Efficient and versatile. If you ever had to describe the way Al Horford plays basketball in two words, those would be the two. For all the criticism Horford has received over the course of his career, his versatility has never gone overlooked. While many fans have been critical of his style of play since he came to Boston, no one can dispute that Horford impacts the game in more ways than any other Celtic has since Kevin Garnett. Al’s swiss army knife game has helped turn the Celtics into one of the best teams in the NBA over the past 2 seasons. In his second season as a Celtic, Al has only gotten more comfortable in his unique role as the team's primary playmaker at the center spot. Al is on pace right now to average the most assists from the center spot, 5.4, since 1980. He’s become a new breed of player with the Celtics, but the historic numbers don’t stop there for Horford.
Al Horford is currently the only player in the NBA to be in the top 20 in both FG% and 3P%, shooting 54.9% and 45.6% respectively. Those percentages aren’t just impressive, they are historic. If Al continues at his current rate and shoots over 54% and 45% from those areas for the rest of the season, he would be the first player in NBA history to shoot that well with over 70 three pointers attempted for an entire season. Steph Curry hasn’t done it, Kevin Durant hasn’t done it, Larry Bird hasn’t done it, pick any NBA legend you want. The only player to ever have those percentages would be Al Horford.
Even if Al struggles a bit more going forward and he gives way to a few percentage points down to 52% and 43%, he would be still be one of just 6 players to do that while averaging over 14 points per game. The others are Steve Nash, John Stockton, Mark Price, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Detlef Schrempf. Three point guards, two small forwards, and Al Horford (Al also has the highest FG% of those 6 players). To be doing that as a center is something extraordinary and it’s a huge reason why the Celtics have the best record in the NBA. Al gives the Celtics floor spacing that no other team has in their starting lineup at the 1-5 spots and it makes them extremely difficult to defend.
Looking at those numbers makes it seem criminal that Al Horford was left off the All-Star team last year. Add in the blocks, rebounds, and assists that Horford racks up and he stuffs the stat sheet like only him, LeBron James, and DeMarcus Cousins can. That doesn’t mean Al is one of the top 5 players in the NBA, but he deserves a lot more credit than he gets for what he does on the floor. Al is never going to be able to shoot off the dribble like Curry and Harden and he doesn’t have the speed and strength to attack the basket like James, Antetokounmpo, and Simmons, but Al has perfected his game and doesn’t overextend and try to force things. He knows what he can do and, more importantly, he knows what he can’t do.
Al Horford may not be one of the 10 most talented players in the NBA, but his discipline and hard work has made him one of the 10 most effective. Go to all the analytical categories and it’s hard to find a list that Al Horford isn’t on. True Shooting Percentage, Effective Field Goal Percentage, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating. Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus, Value Over Replacement Player, Al Horford is top 15 on all of them. The reason Al’s percentages are as high as they are is because he takes smart shots, makes the right play, and never tries to play hero ball.
Al Horford’s role on the Celtics isn’t to be the team’s PPG leader. It’s to be the primary facilitator, set great screens, know when to pop and when to roll off the screen, guard the opposing team's best player at times, space the floor and make open 3’s, and rebound which all together is probably one of the hardest roles in the NBA. Al has more responsibilities on each night than anyone else on the Celtics and he does all these things and subsequently receives little to no credit and at the same time appears to be unaffected by the lack of recognition. Al doesn’t seem to care what anyone says about him whether it’s positive or negative. He just plays his role and never wavers. Thanks to the Celtics strong start, it looks like Al is going to get back to getting All-Star and All-NBA recognition this season after being left off both in 2016-17.
What keeps the Celtics so consistent is that Al Horford can’t be shut down from doing the things he’s good at. You can’t just put a great defender on Al and slow him down like you can with other players. A defender can’t stop Al from spacing the floor or setting screens. A defender can’t stop Al from being a great passer. A great defender can stop a player from scoring, but how do they stop Al from doing all the things he wants to do? Despite all that, you’ll still here people around Boston say the Celtics shouldn’t have signed Al Horford to his max contract.
If you want to criticize Al for not being a score first player, you’re arguing against what’s in the Celtics best interest. It is not in the Celtics best interest for Al to be looking to score every time he gets the ball. The reason they are 22-4 is precisely because of Al’s unselfishness. If Al shoots 7-21 in a game, he deserves criticism. But, if he scores 8 points on six shots and has 8 rebounds and 9 assists then he did his job that day. If you’re looking for Al to score 30 every night, you’re failing to see a truly great basketball player control the game night in and night out.
Photo: (Boston Globe)