Is Al Horford Actually Underperforming?
After receiving a massive contract from the Celtics this past offseason, Al Horford was surrounded by hefty expectations. Are the critics correct in saying that Horford has disappointed thus far?
Whenever you ink a player to a four-year, $113 million contract, expectations are going to become significant and deservedly so. When the Boston Celtics acquired free-agent center Al Horford at this maximum price at the onset of free agency, the understanding among the green’s faithful was that he was the piece necessary to catapult this team from a middle-of-the-pack afterthought to one capable of leading a march against the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ throne.
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So, fans all across New England have been perturbed by Horford’s points per game average of 15.4 and his rebounding average of 6.2. They have chided his inability to shoulder the burden of leading Boston to late-game victories in the absence of leading scorer Isaiah Thomas, and detested his inability to lead the team out of the doldrums of the NBA’s rebounding rankings. Criticism of the nine-year veteran arrived in bunches following his blown layup as time expired in the Celtics’ one-point loss to the Rockets on December fifth and after a crucial turnover in the final minute of the fourth quarter hampered Boston’s efforts in stealing a road victory over the Thunder last Sunday night.
While his late-game escapades over the past two weeks have been troubling, one must not forget his game-winning offensive rebound and putback against the Pistons in late November. It is unjustified to expect Horford to fulfill a Kobe Bryant-type role in which he demands the ball be in his hands for the last shot in a critical situation simply based on the Benjamins piling into his back account. Throughout his career, Horford has never been someone relied upon to create shots for himself from the perimeter. He is not a player that you can give the ball to 30 feet away from the basket with 10 seconds remaining in the game and instruct to create space off of the dribble and take the last shot, a la DeMarcus Cousins.
Rather, Horford is the type of player who will step up on the defensive end and swat an opponent’s last gasp at keeping their chances alive, evidence by his game-sealing block of Cousins in a win over the Sacramento Kings on December second. He is the asset whose tremendous court vision can open up the window for another Boston option to step up and hit the final shot. These are the roles that Horford is expected to stuff in the Celtics rotation by head coach Brad Stevens, and he has done an honorable job of sufficiently influencing the fluidity of Boston’s presence on both ends of the floor so far this year.
On the offensive side of the ball, you could make the case that Horford has revolutionized the manner in which the Celtics share the rock. Entering the season averaging just 2.8 assists per contest for his career, Horford has seen that figure skyrocket to a substantial 5.3 per game while in Boston. He has transformed the Celtics into one of the most well-oiled offensive machines in the league. The team averages 24.8 assists per game, good for third in the league behind offensive juggernauts such as the Warriors and Rockets, and plenty of that can be attributed to Horford’s ability to force the defense to rotate quickly with decisive passes that find teammates in ideal scoring positions.
Horford has also provided the Celtics with a viable rim protector on defense, an added bonus that the team was not even anticipating when they signed him. Horford, who has posted 1.2 blocks per game for his career, has seen this figure balloon to 2.2 per contest, which would be the fifth-highest mark in the NBA had he not missed a chunk of time in November due to a concussion. To put in perspective, this number shatters those of Dwight Howard (1.58 blocks per game) and Bismack Biyombo (1.35 blocks per game), two of Horford’s fellow centers in the free-agency class of 2016. Horford is also posting 0.5 blocks per game more than Los Angeles Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan, who was named to both the the All-NBA First Team as well as the All-NBA Defensive First Team in 2015-16.