Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
Al Horford’s move to the Boston Celtics was the second-biggest of the NBA offseason behind Kevin Durant going to the Golden State Warriors. In doing so, he illustrates how the media impacts our assessment of players. While he was an Atlanta Hawk, the narrative was frequently, “can they win without a superstar?”
However, now that he’s in Boston, the running storyline is that the C’s have finally established they can lure a superstar in free agency. Which all just makes one wonder how much the word “superstar” is as much a product of where you play as how well you play. Regardless of whether he is a true “superstar” or not, Horford is the best player the Celtics have now, and he makes Boston a valid contender for the Eastern Conference Finals.
Horford’s best year came in 2010-11 when he averaged 15.2 points, 9.3 boards and 3.5 assists while shooting a 55.8 effective field goal percentage. Voters name him Third-Team All-NBA that season. Last year, he wasn’t too far off those numbers, at 15.2, 7.3 and 3.2 and 54.7 percent. On a team expected to contend for the No. 2 seed, at the very least, he should be able to replicate those numbers. If he does, another All-NBA team is not out of reach, particularly if the voters view him as the best player on the Celtics — which he is.
There are a couple of worries here. Horford turned 30 in June, so there’s always the small risk that he starts a decline. He is on a deep team, which could sandbag his numbers a little bit. And there’s always the possibility that for whatever reason (though, I think it’s unlikely) he just doesn’t end up being a good fit in Boston. Any of these things or combination of them could cause him to have a slight regression.
We’ve lost the original meaning of the saying, “jack of all trades, master of none.” We think of it now as almost a negative thing, but it wasn’t originally considered that. The expression originally was, “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” That is an excellent way to describe Horford, as I wrote for Bleacher Report:
He can put the ball on the floor (99 unassisted field goals this year, according to NBA.com) and score inside (62.7 field-goal percentage within 10 feet) or from deep (35.1 percent behind the arc). Over the last three seasons, he is the only player to average over 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and two blocks per 100 possessions while shooting over 50 percent from the field. Additionally, he posted a 2.07 defensive real plus/minus this year, per ESPN.com.
He positively impacts every facet of the game without dominating the ball. (His usage percentage this year was just 20.6). In fact, if there’s a criticism of him, it’s that he could be a bit more aggressive in the clutch. If he’s supposed to be the offensive leader of the team, that matters, but playing off Harden and giving him an outlet, he’d be ideal.
Horford’s offense is complete. He’s not a super-scorer; his career high is only 34 points, and he’s topped 30 just seven times, but he is a steady offensive influence.
He was a solid but not great 26th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus among centers last season. When he was the closest defender on the play, opponents shot 1.1 percent worse, including 4.2 percent worse within six feet of the rim, per SportVU tracking data. And the Atlanta Hawks’ defense improved by 1.8 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court, per NBA.com. He was in the 65.3 percentile when he was guarding the post-up and the 63.8 percentile guarding the spot-up, illustrating his presence can be felt inside or out.
He’s not a great defender, but he’s a good one.
What you get in Horford is a player without really any holes, and one you can always trust. That’s a rare find in the NBA, whether you call that a superstar or not.