What to expect from Al Horford during his second stint with the Celtics

USA TODAY Sports. 

New Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens’ first major move brought back old friend Al Horford in exchange for Kemba Walker and a first round pick. The trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder also brought back young center Moses Brown and the two teams exchanged second round picks. With all of the moving parts laid out, and the dust finally settled, what can Celtics fans expect in Horford’s second go-around with the C’s?

In the 2019 offseason, Horford left Boston for the rival Philadelphia 76ers, and signed a 4-year, $109,000,000 contract, with $97,000,000 guaranteed. The move not only frustrated Celtics fans, as Horford left for a rival team unexpectedly, but also surprised NBA circles due to Horford’s seeming poor fit next to Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons. The 76ers were a ginormous team, with minimal shooting, and they immediately struggled. So just 1.5 years into signing his contract, the 76ers dumped Horford to OKC by attaching a first round pick alongside him.

In OKC, Horford’s play did improve, and he averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists in 28 games played. In fact, he played so well that in March 2021, the team announced that Horford would sit out the remainder of the season as the team prioritized its younger players and effectively tanked.

Now, in Horford’s return to Boston, it’s difficult to tell what to expect basketball-wise from Big Al. At 35 years old, Horford’s best years are unquestionably behind him, and he has had a rough two seasons since leaving Boston. However, the Celtics aren’t asking him to be the same player that he was in his first stint in Boston, as last season the starting center position was handed over to Rob Williams.

As the Celtics roster currently stands, they have way too many players who primarily play the center position. Horford, Williams, Tristan Thompson, and Moses Brown are all under contract next season, with Tacko Fall eligible for one more year as a two-way player. Aside from Horford, all of these players are effectively throwback big men, and are non-shooters with fairly similar skill sets. I doubt that Brad Stevens will allow this many traditional centers to remain on the roster, but until the roster is finalized, it’s difficult to predict everyone’s roles on the team. As it stands, I predict that Stevens will find a trade partner for Tristan Thompson, and keep the rest of the players to evaluate and use as insurance in case Rob Williams is injured again.

Regarding Horford’s role on the basketball court, I do think that he’ll be in the regular rotation next year, especially to start the season. He’ll probably begin the year as the primary backup to Rob Williams, and play around 20 minutes a night, especially if the Celtics limit Williams’ minutes during the regular season again. Horford should be able to excel in a backup role, as long as he’s able to provide floor spacing and some secondary playmaking in the frontcourt. Horford was never a flashy defender, but he always played sound positional defense, which should remain even as he ages. He was never a big statistical player at any point in his career, but he had the intangibles and knew how to play on winning teams.

In regards to what Horford brings off the court, he’s a consummate professional everywhere he’s played. The Celtics have had some PR issues lately (see Kyrie Irving’s comments or Kemba Walker’s issues with Brad Stevens) and it’s good to bring in an established veteran that wants to be here. In his introductory press conference, Horford raved about Boston as a city and the Celtics as an organization, saying:
“Really, really happy to be back. Really appreciate how special of a place that Boston is. For me, being away from it, seeing the type of city that it is, what the team is all about, it’s something that I really missed. I feel like I learned a lot and sometimes, in my case, change was for the better. I’m just very grateful to have a second opportunity to be back here and to continue to work on what I started here.”
Both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have discussed how much of an impact Horford had on them early in their careers, as he evoked leadership and professionalism. The Celtics were a young team last year, and while ideally both Tatum and Brown will become leaders for this team, Horford can provide veteran leadership until they’re completely ready. Horford also has a close relationship with Rob Williams, and now that Williams has emerged as a productive player in the NBA, Horford can continue to mentor Williams and provide him with advice. The Horford trade doesn’t immediately make the Celtics a championship contender, but it does provide the Celtics with veteran leadership, in the form of a player who should still be consistently productive to some extent on the court. They now have increased financial freedom, and I expect more moves to be coming. This trade isn’t a massive win for Boston, but it’s a step in the right direction, and I’m happy to have Big Al back in Boston.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.
Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.