BOSTON -- For weeks we have heard about Kyrie Irving reportedly taking his talents to Brooklyn next season.
Well, he may not be the only Celtics player ballin’ for the Nets in the near future.
In addition to Kyrie Irving, Al Horford is another potential addition to what could be an immense offseason haul for the Nets, according to a league source.
The source cited three main reasons why 32-year-old Horford is a viable option for the Nets.
ON THE RISE
Brooklyn is coming off a return to the playoffs following a three-year hiatus. The Nets were one of the peskiest, hardest-playing teams in the East and garnered the praise of many including Celtics players and coaching staff.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was among the first to publicly proclaim last season's Nets squad was good enough to be in the playoffs.
“I’d be surprised if this team’s not in the playoffs,” Stevens told reporters back in January. “They’re awfully good. Again, they’re really well-coached. I love the way they play. They play hard, they play together. Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do and they do it every night. They don’t get outside of it. Shooters shoot, drivers drive, guys that can do both do both, rollers roll. They look like a team. They’ve done a great job of building that over time. (Head coach) Kenny (Atkinson) has done a great job, his staff’s done a great job and they’ve got good players.”
But the Nets realized that they had to add great talent; the kind that can build off of last season’s first-round exit to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Nets didn’t waste much time once the season ended by swinging a deal with the Atlanta Hawks that created a pair of max-salary slots, presumably to bring in Irving and one of his best friends, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant.
However, Durant’s Achilles injury in the playoffs complicated matters.
While the Nets are still among the teams whose interest in Durant remains strong as ever despite an injury that’ll likely keep him out for most if not all of the 2019-2020 season, there’s a growing sense among league executives that he’ll re-sign with the Warriors.
And with the framework for an Anthony Davis trade to the Los Angeles Lakers already agreed upon, Brooklyn will find itself in the market for a max or near-max salary player who provides versatility, experience and can make a difference on the floor.
Horford checks off all those boxes.
Horford is given a lot of credit for how he went from being a back-to-the-basket player to one of the best “stretch” bigs in the NBA in a very short period of time.
His evolution into a three-point threat began under the tutelage of Atkinson, an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks at that time who now is Brooklyn's head coach.
The two maintained a strong relationship even after Horford left for Boston and Atkinson assumed his first head coaching job in the league with the Nets.
Atkinson has never held back his praise for Horford’s game, or how impressed he has been with how Stevens utilized him in a variety of ways.
“Sometimes as coaches we hold back guys sometimes,” Atkinson told reporters prior to a Brooklyn-Boston game in 2017. “I can even see with Brad he's doing even more things than he did Atlanta. I see him handle the ball a lot more at the top of the key and bringing the ball up sometimes. It's impressive. I know Al was thirsty and hungry to kind of embrace that new big man role. And he didn't shy from it. That was the thing that impressed me in Atlanta. When we asked him to do more, get out of his comfort zone, he embraced it, rather than some guys they don't embrace that role. So that's a real credit to him, and then, again, for Brad giving him the freedom to do those things."
SALARY CAP SPACE
When the Nets agreed to trade Allan Crabbe to the Atlanta Hawks, it generated enough salary cap space for the Nets to sign a pair of max-salary players. So with Irving expected to join them this summer, there’s room for Horford as well.
Horford, who became a free agent after opting out of the final year of his deal with Boston that would have paid him $30.1 million for this upcoming season, had made no secret about being open to the idea of taking less money than a max salary for the security of additional years with a title contender.
It is that latter dynamic in all this - finding a title contender - that league executives believe more than anything else factored in Horford’s decision to opt out of his contract and eventually walk away from a new deal in Boston.
It's also unclear if the Celtics, well aware that they’re likely to not be in title contention this season, were willing to provide the kind of salary or number of years Horford was seeking with the knowledge that they’re not necessarily built to be among the elite teams even with his return.
Meanwhile, the Nets already have a young all-star in D’Angelo Russell, who is a free agent this summer, as well. They have a young big in Jarrett Allen whose presence would allow Horford to play both power forward and center at times, if needed. And while Boston’s offense had its share of ups and downs last season, the pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game between Irving and Horford was strong.
And while Celtics fans will certainly be disappointed to see Al Horford leave, there’s a lot about where Brooklyn is now that makes a lot of sense for Horford in achieving both his individual as well as team goals going forward.
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