Over the last year or so, the word on Al Horford has been mostly negative. He was not a good fit in Philadelphia at all and his weaknesses were magnified in lineups where he had to play out of position. Horford was criticised for the fit that he had with Joel Embiid.
There was a lot of talk saying that Horford was washed as a player and his contract was an albatross. Throughout last season, I was skeptical of this rhetoric for a few different factors. The first being that Elton Brand assembled a roster that does not work in the modern NBA.
The Sixers’ front office last year focused on size and did not do nearly enough work on the shooting. Horford and Richardson are capable shooters but they are not the type of players who command gravity behind the arc. Defenses sagged off the perimeter and crowded the interior, Horford’s game was constricted.
The other big issue was that Al Horford was miscast in Philadelphia. The Sixers acquired Horford for a few different reasons. The first reason is that Al Horford gave Joel Embiid fits on offense. Horford being on the roster would mean that the Philly would have a supposedly weakened rival in Boston.
The other reason was that Philadelphia believed that they needed size and length to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks. In the 2019 Playoffs, the Toronto Raptors proved that putting walls around paint was an effective method of slowing down Giannis. Horford made sense as a ‘waller’ due to his defensive intelligence and size.
Horford played the Power Forward spot and formed that wall with Embiid. However, Brett Brown did not realise that the fit was simply not there and Philadelphia continued to look terrible every single time that the team went on the road.
In truth, Horford’s only season in Philadelphia is a poor predictor of his value to an NBA team. However, Horford’s time in Boston is a more accurate indicator of what he could bring to a team like the Thunder.
Horford had a fruitful three years in Boston where he proved that he is one of the most versatile centers in the league. Al Horford was hugely capable as a passer, shooter and interior defender during his time with the Celtics. There were times when Brad Stevens ran isolation plays with the ball in Al’s hands as if he was a point guard surveying the floor.
In the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, Al Horford was the second best player on the floor behind only LeBron James. The Celtics were an injury-ravaged team but Horford’s strong play stabilised a young team. His contributions on the court kept Boston in the series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A lot of people will point to Jayson Tatum having a break-out series in his rookie year as a contributing factor to that run in the Eastern Conference but I feel that Horford’s work was more valuable.
Horford provided much needed playmaking in an offense that was missing Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Horford’s defense was important in nullifying every single Cav except LeBron James. He was a leader and a key presence in that series for Boston in a time where they did not really have any leaders outside of him.
Horford is a pro’s pro, his time in Atlanta and Boston clearly proves that he is a valuable leader for a team. I believe that Horford could have a similarly sort of impact in Oklahoma City. His skills certainly fill a lot of the Thunder’s holes.
Nerlens Noel signed with the New York Knicks and Steven Adams was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for George Hill, Kenrich Williams and draft picks. The strong interior defense that the Thunder were able to rely upon last year will now come in a different format.
Horford is an excellent defensive player and his ability on that end of the floor comes down to his reading of the game. Horford is proficient at identifying offense early in the shot clock and positioning himself to prevent the offense from getting a good look. It is not flashy but it is very effective.
Moreover, Al Horford has shown an ability to contain guards off the dribble in mismatch situations. Horford is not the fastest player in the world but his ability to read the game effectively means that he is able to compensate for the lack of lateral quickness. This is a strength in his game and something that will make Coach Daigneault’s life easier.
Last season, the Thunder frequently ran a drop coverage in the pick and roll. Steven Adams did not have the mobility to contain smaller, fast guards and Nerlens Noel was much too foul-prone in these situations. Horford’s ability to defend in space would allow coverage versatility and would mean that Coach Daigneault could adjust the defense to suit the situation.
Horford’s synergy with the Thunder on offense should not be overlooked. Coach Daigneault has previously spoken about the important of spacing and I would argue that a key aspect of modern spacing is a shooting center.
A center who can knock down deep shots on decent efficiency unlocks interior space for guards to drive into. It is a skill that is now a desired commodity of pretty much every single team in the league. A need for shooting is one of the reasons why we have seen players such as Aron Baynes and Brook Lopez become so much valuable.
Horford is an efficient shooter from downtown; he has shot 36.4% on all looks from deep for his career. His efficiency dipped with the Sixers last year down to 35% but that slight decline can be attributed to abysmal spacing and an increase in volume. Horford took 4.2 3PA per game in Philly.
For context, Horford’s volume is very similar to the number of 3-point shots that Chris Paul attempted for the Thunder last season. Al is a legitimate threat from downtown and would allow the Thunder to run pick and pop actions without much sacrifice on the defensive end of the floor.
Horford’s passing will also be important for the Thunder. Coach Donovan ran a lot of hand-off actions last season and put the ball in Steven Adams’ hands. Billy Donovan used the hand-off as a way of creating space in the paint while taking advantage of Steve’s passing ability.
Horford is a better passer than Steven Adams by far. Horford averaged 4.0 assists per game with Philly last year. Horford is unselfish with the ball and has a good feel for the offense. He knows when to give the ball up and usually finds the right option with accurate dimes.
Horford is a versatile passer; he has been a ball-handler in the post, at the top of key and off the dribble for a few different teams during his career. In all of these situations, Horford has been an efficient and productive option. His multi-faceted game even meant that Brad Stevens used him in triple threat situations in Boston.
There would be times when Al brought the ball up the court and would then break down a defense. Horford often used his pump fake to shift defenders before driving to the rim but occasionally, he would just toss passes over the top of the defense to cutting teammates.
The aim of this season is development and growth. This season will not be measured in wins or losses; it will be measured in player development. Horford can be a positive contributor to the youth movement. We often talk about the prototypical modern NBA player being a tall, lengthy 3&D wing who can also run the offense. Horford can certainly teach some of those skills.
We saw how much Shai Gilgeous-Alexander benefitted from a year under Chris Paul’s wing. This could be the case for Darius Bazley or Aleksej Pokusevski; a year learning from Horford may accelerate their development as NBA players.
I truly believe that Al Horford is a good acquisition for the Thunder. Oklahoma City is the right environment for him to rehabilitate his value and become an interesting name in the trade market in 2021. Horford will get the opportunities to display his skills and prove why he is such a useful player to have.
For the Thunder, the deal works as a rehabilitated Horford will get draft assets or young players. It would be another untradeable contract turned into a positive return. In addition to the prospect of future return, the Thunder have gotten a leader and veteran for the locker room.