Accompanying the first great spending spree in NBA free agency history is a recent trend towards position-less basketball. The Golden State Warriors winning the 2015 title while starting 6’7 Draymond Green at center had the league scrambling for players like Green who are versatile and fit anywhere in the lineup. The ability to switch between at least two positions has almost become a prerequisite for getting off the bench in the NBA today.
One player who has always been very versatile while remaining a humble, underrated star for almost the entire last decade, is Al Horford. Beginning with his tenure at the University of Florida, Horford showed his versatility and affinity for team-first play in his college years with Billy Donovan. During his sophomore and junior years, playing with future NBA players Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah, Horford averaged ten points, seven rebounds, and two assists per game. He probably could have averaged much more and become a top-5 pick, but as a perfect complement to their other pieces, he helped lead those Florida teams to win back-to-back NCAA tournaments.
Much of his humble and laid back nature he attributes to his fondness for playing team basketball. Unlike most natives of the Dominican Republic, where the national sport is undoubtedly baseball, Horford loved watching his dad play basketball. Tito Horford played for the University of Miami before becoming the first Dominican-born NBA player and ultimately settling down in Grand Ledge, Michigan. There, he and his brother Jon, became highly recruited high school players and productive college players.
The involvement of all five guys on the court, in contrast to the more individually minded baseball, sparked Horford’s interest in the game. The fact that nothing gets done unless all five of the players on the floor are engaged molded his style and made him into the player he is today.
The four time All-Star has now played nine seasons in the NBA and has been excellent for most of his career. He is a career 54% shooter and made 34% of his threes last season, three attempts per game. He is constantly whipping smart passes around the court and averaged over three assists per game last year. He does all this while setting dynamite picks and usually makes the other team’s best shot blocker guard him 20 feet from the rim. With Horford at center this season, the Hawks also became second in the league with 98.8 Defensive Efficiency.
One of Horford’s clear weaknesses is his rebounding, which costs him in terms of his versatility. His ability to switch positions comes as a result of his smaller frame and quickness, and the size disadvantage has hurt him against bigger teams. The inability of the Hawks to keep the Cavaliers off the offensive glass was one of the reasons they did not advance past the second round this year or make the Finals two years ago. This is why playing Horford at center next to a smaller player is a disadvantage. When a team likes to go big, as the Cavs did, Horford at 6’10, 245 pounds, just doesn’t grab the rebounds he needs to.
In many ways, Horford makes up for his size with his work ethic. Atlanta had some average teams during his career, with a stereotypically apathetic fan base that didn’t necessarily show up to the arena every night. Horford still played as hard as he could. He has always been hailed as a consummate pro and if the Hawks, in Horford’s tenure, were ever considered similar to the Spurs, it would be because they were both led by humble, multifaceted big men from the Caribbean. Horford would have been the Tim Duncan of the Hawks, if the Hawks had ever made it to the top.
Like Tim Duncan, Horford has many interests off the court. He has said he would like to be involved in the visual arts, if he didn’t play basketball. He majored in Telecommunications at Florida and earned his degree the summer after his rookie year in the NBA.
Signing with Boston assures Horford he will continue his streak of being in the playoffs every year of his career. He is already 30 and this may be his last long term deal before he retires.
Last year, Marc Gasol, a more traditional center, who is about the same age, got the five year max and it never seemed like there was a doubt he would leave Memphis. This year in the summer of money, Horford signed for $113 million.
Will the Celtics get their money’s worth and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals?
Let’s examine the history. The Hawks, with Al Horford starting at center, never defeated the Eastern Conference best Cleveland Cavaliers in a playoff game. Horford went 0-8 against the Cavs the last two years and the Hawks had depth at all positions and a sharp ball movement offense.
Horford has only been to the Eastern Conference Finals once.
The Celtics are a well coached, tough and gritty team but is Al Horford the answer to get them out of the first round? Can Horford carry a team?
That is what the Celtics are paying him for. Horford isn’t in Atlanta anymore; the pressure starts now.
photo via llananba