Al Horford’s revelation that his free agency path might have been different if he knew that Kemba Walker was coming to Boston will come as a stomach punch to Celtics fans still smarting about his departure to the rival Philadelphia 76ers.
But it’s important to note that there was never seemingly a timeline in which the Walker/Horford combo could have been a reality.
Horford opened up to the Boston Herald Wednesday about his decision to leave the Celtics but it was his response to a question about how things might have been different if he knew Walker was coming that will raise a lot of eyebrows.
“I don’t want to get caught up in the past,” Horford told the Herald, “but, yeah, [knowing Walker was headed to Boston] would have been totally different.”
The problem is that the Celtics only recognized that Walker was a possibility once the team came to the realization that Horford was likely bound for a mystery suitor. It was June 18 when reports surfaced indicating that Horford and Boston were too far apart on a potential new deal, this after Horford opted out of the final year of his original deal with the Celtics.
To that point, the Celtics were operating like a team that knew Kyrie Irving was gone but that yearned to bring back its 2018 playoff core featuring Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and a healthier Gordon Hayward. That Aron Baynes opted into his deal was another hint that the team was on board with that possibility.
But once the Celtics realized that Horford was likely headed elsewhere, it quickly pivoted. By draft night, Boston dealt Baynes to Phoenix with the goal of opening a maximum-salary slot to chase Walker.
All signs pointed to Walker joining Boston in the days leading up to the start of free agency on June 30, which opened the teeny, tiny possibility of re-engaging Horford on a deal that might have lured him back. Horford was likely too far down the road to even consider that possibility. More importantly, the cost for Boston was far too prohibitive to even contemplate the cap gymnastics it would have taken to facilitate that long-shot possibility.
Remember that Boston would have had to pay Horford somewhere in the neighborhood of the four-year, $107 million pact he ultimately signed with Philadelphia, committing big dollars to a player who will be 37 by the end of the deal, and one that battled knee issues throughout his age 32 season. Boston was obviously leery of committing hefty long-term money based on reports of an initial three-year offer.
The bigger issue: Boston would have needed to engage Brooklyn on being part of a three-team sign-and-trade extravaganza that would have delivered Kyrie Irving to the Nets, Terry Rozier to Charlotte, and allowed Boston to bring on Walker while remaining over the salary cap. The Nets, with zero motivation to aid a primary division rival, let alone one who had set back the franchise in another draft-night blockbuster six years earlier, would have demanded a hefty ransom — say, the future Grizzlies pick? — to help facilitate that deal.
Ultimately, a Walker/Horford pairing in Boston wasn’t going to happen.
There were too many obstacles and too few certainties to ever make it a reality. Keeping Horford certainly would have altered the balance of power in the East, putting Boston on more even footing with Philadelphia, but also would have handcuffed Boston moving forward with both Brown and Tatum in line for big paydays.
Horford’s honesty is refreshing though and, in talking to the Herald, he made it clear that both the ability to chase a title ring and the long-term security of Philadelphia’s deal made it an easy decision to join the rival.
The bottom line is Celtics fans shouldn’t lose much sleep over what could have been. With Horford and Walker, it was almost certainly a one-or-the-other situation.
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