He once served a number of significant purposes for Boston. But the Celtics have outgrown him. While he’s getting paid a max contract, he may not be the second best player on the Celtics’ active roster. Gordon Hayward will return. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can polish off parts of their game. As soon as the Eastern Conference Finals, Horford could be the fifth best player on the team.
It’s a bit of a stretch. But the fact that it’s possible is bad news for the Celtics, because they’re stuck with Horford for the next two and a half seasons. And they’re going to be paying him max money when they probably wish they could dedicate that contract to someone who is a legitimate star — not a player whose nickname is “Average Al” because his talent hovers around debatably, “good.”
This isn’t to say Horford wasn’t a valuable member of the franchise. He certainly was, and his signing was a turning point for Boston. He and Isaiah Thomas built a powerful duo which turned heads around the NBA. Horford broke the Celtics’ free agency drought by joining Boston while Kevin Durant (and many others before him) spurned the city. Horford was then surely a selling point for Gordon Hayward. So Horford’s decision to sign a max deal with Boston was a boon to the franchise.
But the Celtics are a radically different team than they were just a year and a half ago. Even though Horford was key in building that team, he’s also now hamstringing them.
He is one of the least productive max-contract players in the NBA. He’s the 11th-highest paid player in the NBA, but is the 105th in points per game (12.8), 36th in rebounds (7.5), 36th in assists (4.9) and 70th in PER (17.73). So…
Horford’s defenders will argue he brings leadership and intangibles. That stuff is all well and good. But does that mean Horford’s most impressive number is 31, his age? Because his points per game, his rebounds, his assists and his PER are simply not enough from a max player, even when considering he’s pretty good at all of them.
If the Celtics get the chance to see the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, Horford’s production is going to be what helps his team upset Steph Curry’s squad. His leadership and his intangibles aren’t going to change the complexion of the series, which would probably end in five games. If Horford turns into a 20-10 player (instead of 13-8) in the finals, the Celtics could be looking at a championship. But Horford isn’t that guy. He’ll never be that guy. And that’s a problem for the Celtics, who are trying to get over the considerable talent hump which Golden State has created.
To make things worse, the Celtics can’t do anything about it. They’re stuck with him. They can’t trade Horford and his cumbersome contract without also dealing Jaylen Brown or a pick to sweeten the deal. In other words, they’re not dumping Horford. They can’t sacrifice a future asset to get better now. They’ve got to ride it out.
In the meantime, Horford will be part of the reason the Celtics are practically irrelevant for the NBA Championship. Because when he, Irving and Hayward are on the court together, they don’t comprise a “Big 3.” It’s just a “Big 2” with Hayward and Irving. And there’s no such thing as a “Big 2.” Unless Horford fights his way up the NBA food chain and explodes with production — and he’s been trending downward since the All-Star break — the Celtics will probably spin in place in the NBA’s hamster wheel.
[Editor’s Note: this post was updated to correctly reflect Horford’s PER and PER rank in the NBA]