At the 20 game mark, the mediocre announce themselves. After Monday’s win in New Orleans, the Boston Celtics are one game over the .500 mark. In other words, mediocre. They have the 6th best record in the conference, not the 1st, or 2nd or 3rd. They are not the best team in the East, as was predicted a few months ago. The Celtics have been pretty average and nothing special, a surprise since they returned the same exact team. But that team is not rising to the level of last year, forget surpassing it. In particular, two pieces Danny Ainge counted on when he recruited them as max players have been significantly not worth the money. $31 million and $28 million is what Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are being paid in 2018-19.
Al Horford had a game in New Orleans. He made two killer threes to keep the Celtics momentum going and finished with 20 points. But the talk is he has slowed down. His teammate Gordon Hayward played 23 minutes and had 5 points in New Orleans. Frequently, he looks like a shell of himself. The Horford and Hayward salaries slide into next year’s $124 million payroll, contracts no one is willing to take. The Celtics are forced to tread water while around them the Raptors and Bucks and 76ers are creating a culture of excellence that can last for more than one season. Their big contracts are producing (Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler).
Let’s talk numbers. Al Horford is 32 years old and a 12 year veteran, a valuable commodity for a championship contending team. He knows all there is to know and has been through wars. In Horford’s case, the three time All-Star has never missed the playoffs. When Ainge gave him the max deal it was suspect only because Horford isn’t dominant at any one thing. He doesn’t score off the charts. He has never averaged more than 7 rebounds in a season or 2 blocks per game. He averaged 35 minutes a game twice in his career, his third and fourth season. His career high offensive rating of 121 was in year three. It’s been four seasons ago, since before he was a Celtic, that he posted a PER of 20.0 or more.
But he passes, scores, defends and is unselfish. He is the ultimate team player who doesn’t need the big play, just the right one. He is the jack of all trades, master of none, who for most of his career has been playing undersized for his position. He is a coach’s dream player, the grownup in the room. But obviously not to Kyrie Irving who whined about the Celtics needing veterans on the team, not just young guys, when Horford is as veteran as you can get.
What has distinguished his season is Horford is not as efficient shooting threes. The three ball became part of his arsenal in 2015, coached by Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta. 32% is the worst he has ever shot it and it’s hurting the Celtics. His rebounding is a career low 6.4. His assists and scoring are down but his blocks are up. He is still playing good defense. But his PER of 16.2 is a career low.
When a jump shot shooter is making 37% of his jumpshots that’s something to worry about. In the 4th quarter, Horford is shooting 37%, another red flag. Last season, his jump shooting was 46% and he shot 50% in the 4th quarter.
In an vacuum, Horford having a bad season isn’t that problematic. Every good player has a black mark on the resume. Horford’s age indicates that he is slowing down some, not as efficient. The problem is the money. He is making $28 million and is inefficient. At the end of the season, he has a player option. On the open market he won’t be able to match $30 million because he is not worth $30 million so the Celtics are stuck with Horford and his mediocrity for one more season.
As for Gordon Hayward. He was a nice player in Utah, a wing who could make threes with average defense. The injury changed everything about him and coming off the bench for someone who is due $32 million next year with a player option in 2020-21 of $34 million puts him in a worse position than Horford.
Moving Horford may be hard but he’s an expiring contract in 2019-20 which is always valuable. Besides, you know who Al Horford is and what he will bring, even if his efficiency this year has waned. With Hayward, though, it’s rolling dice. No one knows what is going to happen. Is this a one year recovery situation and then he can get back to who he used to be? Or is he Derrick Rose?
Take this in. Hayward’s last year in Utah he made 47% of his shots, 39% of his threes, 22 points per game with a PER of 22.2 and an offensive rating of 118. He made 40% of his jumpshots and in the 4th quarter drained 48%. This season, he is making 40% of his shots, 28% of threes, 10 points a game with a PER of 14.0 and an offensive rating of 105. He is making 35% of his jumpshots and is shooting 33% in the 4th quarter.
It feels a whole lot like Derrick Rose. An injury can devastate a career.
Organizationally, Hayward drains the financially flexibility. No one wants damaged goods and Hayward is not going to willingly give up the $34 million he negotiated- and he shouldn’t. The onus is on the Celtics for agreeing to the contract. Now they may have to eat it if next year Hayward is not back to his old self. If his injury changed everything.
While the Celtics are trying to figure it out, the 76ers stabilized their team on both sides of the ball with Jimmy Butler. The Bucks added a new offensive system with Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo is ready to be MVP of the league. The Raptors are doing just fine with Kawhi. The easy road once LeBron left isn’t so easy anymore for the Celtics, particularly with moves they can make being limited. Add in Jaylen Brown money, who is also having a miserable year, up in the air.
While Kyrie may save the Celtics like he did in New Orleans, he can’t save the cap. Danny Ainge created that problem as he tried to shoot for the moon. Early results are he missed.