With rumors starting to swirl around the Celtics, particularly as peak trade season approaches and January 15 rolls around enabling the team to move Tyler Zeller’s tradeable $8 million expiring contract, now is an appropriate time to analyze the big splash Boston made over the summer when they signed Al Horford. The Celtics are utilizing Horford’s wide range of skills in almost every capacity possible for a big man in today’s NBA game, and as a result his passing ability is being showcased more than it ever has been in his 9-year career. Averaging 69.0 touches per game, his highest since his 64.2 average in 2013-14, has led to him being a primary ballhandler on plenty of half court possessions:
Horford grabs a defensive rebound, dribbles the ball up the court, and finds Jae Crowder for the easy layup. This play is a result of the improvisation encouraged by Brad Steven’s motion offense. Watch Crowder cleverly lose Paul George by acting like he’s going to use Isaiah Thomas’ pin down screen and instead cut back door. It’s not just the Celtic guards who thrive on cuts and off ball screens though, with Al Horford heaping praise on Amir Johnson’s off ball movement after being asked on Chis Mannix’s recent Vertical podcast about which teammate he had developed the most chemistry with thus far.
Quirks like this in Boston’s offense, with a point guard setting a back screen for a forward, cause confusion for defenders like Josh Richardson who find themselves in unfamiliar situations. Horford’s ability to allow primary ball handlers to work off the ball and make the right read is a big reason why he leads all Centers in both potential assists (9.2) and assists per game (4.9). In fact, we haven’t seen a Center put up passing numbers like that since Joakim Noah’s bid for MVP in the 2013-2014 season when he averaged 10.2 and 5.4 per game in those respective categories, though he did so on far more touches and passes.
Individual Year Per Game Passing Statistics for Centers: 2013-2016*
|Season||Player Name||Team||Pos||G||Assists||Potential Assists||Points Created||FT Aassists||Secondary Assists||Passes||Touches|
|2013-14||Joakim Noah||Chi||C||80||5.4 (1)||10.2 (1)||12.4 (1)||0.6 (1)||0.6 (22)||67.4 (1)||83.8 (1)|
|2016-17||Al Horford||Bos||C||28||4.9 (2)||9.1 (2)||12 (2)||0.4 (10)||0.8 (9)||51.5 (4)||69.5 (6)|
|2014-15||Joakim Noah||Chi||C||67||4.7 (3)||8.9 (4)||10.9 (3)||0.4 (8)||0.7 (18)||57 (2)||68.7 (8)|
|2016-17||Mason Plumlee||Por||C||40||4.3 (4)||8.2 (5)||10.3 (5)||0.6 (2)||0.5 (47)||39.4 (39)||53 (40)|
|2016-17||Marc Gasol||Mem||C||38||4.1 (5)||9 (3)||10.3 (4)||0.5 (3)||0.8 (8)||50.3 (7)||73 (4)|
Potential Assists: Any pass that leads to a shot where the shooter takes the shot in 2 or less seconds or 1 or less dribbles
Points Created: Points created off a player’s assists and free throw assists
Secondary Assists: Passes made by a player to the player who earned an assist. Assister required to have the ball for less than 4 seconds and less than 2 dribbles for passer to earn a secondary assist
*Rank relative to all Centers from 2013 to 2016 in parenthesis
In addition to the points that Horford generates organically in half court sets, Boston often involves Horford in actions to magnify the effect he can have on the game. Stevens frequently refers to how he wants to utilize the post to initiate offense, but until this season he didn’t have a post player that had the vision of Horford. Of the 30 Centers that have posted up at least 40 times this season, Horford is 1st in assist rate at 10.4% and 2nd in secondary assist rate at 3.7% because of his ability to pass out of the post:
Horford receives the double team and has the vision to find Crowder in the weak side corner where he subsequently makes the extra pass to Isaiah Thomas. Giving up an open three to “the little guy”, as Tommy Heinsohn regularly grumbles during telecasts, is the worst possible outcome for the Pacers in crunch time: Thomas recently usurped Russell Westbrook as the NBA’s leader in 4th quarter scoring this season.
Similar to his work in the post, Horford leads all Centers who’ve set at least 200 screens in assist rate at 4.0%. The Celtics average 1.31 points on possessions where Horford screens and pops, second only to Nikola Jokic on such possessions, because defenders have to respect Horford’s variety of playmaking abilities.
Al Jefferson would have a difficult enough time recovering to the perimeter if he only had to worry about Horford shooting a 3, but Horford’s unique ability to handle the ball at the center position results in a blow by after Jefferson closes out too hard. Stevens loves to space the floor with shooters at all five positions, which is why the Celtics are trailing only the Rockets in catch and shoot 3 point attempts this season and why Horford has the option to dish to either Jerebko or Bradley after attracting 3 Pacer defenders in the paint.
As the Celtics continue their quest to add another superstar, it’s important to remember that this team has already added one star in the offseason, and they’ve integrated him in a way that has led to career numbers and a team vying for the 2 spot in the East. Were Boston to add one more complementary player to the mix, the expectations for Boston will reach their highest yet of the Brad Stevens era.
Photo By: AP Photo/Winslow Townson