During the Summer of 2016, the Boston Celtics owned a plethora of cap space. They also possessed a new star in Isaiah Thomas. The next step was attracting a max contract player to get the them over the hump in their quest for a championship.
Kevin Durant was the coveted superstar that summer for every team in the hunt. Boston did everything it could to convince the Oklahoma City standout why the Celtics would be the best fit for him. Danny Ainge and Tom Brady’s Hamptons visit put all Celtics fans on the edge of their seat.
When the free agency storm ended and the dust finally settled, Boston came away with a max contract player, but not exactly the player that everyone was hoping for.
The Celtics had signed a nine-year veteran, formerly of the Atlanta Hawks – Al Horford.
Horford found himself with a four-year, $113 million contract courtesy of Boston. Now, three years later, this is the reason he is still sustaining scrutiny over his contributions to the Celtics organization.
Since the 2017-18 All-Star Break Boston has a 7-4 record. However, three of those losses over the last four games have been against playoff teams in the Pacers, Wizards and most recently the Pelicans. This gives fans a thriving need to begin pointing fingers at the problems the Celtics are dealing with at this back end of the regular season.
So, who better to point the finger at than the player who is making the most money on the team, right?
Enter the “Average Al” discussion.
When a NBA team signs a player to the highest possible contract available for their organization, there are automatic expectations put onto that player.
Signing a player to a max contract usually means that player will have a substantial impact on that team night-in and night-out and will most likely be the focal point when it comes to scoring a needed basket or even making a stop on defense.
That simply has not been the definition that Al Horford stands by. Does this mean Celtics fans should be upset by his inability to follow the norm of a max contract player?
Well, yes and no. I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, but let me explain.
COMPARED TO OTHER SIMILAR CONTRACTS
One of the easiest comparisons haters will reference when criticizing Horford is looking at other players in the NBA who are making similar money to him.
So, let’s take this approach, and keep it to a very small sample size. Here is a list from BasketballReference.com showing the top paid guys, in order, for 2017-18:
As you can see the man right above Horford is DeMar DeRozan and right below is Carmelo Anthony. So let’s compare these three guys since they are the closest to Horford in salary this season:
As it stands right now DeRozan is on Toronto Raptors, who currently sit in first place in the Eastern Conference, and averages 23 points, four rebounds and five assists per game on the season. DeRozan is regarded as the focal point of the offense for the Raptors in their quest to become the No. 1 seed heading into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Anthony, who is now at the backend of his career, has decided to take a back seat to younger guys like Russell Westbrook and Paul George in his attempt to grab a NBA title, which he failed to do in all of his years with the Knicks and Nuggets. Anthony has lost a step or two in his 16th NBA season, averaging 16 points and six rebounds, but is still a contributor for a playoff team. The fourth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder have gelled at the right time with the NBA playoffs just a few weeks away.
Now, when you look at these two aforementioned players, and you compare them to Horford, who is averaging 12 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, the differential in terms of production does not seem so large when you take into consideration that neither DeRozan nor Anthony average as many rebounds and assists as Horford does.
The criticisms of Horford do not come from his ability to fill the stat-sheet, but rather, his ability to be consistent on offense, particularly scoring points.
Here is a number that gets many people frustrated when watching the Celtics on a night-to-night basis – Below is the number of games that each of these players has failed to score 10 or more points this season:
Demar DeRozan – 5
Carmelo Anthony – 7
Al Horford – 17
DeRozan and Anthony combined haven’t matched the number of games Horford has been unable to score in the double-digits this season.
When you think of the NBA and you think of the best player on a NBA roster, you think of a guy that scores the most points and a guy who can be a leader every night. Though Horford has been the latter, his inability to consistently get buckets is the reason why people look at his contract and look at his statistics and cannot sit contently with these results.
Another quality of a max contract player: They will be at their best when it matters the most.
Right now, the Celtics are safely sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference and look to stay there come playoff time. There is not an extreme sense of urgency for this team to win games at this point in the season. However, the need to work hard, find chemistry and get in rhythm with all the injuries occurring on Boston’s squad gives them even more of a reason to be focused than ever heading into the final days of March.
Of the 17 games this year where Horford scored under 10 points, six of them have happened over the last 14 games he has played in. In that frustrating loss to New Orleans Sunday night, he had six points on 3 of 11 shooting. While Boston was jockeying for seeding with Toronto in February, he had two points on 1 of 5 shooting in a 20-point loss.
With impact players Jaylen Brown, Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart all going down with injuries, you should be able to turn to your max contract player. The Celtics should naturally rely on Horford to keep the team above water and keep the morale high while they deal with this bump in the road. Not only is some of this done off the court, but a lot of this is done with your play on the court.
Up until this point in the season I have defended Horford hard, stating time after time that if you did not like Al Horford because of his contract, then it was simply because you were not watching all the games.
Horford brings an ability to facilitate on offense and create mismatches on both sides of the court because of his size and ball skills. If he happens to score an abundance of points in the process as well, then to me, that was a plus. But scoring wasn’t his primary objective when on the court.
There comes a point in time, though, when too many sub-par scoring efforts have been dished out for me to think other than Horford needs to step up and produce more offensively than he has been this season.
The way I look at it is simple: If you’re not going to score points, then make sure you are producing in other ways. Whether it be on defense or facilitating on offense, if you aren’t doing either of those, then you better start making some baskets if you’re making $27 million in 2017-18.
Horford is not accomplishing any of those requirements right now, which makes me believe that he may not be worth the money he is earning at this point in his career.
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