This past summer, Al Horford signed a four-year, $109 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers. For the Boston Celtics, this was a blessing in disguise.
Kyrie Irving‘s departure from the Boston Celtics seemed inevitable, but when Al Horford decided to opt out and sign elsewhere, it came as a shock. Going to the Philadelphia 76ers made his departure that much harder to swallow. Not only were the Celtics losing their starting center and vocal leader, but they were losing him to the Sixers.
Fast forward to today, Al Horford has been relegated to a role off the bench while Daniel Theis has thrived in his expanded role. Horford is averaging 11.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game this season. Theis has produced similar numbers, totaling 8.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game thus far. He’s also coming off the best stretch of his career, including a 25 point, 16 rebound performance in the Celtics win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
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The obvious question with Horford is his fit with the 76ers. A team built around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid needs floor spacers. Instead, Elton Brand opted to tie the rest of their cap space going forward into a 33-year-old Horford and Tobias Harris. Horford showcased his ability to spread the floor in Boston but it was never necessarily a strength. To think you could rely on him to be a corner 3-point shooting specialist was misguided. His strength is having the ball in his hands, specifically in the post.
With the ball, Horford is a threat to drive, shoot the mid-range jumper, or pass to open shooters outside-the-arc. Al Horford is a cerebral player and he has not really been able to showcase that in Philadelphia. It’s understandable what the Sixers wanted to do on the defensive end of the floor, but it’s become virtually impossible to play Embiid and Horford together, which makes the move somewhat meaningless.
The loss of Horford at the time hurt, but even then, the idea of paying a 37-year-old Horford $26.5 million was worrisome. Now seeing what’s transpired in Philly, it’s not far-fetched to view the contract as one of the worst in the league. Unless the 76ers attach young assets or multiple first-round picks, it’s hard to envision any team ever taking on that contract.
On the Boston Celtics side of things, Theis has replicated Horford’s production at a fraction of the cost. He’s very active and provides a similar defensive impact. He’s not as versatile as Horford on either end but the construction of the Celtics roster really does not demand that anymore.
In a way, the loss of Horford has allowed the Celtics to become a more consistent team on offense. The Celtics are loaded with wing talent but, in past years, they still deferred to running posessions through Horford. Now, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward have a lot more opportunity to have the ball in their hands and they’ve all benefited because of it. Tatum specifically has reaped the benefits in his rise toward superstardom.
The Celtics are a much more dangerous team when they employ their perimeter-oriented lineups and Theis has proved to be the perfect complement for it. Theis thrives in the screen game where he can either finish at the rim or pop out and make a three. He’s much more mobile than Horford and fits into the Celtics uptempo style of play. Theis also has been a great rim runner in the fast break.
Not long ago it was conceivable that Horford’s move to Philadelphia could swing the Eastern Conference in their favor. Instead, the Sixers are a talented group that has underachieved and is hard to trust on the road. More importantly for Boston, Philadelphia volunteered to absorb a contract that would have inevitably hurt their ability to keep Tatum, Brown, Hayward, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart in Boston all long-term.
Horford’s future in Philadelphia will be interesting to monitor, especially if the 76ers underachieve in the playoffs. Will Brand be willing to part with valuable assets to move Horford, just one off-season after putting all his chips on him?
All that remains to be seen. But what is becoming clearer day by day is that Horford’s departure from Boston has done little to set this franchise back. In fact, Horford’s departure may have been a blessing in disguise, which instead allowed the Boston Celtics to eventually reach their full potential.