Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens pulled the trigger on his first move of the offseason — sending Kemba Walker along with the Celtics’ 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for former Celtic Al Horford, Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round pick.
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Bringing back a very familiar face in Horford in exchange for a former All-Star in Walker is certainly the headline of this deal. However, draft capital, a promising 21-year-old prospect, and dumping salary are all contributing factors, too.
Boston’s summer is off to a hot start. And while Horford’s return to Boston will be remembered as the trade that kick-started Stevens’ presidency, it’s also a move that could restore the defensive-minded culture that Brad and the Celtics were missing last season.
What Al Horford Brings to 2021-22 Celtics
As a versatile big, whose game translated on both ends of the floor, Horford anchored the Celtics’ defense throughout his three years in Boston and it paid in dividends. After Boston finished the 2017-18 season second-best in the league in defensive efficiency, according to TeamRankings.com, it galvanized a young Celtics team to make the deepest playoff run the franchise had seen in nearly a decade — which was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In the end, Boston fell short. Fast-forward three years later, these young Celtics aren’t all that young anymore and, of course, neither is Horford. Still, Boston’s goal of reaching the NBA Finals remains the same, and Big Al, 35, has plenty left to offer to Boston’s All-Star tandem in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Horford makes life easier for his teammates. He’s an excellent passer, who can still defend the pick-and-roll at a high level.
And, Al is a reliable pick-and-pop guy who can make opposing defenses pay with his jumper — which was something Celtics big men struggled with throughout 2020-21.
Boston needs to revert back to its defensive-minded approach, where teammates held one another accountable, and playing hard-nosed defense wasn’t even a choice. During 2020-21, it was difficult to predict which Celtics team would show up on a game-to-game basis.
Some nights things came easy for the Celtics as they could get away with slacking off by the way of a masterful scoring performance by Tatum or his All-Star counterpart. However, most nights, the Celtics’ defensive deficiencies were exposed, which ultimately led to their disappointing, season-ending .500 record (36-36).
What Al Horford Means to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown
Boston was missing its enforcer. On one end of the floor, Al returns to being the anchor of the defense alongside Robert Williams III, and on the other; Horford’s touches help re-implement their old offense’s free-flowing playing style — which keeps the ball constantly moving and avoids the Celtics from becoming stagnant, offensively.
It’s no coincidence Tatum recalled Horford as one of his favorite teammates at Celtics Media Day 2019. “I miss him,” Tatum stated to the press, per Celtics Wire, and before the start of the 2020-21 campaign, it was Williams who recognized Al as a vital mentor to his early development.
Horford averaged 14.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists in 28 games for the Thunder, last season. No one is expecting Horford to return to being the All-Star center he once was much as NBA fans don’t anticipate Tatum and Brown’s skillsets to revert back to inexperienced scorers.
Jayson and Jaylen are mature enough to hold their own. However, what the star duo, along with the rest of the Celtics, missed most, last season, was a structure for team success, rather than individual success. And Horford’s return, in my opinion, brings them one step closer to attaining just that.