WALTHAM – The Celtics defense will get even better with the addition of Al Horford -- at least on paper. They ranked fourth in defensive rating last season, and now they have a more complete rim protector with Horford, who should enhance their level of play.
That’s because Horford embodies all the qualities coaches value in a quarterback of the defense. He’s a shot blocker. A master of angles. A hustler. A communicator.
He does it all, so much so that Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer used to play him for short stints so he could play as hard as possible, and maximize his every breath and possession he was on the floor.
Horford should only raise the production of Boston’s perimeter defenders, the driving forces behind their defensive success last season: Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley. The lockdown, versatile, pesky defenders that made life a living hell for opponents are now backed up by one of the NBA’s better interior defenders.
“It excites me,” Horford said when asked about being installed in Boston’s defense. “I’m going to come in and help any way I can to make our team better defensively. I believe that it starts with the defense.”
The Celtics weren’t slouches defending the paint last year, especially with Amir Johnson on the floor. Opponents shot 8.9 percent worse within 10 feet of the rim, per SportVU, when defended by Johnson, one of the better marks in the league. But Kelly Olynyk mostly relies on positioning, and opponents didn’t fear seeing Jared Sullinger move around like his feet were in quicksand.
Having Horford -- in addition to Johnson -- the Celtics will have a rock solid rim protecting center on the floor for close to all 48 minutes of the game. Opponents shot 4.2 percent worse within 10 feet against Horford, while blocking 1.5 shots per game.
Horford’s impact goes far beyond the numbers though. It’s his communication that made him an integral part of Atlanta’s elite defense, second only to the Spurs in defensive rating (98.8). It’s the calling out of screens, alerting perimeter defenders of screens, and the directing of teammates during rotations
“We want to make sure that we’re much better protecting the rim, defending pick-and-roll, and for me, not only doing it on the court, but from a leadership standpoint,” Horford said. “We have to make sure that we’re doing things the right way and doing the best that we can.”
Horford also flies around the floor, chases down loose balls, and makes plays outside of his area.
“He constantly enhances his teammates on the floor. The No. 1 thing his career’s been defined by is winning. That goes back to his days in college, obviously through the nine years in Atlanta, leading Atlanta to the playoffs in every single one of those years,” Stevens said. “For us to have an opportunity with a person who’s achieved all that he’s achieved ... I don’t think that there is a better example out there for our players.”
Horford makes the Celtics better on paper, but it’s not as easy as plugging him in. This isn’t NBA 2k. It’s reality. He still needs to pick up on Boston’s terminology, and learn how to play with his new teammates.
As a nine-year veteran of the NBA, Horford understands that.
“For us it’s making sure that we take a step forward,” Horford said on the Celtics Talk Podcast. “You gotta work at it, come in focused, and not get caught up having a little success in the past. The Celtics had a good year last year, but we can be much better.”
Kevin O’Connor can be followed on Twitter: @KevinOConnorNBA