It cost them a draft pick, but there is little doubt that bringing Al Horford back to Boston in a swap for Kemba Walker has proven a resounding success for the Celtics. His veteran presence has been much appreciated among the team and has been especially important when it comes to the development of fourth-year center Robert Williams, who has had the best season of his NBA career playing alongside Horford.
After averaging 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in the regular season, Horford has been better in the playoffs, with 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds, also making 48.3% of his 3-pointers. He has been invaluable on defense, and has split time with Grant Williams as the Celtics’ primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo, holding him to 27.3% shooting according to NBA.com stats.
But the Celtics have a tough decision next month, with Horford’s $26.5 million guaranteed for only $14.5 million if the Celtics cut him before the start of free agency. There is incentive to dump Horford, namely the $17 million traded-player exception that the team acquired when Evan Fournier went to the Knicks in a sign-and-trade. That exception will expire if it is not used this summer.
More Than Money at Play for Celtics
The Celtics can only use that exception fully if it has enough room under the league’s luxury-tax apron and while those numbers have not been precisely worked out yet, the team could work its way to having around the full $17 million under the apron if it lets Horford walk, and closer to $6 million if it keeps him on board.
As one Eastern Conference executive said, though, there is more at play with this than the simple math. The Celtics may have to cross the luxury tax threshold, but team president Brad Stevens, who is approaching the anniversary of his new job, is rebuilding the franchise’s image and that could play a role in the decision-making.
“What they do with Horford depends on what happens in the next few weeks, really. Look, if they go to the Finals, they’re not letting Horford go,” the executive said. “The math changes, and the decisions change. He has been so valuable to them, the way he has defended, the way he passes, the way he shoots. He has helped develop Robert Williams, too. He is a leader.”
Indeed, the math does change if the Celtics go to the Finals—Horford’s contract calls for his guarantee to be bumped to $19.5 million and that extra $5 million makes cutting him much less worthwhile, at least in terms of using the TPE. The Celtics could add a valuable piece at around $17 million, but less so in the $12 million neighborhood. There is, still, the idea of avoiding the luxury tax, though that may already be a lost cause for next year, unless things fall apart against the Bucks and the season ends in disappointment. That’s unlikely.
“They want to be smart with their books but remember, they’re battling this image that they’re kind of a heartless franchise because of the whole Isaiah Thomas thing,” the exec said. “Lose to Milwaukee and maybe it is different. If they want to use the TPE (traded-player exception) they’re probably going to have let Al go. But who are you going to bring in with the TPE that can do more for you than Horford? Maybe no one. And you’re going to look bad if you axe him. It makes sense to let him go, but this is something where they need to consider the optics. In the end, I think you have to keep him on.”
Who Else Is Out There for the Celtics?
The point about adding a player is a valid one. There aren’t many valuable contracts teams might be looking to give away for a draft pick, and the Celtics, having dealt last year’s first-round pick for Horford and their 2022 first-rounder for Derrick White, aren’t in the market to keep sacrificing picks and losing out on cheap rookie-contract labor.
There are some less-than-exciting possibilities who likely could be had for second-round assets, like Davis Bertans from the Mavs, Terrence Ross from the Magic, and old friend Kelly Olynyk from the Pistons. Sign-and-trade candidates like Thaddeus Young or Joe Ingles are out there, too. Not exactly inspirational.
“There could be some other guys,” the executive said. “They had interest in Doug McDermott, just as an example, but what’s he going to do defensively for Ime (Udoka)? Would he play? You could maybe get him for a first-rounder, take him into the TPE. There was some talk about Malik Beasley, too, and he is all over the place. Do you want to give up Al and a first-rounder to get guys like that, though?”
No, not really. If there is a high-quality player who fits with Udoka’s defense and makes sense with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, dumping Horford makes sense. But getting rid of him just for the sake of using the exception does not, especially not with the way Horford has played.