Al Horford is a seasoned veteran. The 33-year-old is entering his 13th NBA season for his third team. GM Elton Brand brought him in hoping he'd be one of the final pieces on a championship roster.
So Wednesday night’s season opener against the Boston Celtics, where Horford spent the last three seasons, will just be another game.
“Yeah, you know, it's definitely going to be weird for me — different — facing my former team,” Horford said after practice Sunday. “It's probably as good of a scenario as it can be, first game of the year. It's definitely going to be different. It's not just another game. It's a big game given the rivalry between Philly and Boston.”
A rivalry that he’s helped add another layer to.
Horford is the epitome of what an NBA veteran should be. When his teammates and head coach have been asked what’s stood out about the starting power forward, professionalism is generally one of the first words uttered.
With that in mind, it was a bit surprising — and perhaps a bit refreshing — to hear Horford acknowledge that Wednesday won’t just be one of 82. Horford left an indelible mark on the Celtics’ franchise. He was their first marquee signing after head coach Brad Stevens had returned Boston to respectability.
Players there still talk about his leadership and what he meant to them. None of that is lost on Horford.
“It's the way this business is. I've learned that throughout the years,” Horford said. “The one thing I always take from those groups [on the Celtics] is [it’s a] great group of guys — always competing, always playing hard for one another. I really felt like I made the most out of my time when I was there.”
This won’t be the first time Horford has had to go up against his former team. He had to face the Atlanta Hawks, a team that made him the third overall pick in 2007, when he signed a big free agent contract with Boston in 2016.
The last season Horford was in Atlanta, the team won 48 games. The first season after Horford left, they won 43. By 2017-18, the Hawks won just 24 games and parted ways with head coach Mike Budhenholzer. Meanwhile, the Celtics went from 48 wins to 53 in Horford’s first year and 55 in his second season — before Kyrie Irving came in last season and ruined everything.
For the Sixers, it’s fair to wonder what’s better: Horford’s presence helping them or his absence hurting the Celtics. He'll now look to improve the Sixers, a team that's won over 50 games and a playoff series in back-to-back seasons and that has championship aspirations.
For the past couple seasons, he’s been a thorn in the side of the Sixers — especially Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Horford might be the only player in the NBA that’s had success guarding both of the Sixers’ young All-Stars. Now practice will be the only time that happens.
And both players are quite happy about that.
So is his new head coach, who’s already seeing the positive influence Horford is having on his team.
“I think for him, probably internally more than me or his teammates, he feels something I'm sure, a little bit differently than then we would feel,” Brett Brown said. “I bet he feels internally a heck of a lot more than us.
“I think he is a resource. I have him speak to the team, ask him what he thinks — like what do you think you'd like to share with us as it relates to opening night and Celtics? And he's great. He's thoughtful, he's smart, he's a veteran. And he helps me.”
Will it be different? Of course. Will it be weird? A little.
But Horford is a pro’s pro. He’s unassuming and doesn’t put up eye-popping stats, but he affects the game as much as any player on the floor.
Starting Wednesday, he’ll have that effect for the Sixers against the Celtics.
“It's the first game so once we play it, I think both sides will be able to move on with their season,” Horford said. “I think that now we're all shifting our focus on the beginning of the regular season. Obviously, Boston's our first matchup, getting that going and that's that.”
Horford seems anxious to get the reunion over with and help the Sixers try to win a title.
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