
Demarcus Cousins: 2.2 threes made per game 33.1% from behind the arc
Kevin Love: 1.9 threes made per game 37.3% from behind the arc
Dirk Nowitzki: 1.5 threes made per game 42.2% from behind the arc
Serge Ibaka: 1.5 threes made per game 34.9% from behind the arc
Al Horford: 1.5 threes made per game 45.6% from behind the arc
Demarcus Cousins gets the credit for hitting the most three-pointers of all big men, but he's also taking more attempts and missing at a greater rate. When Al takes a three, he makes it count, and is one of the more efficient long-range shooters in the league; not just among centers, but out of every single player who is in the NBA. I think we all remember last season's playoffs, when he was shooting over 50% from deep.
Al combines all of these guard-like skills, and adds them to his already thick repertoire of big man assets, meaning that he can do what centers were 'made' to do, but can also make plays that most centers wouldn't even consider attempting. This stock of skills can make for some stat-sheet-stuffing games.
Horford has had twelve games this season where he's grabbed at least five boards and has distributed at least five assists. That's nearly half of the Cs' games that his guard-center abilities have been shown on the stat-sheet. He has had three games this season where he's put up at least 15/8/8, a pair of them being the last two games. A few days ago against the Milwaukee Bucks, Horford went for 20/9/8. Last night agains the Dallas Mavericks he put up 17/8/8.
This production has been a major component in the Celtics' NBA leading, 22-4 record. He leads the team in multiple categories: rebounds, assists, blocks, and double-doubles. He may not be a center who accumulates the most 'center-like-stats,' but his versatility allows his teammates to pick up those numbers for him. Last year, it was Avery Bradley, who was able to crash the boards while Al cleared the lane by bringing the other team's big men outside of the key to guard him. Avery averaged 6.1 rebounds during the 2016-2017 season. This year, players like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier are filling that role, and are each taking at least four rebounds per game.
Versatility is being implemented more and more throughout the league, and it's because of guys like Al Horford. He's the OG, and at 31 years old, is just beginning to show just how big of an impact he can make. If he keeps this up, he may be raising that MVP trophy later this season. I for one, would at least like to hear the MVP chants for him in the Garden. All of my neighbors can hear me screaming it from my couch.