This time last year, Al Horford was the new face in an established franchise, the big-name All-Star recruit to a young squad, where the rest of the pieces had already begun to fit. His role in Boston, after years of success in Atlanta, was to provide veteran savvy and star power to help the Celtics mature into true contenders.
A year later, as the Celtics made dramatic changes this past summer, Horford has quickly become one of the only enduring major pieces of the recent past, ready to adopt—and thrive in—yet another new role.
When Boston begins the new season against the Cavaliers in mid-October, Horford is likely to be the only regular starter from last year still in this season’s starting five. Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Amir Johnson—all of whom formed the framework of the Celtics’ starting unit last season—are gone. In come Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, and the rookie Jayson Tatum, who join second-year swingman Jaylen Brown.
And then there’s Horford, Boston’s highest-paid player last season. Despite his credentials in Atlanta that included deep playoff runs and four All-Star appearances, Horford took a backseat while Thomas became the heartbeat and engine of the franchise. The duo—aided by a deep rotation of talented role-players—helped the Celtics to the best regular-season record in the conference.
Now, with the new arrivals to boost up the backcourt, Horford is likely to become the third option on offense for the Celtics. For a player who has been a multiple-time All-Star despite career scoring averages of “just” 14.3 points per game, the new role will suit him just fine. In Irving and Hayward, the Celtics have brought in two dynamic scorers that could become one of the League’s most dangerous offensive duos and score upwards of 50 points together per contest. With more tick, expect Brown to take a major leap this season, and rookie Tatum is already being compared to Boston’s last great swingman scorer, Paul Pierce. Under Brad Stevens’ leadership, the Celtics had a top ten offensive rating in the League last season. It might take a few months for Irving and Hayward to find their fit, but rest assured, scoring is not going to be their problem.
This is where Horford fits in. At 31, he is already the second-oldest Celtic, just behind the high-flying Gerald Green, and his experience will carry Boston while the youth come of age. Even though he has the potential to be get buckets for himself (he was the team’s third-leading scorer last season), Horford’s best basketball talents are more altruistic in nature. On the court, he is likely to be the Celtics’ most consistent performer even without taking a shot: grabbing boards, setting screens, finding the open man, and continuing to defend at a high level in the post. The best Horford teams—like the 2014-15 Hawks—operate with quick pacing, spacing, and ball-movement, with Horford serving as the big fulcrum that keeps the offense moving.
Indeed, Horford’s “fall” from 27 to 41 in the SLAM rankings is a serious demotion, and so is his role in the Celtics’ hierarchy for 2017-18. But if a player with his sense of leadership, poise, and multi-skilled talents is your squad’s third-best player, your squad is in good shape.
2016: No. 27
2015: No. 23
2014: No. 36
2013: No. 33
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2017-18—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.