NBA Trade Buzz: Celtics Get Back Veteran Center Al Horford, Thunder Lands Kemba Walker
Horford returns to Boston via recent trade deal
Veteran big man Al Horford will again don the green and white threads of the Boston Celtics next season. In a recent trade that the Celtics pulled off to obviously shore up their frontcourt, Horford goes back to Boston while All-Star point guard Kemba Walker moves to the Oklahoma City Thunder to play for his third NBA team.
As part of the deal, the Thunder will also receive a first-round draft pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, along with a 2025 second-round draft pick from the Celtics. In return, the Celtics will receive the Thunder’s second-round draft pick in 2023. While it is true that it is unfortunate that Kemba’s tenure with the Celtics will end this way, it is without a doubt that this trade will put both teams in a better position to accomplish their specific goals.
As for the Celtics, getting back the all-around services of Horford will be a welcome sight not just for their big-man rotation, but also for their young stars. Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, who previously held the position of head coach for the team, pointed out that this trade deal could be beneficial for both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics’ top stars.
While it is true that letting go of Kemba was a difficult ordeal, Stevens said that going through that hardship is part of the job that he is tasked to do. Stevens emphasized that getting rid of Kemba’s bloated contract gave the team a much-needed flexibility in terms of their finances, while also reiterating that Horford is a good player on a relatively lower contract. The former Celtics head coach also said that Horford is a veteran player who can move the needle for the team, as per Tim Bontemps of the ESPN.
"Well, I think that's, right, part of the job change, right? It is difficult. Because I really -- for instance, just really liked Kemba, period, end of story. He is a super likable person. [But] we had to look at with the idea of moving that first-round pick this year, it gave us the opportunity to look at a road ahead with a few more options, from the financial flexibility standpoint, with the picks, all of our future first-round picks past this year, which, again, give you more options. And then it was the best deal that we thought with regard to returning players, right? The opportunity to add Al, who makes significantly less money but is a really good player who has corporate knowledge of this environment, that's really excited to be back in Boston and has a good feel for not only playing with our guys but also has made them better ... his impact on others and his ability to lift others is one of his great strengths.
To have the ability to get that in return and gain financial flexibility moving forward, the cost, right, was a person that you really really like and one first-round pick. Al can move the needle. Al had a good year in Oklahoma City-- obviously didn't play a ton of games, but statistically had a year that obviously applies across the board. I think that sometimes the ability to space, pass, play in different ways and play in different coverages at the other end, be able to play with other bigs or as the lone 5 I think is something that ... he just has a wealth of experience. I realize that there's a lot of speculation and everything else out there, but in fairness to the people that have been under consideration, that are under consideration, I want to make sure that we're doing it the right way. There will be a time and place to talk about that."
Horford, who just turned 35 years of age this month, played three seasons for the Celtics, from 2016 to 2019. The veteran big man suited up for the Thunder this season, putting up a decent stat line of 14.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks per contest. However, Horford only played 28 games for the Thunder, logging in 27.9 minutes each contest. He and the Thunder organization eventually agreed mid-season that Horford will not play again for the team, a move that paved the way for the team’s younger players to gain a significant amount of playing time to help in their development.
On top of that, it also paved the way for Horford to know that he does not have a future with the rebuilding Thunder squad. With all the draft picks and the young talent that the Thunder organization has invested in, it only means that the team is not built on winning right now, and a veteran like Horford surely has different goals from that vision. The 6-foot-9 center is already on the twilight stages of his career, and his championship window is quickly closing.
Horford, who was the 3rd overall selection in the 2007 NBA Draft, played his rookie year with the Atlanta Hawks. It is with that team that his name rose to prominence as he eventually became an All-Star in just his third year in the league. During the 2009-10 NBA season, Horford put up a balanced stat line of 14.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest, showing just how much of an all-around player he is at the young age of 23.
The combo big man played nine years for the Hawks, before moving to the Celtics camp in 2016. He then signed a massive contract with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019, but that stint did not produce a high level of success, both from individual and team standpoints. Horford only averaged 11.9 points, 6.8 boards, 4.0 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.9 blocks per game, while producing a measly 45% overall clip from the field, which is the lowest output in his career. Still, Horford is one of the most versatile players in his position. His experience and steady play at the center position gave the Celtics that steadying hand during their best games in 2018, especially in the playoffs. As per Jack McCluskey of The Ringer, it was Horford who was the engine of the Celtics’ incredible playoff run in 2018 when they reached the Eastern Conference Finals and pushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to a do or die Game 7. The Celtics may have lost that series and the chance to compete for the title, but it showed how impactful of a player Horford is on both ends of the floor.
Until this postseason, Horford was perhaps the definition of an other guy. He may be the most underrated star player in the NBA today, and the only one knocked for it. A five-time All-Star, but one who may be thought of as much for being the last pick on his team as for undeniably earning a spot in the game in the first place. He’s averaging 14.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.2 blocks a game in his 11-year career. His averages went down in the 2017-18 regular season, his first next to Kyrie Irving and second in Boston, yet he may be having his biggest impact.
That game was on full display early in Sunday’s contest. With the score tied at 7, Horford finished or assisted on five of the next six Celtics possessions. He found Terry Rozier open for a short jumper. He caught the ball on the block against Love, spun baseline and made a reverse layup. A couple of possessions later, Jaylen Brown drove into the lane and threw it up for Horford, who caught, gathered, and scored. Later, Horford got open for a top-of-the-key 3. Swish. Horford doubled LeBron after a switch put Rozier on the Cavs star, and when James passed cross-court to an open J.R. Smith, the big man sprinted from the free throw line to the 3-point line to close out, contributing to a miss. On the other end, the Celtics funnelled the ball right back to Horford, who attacked Love’s closeout with a drive, scored, drew the foul, and completed the and-1.
Horford’s numbers may not be explosive when you look at them at the stat sheet, but it is also true that his impact and value go beyond what the box score indicates. With the small-ball positionless type of basketball taking over the league in the past several years, having a versatile big man like Horford is nothing short of a luxury, especially for a young team like the Celtics.
While it is true that his work on the offensive end of the floor consists of post playmaking and an adept touch around the rim, Horford also has the ability to space the floor with his above average shooting from the mid-range and from beyond the arc. This would help give more leeway for slashers and shot-makers like Tatum and Brown to operate on offense, something that they did not have the luxury of doing when the Celtics employed the likes of Tristan Thompson and Robert Williams in the center position. Both Thompson and Williams do not have a shot outside the paint, which then clogs the lane for the Celtics’ perimeter players.
On top of his work on offense, it is on the defensive end that Horford does most of his damage. He can switch onto quicker perimeter players and guard them effectively while not compromising the rest of the team’s defensive scheme. This is something that is seen as a very valuable asset for any team’s defense, and that is the greatest asset of Horford’s overall skill set. As per Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, he pointed out that while it is true that Horford does not average a lot of blocks or steals, his ability to defend all positions make it possible for his team to always have a backbone to cover up all bases. It is no wonder why at his age, Horford is still one of the most coveted players in the frontcourt position.
But the player who makes the Celtics’ defense go is Al Horford. If the Defensive Player of the Year vote happened today, Horford might win it. The 11th-year veteran has been central to Boston’s stifling of superstar opponents ranging from Kristaps Porzingis to Carmelo Anthony to Joel Embiid, among others. The Celtics’ success is a testament to the entire coaching staff and the players, but Horford is the defense’s linebacker: He directs others and is almost always in the right position. Horford averages only 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks per game, but defensive counting stats don’t begin to tell his impact. He isn’t as much of a shot blocker as he’s a master of angles. He uses positioning and timing to stick in front of the opponent. He’s light on his feet and can keep in front of guards, or freakish forwards like Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Horford hustles. He communicates. He doesn’t take plays off. He boxes out. He always closes out and never misses rotations. Mistakes happen for any team, but it sure helps when the team’s anchor is always on point. The Celtics need to keep their defense up, too, because their offense isn’t clicking yet. They’re 21st in offensive rating, and when either Irving or Horford is off the floor, they struggle to put up points. It’s scary to think about what this team could be once Hayward returns, whether it’s miraculously before or during the playoffs, or next season. In the meantime, the Celtics need to keep grinding on defense.
As for Kemba, this is indeed an unfortunate way to conclude his brief stint with the Celtics. When he was brought into the team in the summer of 2019, there were tons of expectations as to the impact that he can bring to the table. Kemba was coming off a career-best season with the Charlotte Hornets prior to that offseason, having averaged an excellent stat line of 25.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.2 steals per contest while producing a 43% overall clip from the field, and a 35% clip from the three-point line.
But the spitfire guard struggled to be efficient in his two years with the Celtics, and there was already a writing on the wall that the partnership is not a fit for both camps. This season, Kemba only put up 19.3 points, his lowest output since his fourth year in the league. It was completely obvious that he never got used to the system that Stevens and the Celtics had in place, and that coincided with the fact that both Tatum and Brown have grown into bona fide All-Stars.
As for the Thunder, this move also makes sense for them. They get another first-round draft pick to add to their pile of assets, and they receive a veteran scorer in Kemba who can help mentor the team’s young players, including starting combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. As per NBA Senior Writer John Hollinger of The Athletic, the Thunder organization may also try to trade Walker’s bloated contract a couple of years from now.
Nobody is saying it out loud, but it's The Process 2.0 in Oklahoma City. The Thunder will continue to hoard draft picks and trade all their useful veteran players, and Walker is surely the next one.
While his expensive contract makes an immediate trade unlikely, at some point within the next year a contender with a need will come knocking and dump dead contracts on the Thunder along with, of course, more draft picks, in return for Walker.
Stevens and the Celtics are still in the thick of their search for a new head coach. Stevens, who assumed the Celtics head coaching role from 2013 to 2021, was promoted to the team president role right after long-tenured president Danny Ainge stepped down from his role.
According to news and reports, the Celtics are looking into a long list of head coaching candidates, including prominent NBA figures such as Jason Kidd, Rick Carlisle, Chauncey Billups, Becky Hammons, Ime Udoka, and Darvin Ham.