Al Horford will be 35 years old with a history of knee woes when his second tour of duty with the Boston Celtics begins in October. But Boston will bank that his veteran experience, his familiarity with the organization (especially the core players), and a refreshed outlook in the twilight of his NBA career will deliver a productive player still capable of aiding a title pursuit.
Of course, this is not the 30-year-old All-Star who left Celtics brass celebrating on their private plane when they learned Horford was signing with the team during the summer of 2016. But listen to Horford gush about getting a second chance at chasing the title that evaded him in his first go-around here and you can’t help but feel like he’s at least motivated to help this team get back on a title track.
“Five years ago, when I had to make a tough decision and leave Atlanta, Danny [Ainge] and Brad [Stevens], they sold me on this — the culture, what we’re trying to build in Boston, and winning, getting that Banner 18. And that’s something that really excited me, really motivated me. And it was something that we were working towards.
"I think that, obviously, I wasn’t able to get it done when I was with the group. And now that this time has passed and I get an opportunity again to do that, for me it’s looking at what kind of purpose, what can I do, what can I do to accomplish that? And I’m lucky enough to get a second shot to be with this group.
"I feel like it was a good three years for me [in Boston], but now we get a fresh opportunity. It’s a huge challenge, I understand, I know it. But I actually embrace that and I look forward to getting to work with the group of guys that we have.”
Horford admitted it’s a bit surreal to be back in Boston. But he pledged that he feels healthy and praised the Oklahoma City Thunder training staff for doing an “unbelievable job” last season.
So how can Horford help the 2021-22 Celtics?
The obvious answer is passing. The Celtics have sorely missed his ability to facilitate in the high post the past two seasons, but especially last year. Horford’s shooting efficiency has declined since departing Boston but his ability to create for others remains robust.
Horford’s assist percentage, which peaked at 23.8 percent during his first season in Boston, spiked back to 20.6 percent last season in Oklahoma City, per Cleaning the Glass data. He ranked in the 94th percentile among bigs in assist percentage, and 91st in assist-to-usage at 0.93. Even better, Horford’s turnover rate dropped to a career-low 7.5 percent last season.
Horford’s vision is going to create opportunities where Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart can give up the ball and get it back with quality scoring chances.
Horford will keep defenses honest with his ability to pop on pick-and-rolls. Even as his 3-point percentage has come back to earth after shooting 42.9 percent during his lone All-Star season in Boston, he still shot 47 percent on all mid-range jumpers last season, ranking in the 73rd percentile among all bigs per CTG data.
Boston will lose a bit on the offensive glass, especially after leaning on the likes of Enes Kanter, Robert Williams, and Tristan Thompson in recent seasons. But his playmaking ought to make up for the downturn in opportunities.
Defensively, Horford has always been elite at playing without fouling. He’s a master communicator from the back line. It’s probably a bit ambitious to expect him to be a Joel Embiid stopper but his basketball IQ gives him as much chance to be successful as any of Boston’s current bigs. Horford’s defensive rebound rate crawled back up in Oklahoma City and he’ll need to maintain that if Boston leans heavy on small-ball lineups.
For his part, Horford seems ready for whatever is asked of him.
“With regards to our bigs, I really believe that I have the ability to play multiple positions still, to be efficient, to be effective,” said Horford. "And really, however Coach is going to need me and they want me to play, I’ll be able to do it. If we need to go big at times and we need to go with me at the 5, I’m totally fine and open to it and I know that I’m perfectly capable to do it.”
Horford embracing the 5 is extremely important. When he departed Boston after the 2019 season, the opportunity to play more 4 alongside Embiid in Philadelphia was a primary selling point. Unfortunately for Horford, his numbers at the 4 were an eyesore (a minus-1.4 net rating while spending 32 percent of his minutes there) and the team quickly pulled the plug and more often leaned on him as a backup big.
Stevens, who was emphatic that Horford can still “move the needle,” left open the possibility that Boston could use Horford in double-big lineups but new coach Ime Udoka will likely find that Horford in single-big small-ball lineups has the best chance for success.
To be fair, Horford had some excellent numbers at the 4 during his Boston tenure and, given Boston’s lack of a serviceable 4 last season, we’ll relent that it could be intriguing to try him there at times depending on how the center depth chart looks by the start of the season.
Horford didn’t want to spend much time revisiting his decision to leave Boston after that 2019 campaign but it’s clear he’s energized by another opportunity in green.
In smaller doses, he can still be a positive player for this team. And it’s clear he wants to do that.
"It was disappointing for us how we ended two years ago with all of those expectations and everything,” Horford said of the disastrous 2018-19 season. "I personally never thought that I was going to — I didn’t know if I was going to get another opportunity or a chance to be in this position. Obviously, things didn’t end well then but now I feel we have a fresh start.
"I can help the team, make an impact. I feel the guys are very driven and we have a lot of work to do. That’s the reality. I actually embrace that part of it, getting to work with this fresh opportunity.”
Editor's Note: We've spotlighted different Celtics players every day by breaking down their 2020-21 campaign and what may lie ahead next season. Our series concludes Friday with the end of bench, focusing on players like Tacko Fall, Jabari Parker and Grant Williams.