At long last, Brad Stevens’ Boston Celtics have a formidable, star-caliber center in Al Horford. The longtime Atlanta Hawk brings an inside-out repertoire and sharp basketball instincts to Beantown, giving the Shamrocks a huge talent boost in the frontcourt.
Over the past four seasons, he’s notched 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, along with 34 percent three-point shooting. Horford also averaged a 20.7 Player Efficiency Rating and a plus-2.4 defensive box plus/minus.
He’s unquestionably one of the most complete centers in the league. He’ll team with the Celtics’ blossoming young core to challenge Eastern Conference contenders with a versatile rotation.
Horford and Isaiah Thomas might be one of the best new duos in the league, and Jae Crowder joins them to form a potent guard/wing/big triumvirate. The 6’10” newcomer fits into Boston’s system wonderfully because he doesn’t need to be ball dominant. He’ll do damage within the flow of the offense while anchoring the interior of an already-talented defense.
Stevens has the flexibility to run a dynamic mixture of sets to empower Horford and Co. First, he should run a variety of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop plays because it’s both Thomas’ and Horford’s forte. Sean Penney of SB Nation’s CelticsBlog.com explains:
Thomas excels in the pick and roll, making Horford an ideal fit to pair with the Celtics point guard. The 340 points that Horford scored as a roll man ranked third in the league last season, and he finished with an efficient 57.1 eFG% in those situations, per Synergy Sports…When he isn’t rolling to the rim, Horford thrives in the pick-and-pop game as well. Last season saw Horford expand his range beyond the arc, where he managed to knock down shots at about a league-average rate of 34.4 percent.
If you need a refresher on his pick-and-roll, prowess, here are a couple of clips. He owns quick feet, superb timing and terrific dexterity around the tin.
Horford’s pick-and-pop potential with Boston is also tremendous due to his shooting efficiency and Stevens’ ingenuity. In addition to his improved three-point stroke, he’s drilled long two-pointers at a robust clip in recent years.
During the past three seasons, Horford has shot at least 49 percent from 16 feet out to the arc. That’s an awesome number for any player, let alone a center. When opposing defenses are too concerned with packing the paint or chasing Thomas, Stevens should constantly utilize him as a pick-and-pop outlet.
Horford’s 2015-16 shot chart reveals his sweet spots are above the elbows and free-throw line, as well as the straightaway three-pointer. Stevens has the perfect play to open up in-rhythm jumpers from that spot. It’s a set Gibson Pyper of Half Court Hoops calls “Zipper Chase.”
It’s designed to draw the defense’s attention to the wing catching the ball toward the top of the key. Thomas also inevitably draws attention on the sideline, and the weak-side big man drops to the baseline to provide spacing for a pick-and-pop at the top of the key. Watch how Boston ran it for Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger last year (ironically, against the Hawks). Horford will thrive in that spot next season:
Horford also has good instincts on sideline pick-and-rolls. He can morph pick-and-rolls into pick-and-pops by drifting from the middle to the for jumpers.
Don’t sleep on Horford’s outside shooting skills in transition, either. When Boston’s initial fast-break attempts don’t materialize, they can swing the ball over to the weak side just in time for the trailing Horford to step into a triple.
Horford will be highly effective from the interior as well, especially if Stevens keeps an eye out for mismatches. When the timing and space are right, Horford is a strong, decisive post-up player who can create his own hook shots or dish the rock to cutters.
Keith Smith of RealGM.com explained Horford’s value and positional versatility for Boston:
The Celtics also won’t hesitate to put him in the mid-post area and let him iso occasionally, especially if he’s defended by a traditional center. If opposing teams match him with a power forward, he’ll set up shop inside. Horford and Johnson are also good enough passers that both can move the ball to teammates for solid looks.
He thrived as a passer in Atlanta, especially the past three seasons under Mike Budenholzer. He could be equally dangerous in Boston once he becomes comfortable with the system and his teammates. If his past couple seasons are any indication, he’ll dish assists at a high rate without turning the ball over (2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio from 2014-2016).
Even when he’s on the perimeter, the Celtics can use his passing skills on simple screen-and-cut actions like this one. Horford will quickly read and execute backdoor passes like Sullinger did on this play:
On the defensive side, Stevens will unleash more speed on opponents now that Horford is at center. He’ll have more flexibility to switch against pick-and-rolls, switch between big men and do more trapping on the perimeter. Horford has the speed to close out on shooters and the discipline to rotate and contest shots from all angles.
Mobility and timing are his two best assets. Stevens should feel comfortable using Horford in a variety of different schemes because it doesn’t matter if he gets switched onto a guard briefly. Here are a couple of examples from the playoffs against the Cleveland Cavaliers: he closed out and shut down Iman Shumpert, then stuck with Kyrie Irving for a critical block:
Stevens should be elated that Horford will take Sullinger’s minutes, along with some of Tyler Zeller’s. The Celtics can be more aggressive in the backcourt knowing that Horford is patrolling the paint and willing to switch on a dime.
By the end of the season, Boston will likely fully tap into Horford’s two-way potential. More importantly, they’ll unlock all the ways he can fuel the team as a scorer, passer and defender. His pick-and-roll pairing with Thomas, low-post efficiency and vision will elevate the play of the whole club. If the new partnership goes as planned, the Celtics will be a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference and give the Cavs a bunch of problems next spring.