A lot of things have to go right for a team to reach the NBA Finals -- especially when said team sits below .500 in late January.
For the 2021-22 Boston Celtics, that included 36-year-old Al Horford playing like a 26-year-old.
The veteran big man, whom Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens brought back last June in the Kemba Walker trade, was a steadying presence in Boston's frontcourt, averaging 10.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game during the regular season.
But where Horford really shined was the postseason, where he averaged close to a double-double while logging more than 35 minutes per night. Simply put, the Celtics don't reach the NBA Finals without Horford, who exploded for 30 points in a Game 4 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals and dropped 26 on the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the Finals.
Can the Celtics expect similar results from Horford in his 16th NBA season? We're kicking off our Celtics offseason player spotlight series with a look at Boston's eldest statesman.
Horford's 2021-22 stats
- Regular season: 10.2 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.3 bpg, 46.7 percent FG, 33.6 percent 3PT (69 games)
- Postseason: 12.0 pgg, 9.3 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.3 bpg, 52.3 percent FG, 48 percent 3PT (23 games)
Horford's contract situation
Horford is set to make $26.5 million in 2022-23 on the final year of a four-year, $109 million contract. He'll be an unrestricted free agent in 2023.
What role will Horford play on the 2022-23 Celtics?
Horford was part of the best starting five in the NBA during the second half of last season. So, even with Danilo Gallinari and Malcolm Brogdon in the fold, there's a good chance Horford is starting alongside Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams come October.
Horford's greatest strength is his versatility: The veteran big man can space the floor with his 3-point shot, take advantage of mismatches in the post and facilitate on offense while holding his own against wings and bigs alike on defense.
Gallinari's presence means head coach Ime Udoka can manage Horford's minutes throughout the season, so don't be surprised if he takes the occasional game off. But unless injuries crop up, expect Horford to play close to 30 minutes per night as Boston's starting power forward.
Horford's season will be a success if ...
... He keeps drinking from the fountain of youth.
The 36-year-old was a perfect fit for this Celtics team when healthy -- Boston went 46-23 with Horford on the court last season and was 5-8 without him -- so if he can manage his body, there's no reason to think he can't put up numbers similar to what we saw last season.
The Celtics don't need Horford to play 35 minutes per night in the regular season, especially if they bolster their roster with another backup big man. The best case scenario for Boston is having a healthy Horford entering the postseason, where he can make an impact on both ends and perhaps help the Celtics get back to the NBA Finals.
Biggest obstacle to Horford's success
Horford logged nearly 3,000 total minutes last season after appearing in just 27 games for the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder in 2020-21. While the five-time All-Star takes great care of his body, there's a real chance he runs out of gas late in the 2022-23 campaign after the shortest offseason of his career.
Fatigue affected Horford's outside shot at times last season, so if his legs can't hold up, his 3-point percentage could dip as well, perhaps leading Udoka to give more minutes to Gallinari when he wants to space the floor.
Projected stats and prediction for Horford's 2022-23 season
Projected stats: 10.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.0 bpg, 45.0 percent FG, 35.0 percent 3PT (65 games)
It's a bit unrealistic to bank on 70-plus games of strong production out of Horford in his age-36 season, especially after the mileage he put on his body this year. So, expect a slight statistical regression across the board.
Horford is entering a contract year and is chasing his first ring, however, so he has plenty of motivation to prove he can still be a valuable piece on a championship contender.
We expect Horford to do just that by giving Boston 65 games of solid production on both ends of the floor. Gallinari may cut into his minutes when Udoka wants an offensive boost, but Horford should be one of the Celtics' five most important players next season.