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Asked if he felt like he was off to a slow start following an underwhelming seven-point effort in his team’s disappointing Game 2 loss to the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics big man Al Horford began, “I mean, I don’t,” and then paused a moment to gather his thoughts before answering.
“I think the way we try to play — at least I try to play — is what the defense gives,” Boston’s $113 million free-agent signing added. “For those who really understand the game, a lot of the times they were already really packing the paint, making us find shooters and things like that.”
In that pause was the entire Al Horford experience on the Celtics. It seemed as though even Horford understood he could — and should — be doing more to prevent his top-seeded team from being embarrassed at home by the Bulls. At the same time, when you really watch the film, as cliche as it sounds, he is more often than not reading what the defense gives him, making the smart play and, yes, doing all the little things the Celtics brought him to Boston to do.
But Boston sports radio callers don’t want to hear cliches when they’re looking at seven points in a box score. They’re too busy shouting “AL HORFORD MAKES MORE IN A YEAR THAN LARRY BIRD DID IN HIS CAREER!” They want an easy answer as to why the C’s are paying max money to a fringe All-Star. Heck, even when Horford posted a near triple-double in a Game 1 loss, the city’s sports radio hosts couldn’t help but measure him against his max contract.
Horford is tied with several others as the NBA’s second-highest player this season behind LeBron James, making $26.5 million and in line for seven percent raises each of the next three years. If you’re going to use that as the measuring stick for his value, then there’s no way he can live up to your standard. He is not the second-best player in the league, never has been.
But that’s just not how the payment structure works. Sure, if every player were a free agent each summer, the list of highest-paid players would always reflect the All-NBA rosters. Instead, Kevin Durant, Horford, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard were the four biggest names to change teams in free agency this past summer, and all four are now among the league’s 13 highest-paid players. It’s the price you pay to lure a current or former All-Star away from his incumbent team.
The demand for big men was and usually is high, as evidenced by the combined $272 million thrown at Joakim Noah, Bismack Biyombo, Timofey Mozgov and Ian Mahinmi in 2016. If you’d rather be paying any of those guys $17-18 million than Horford $26.5 million, by all means. If the C’s wanted a high-caliber big man in July, they were going to have to pay handsomely for him.
Fans don’t want to hear that, either. The Celtics promised “fireworks” for years, and the Horford signing was presented as such by the organization. They added the second-most coveted free agent, beating out the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets to land Horford, and were then reportedly a finalist in the Durant sweepstakes. It was a necessary step toward legitimacy.
In reality, the Celtics upgraded at a position they were in desperate need to fill, and they did so with a past-his-prime 30-year-old four-time All-Star who averaged 15.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes over nine years in Atlanta. Boston saw similar production per 36 minutes from Horford this season (15.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.4 blocks).
But you can’t really market your $113 million signing with an advertising slogan like, “Hey, he’s the best we could get!” So, instead we heard how Horford impacts the game beyond the box score. Among centers last season, he was one of the league’s most efficient 3-point shooters and pick-and-roll men offensively, and he was the anchor of the East’s best defense in 2015-16.
The guy could do it all, they said. So, when the team wins 53 games and earns the conference’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs, it’s hard to argue against anyone who says, “He just makes you better,” even as Horford submitted the worst rebounding rate (11.8 percent) of his career, his lowest true shooting percentage since his rookie year, a lower win score per 48 minutes than all but his first two seasons, and a worse on/off rating than fellow starting big man Amir Johnson.
The 2016-17 Celtics were 4.6 points per 100 possessions worse on defense than they were last year, and an already bad rebounding team grabbed a lower percentage of their rebounds this season. Those issues have only been compounded in the playoffs against a Bulls team that has destroyed Boston on the offensive glass to the tune of 37 second-chance points in two games. All of which has people pining for Jared Sullinger, who the Phoenix Suns waived in February.
When even the most delusional of fans is comparing your $26.5 million free-agent addition to a guy who’s technically not even in the league right now, you know there’s a discrepancy between perception and reality. Seven points from Horford in a first-round loss to the eighth seed is unacceptable, after all, so this requires a finer-tooth comb to figure out what’s really going on.
One look at the tape reveals Horford was a monster offensively in Game 1. He scored his 19 points working in the high pick-and-roll, driving to the basket, as a spot-up 3-point shooter and in the mix down low. Meanwhile, his eight assists led to 19 more points, as he either created room with hand-offs on the perimeter or found cutters and shooters out of double teams in the post.
Horford didn’t get anywhere near as many opportunities in Game 2. Nineteen fewer touches, to be exact. As a focal point of Chicago’s defense, he kept facilitating, only Boston shot 16-of-41 (39 percent) on uncontested attempts in the loss. He was taking what the defense gave him.
When that didn’t work, he forced the issue in the third quarter, barreling his way to the basket.
And when that didn’t work, well, Boston was down 0-2. Part of Horford’s ineffectiveness is due to Boston’s unwillingness to rely heavily on him, sticking instead to a free-flowing team concept.
But perhaps it’s time to let Horford shoulder a heavier load. He ranked among the league’s best on pick-and-roll, post-up and spot-up possessions during the regular season, averaging roughly a point per possession in 10 such situations per game. Against the Bulls, he’s averaged an astounding 1.6 points per possessions on those plays — but on only 15 opportunities through two games. It shouldn’t be too hard to run more plays for Horford in the post or pick-and-roll, or to look for him spotting up when any of Boston’s capable ball-handlers are going to the basket.
The Celtics should understand this first-hand, having seen Horford in the playoffs last season, when his usage rate in Atlanta was 22.4 percent in the Hawks’ four victories against Boston and 11.4 percent in their two losses. His usage rate in two playoff games this year is 15.9 percent.
Defensively, Horford is the first person everybody points to when Bulls center Robin Lopez goes off for 32 points and 13 offensive rebounds in the first two games. But the video shows Horford defending Nikola Mirotic on the perimeter for significant stretches, allowing Lopez to run wild against Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk. A vast majority of the Bulls big man’s offensive boards came with Horford chasing Mirotic around the 3-point line, and the few o-rebounds Lopez did grab while battling Horford on the glass didn’t immediately result in second-chance points.
In fact, Horford has grabbed a greater percentage of his rebounding chances (18 of 31, or 58 percent) than Lopez (19 in 39, or 49 percent), so it makes sense to get Horford more chances.
Once again, the Celtics aren’t putting Horford in the best position to succeed. Boston might find it more advantageous to stick Horford on Lopez and send either Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko or Jae Crowder (in three-guard lineups) on Mirotic. Those lineups, with Isaiah Thomas at the helm, are a combined plus-12 in 29 minutes over the first two games, which is probably why C’s coach Brad Stevens has indicated starting lineup changes could be coming when Game 3 tips on Friday.
All of which is to say Horford hasn’t been as bad as his box score has indicated, and his box scores haven’t been all that bad. He’s averaging 13 points, nine rebounds and 6.5 assists against the Bulls, and there’s a whole lot of room for more. This is the Al Horford conundrum for Celtics fans. Even when he is producing, it always feels like there’s more he could be doing, and without the benefit of re-watching film, the easiest response is to scream about his salary.
And Horford isn’t the type of guy to pull a Paul George and demand more touches from his teammates. That’s why the pregnant news conference pause was so interesting after Game 2. Asked why he wasn’t producing in the playoffs, it seemed for a second Horford was thinking, Well, that’s not what they’re asking of me. Instead, he offered, “We still need to get better as a group,” which is true and also maddening for anyone who wants more from a max contract.
Should Horford be the NBA’s second-highest paid player? Absolutely not. But does he deserve more credit than he gets in Boston? For sure. He’s overpaid and underappreciated, neither of which should excuse the Celtics from giving him more chances to increase his value in Game 3.
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