Manning: Al Horford Celtics’ First Priority after Anthony Davis Trade

The Anthony Davis dream is dead. Now the Celtics need to make sure they'll have an all-star inside anyway.

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The Lakers pulled the bandaid off. One year of unfortunate events rendered it inevitable that Anthony Davis would never wear a Celtics uniform. Saturday still hurt.

That Los Angeles was the one to trade for Anthony Davis made it that much worse. Though they sped up Boston’s direction toward their most pressing matter.

Al Horford’s potential free agency, like in 2016, becomes the greatest focus of this offseason. If he leaves, the team could face deficiencies large enough to eliminate them from the playoffs. A long-term commitment is more difficult to jump into for both sides now with no title contender in sight.

The deadline for Horford to opt in or out of his one-year, $30-million option is Tuesday. Boston and him can decide to extend that deadline if necessary. Earlier reports stated Horford could be willing to opt out for more money over a longer period of time. It’s unclear how Irving’s impending departure and the Davis trade impact that.

Anna Horford, Horford’s sister, said on her CLNS Media podcast within the past week he will do what he can to remain with the team.

This is no small matter considering that the Celtics showed little ability to fill the middle of the court in Horford’s absence last year. Aron Baynes missed 31 games with a variety of blows to the groin and other ailments. He’s effective as rotation piece and opted into his 2019-20 player option last week. Though he will be 33 this season and plays a style conducive to bumps and bruises. Boston went 8-6 without Horford.

Daniel Theis is a restricted free agent and could not reach his 2017-18 form after returning from knee surgery. Robert Williams struggled through injuries and his transition to the league and played only 32 games.

Horford’s importance transcended a simple lack of depth at his position. The Celtics outscored their opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. A whopping 122 offensive rating became his career high. Both marks exceeded Irving’s.

His defensive versatility, passing and three-point shooting in one package is matched by few. Only a talent like Davis would have done justice for replacing him. Considering the Celtics’ woes at drafting bigs since the Kendrick Perkins trades it could take a decade to even approach his impact the position.

While Boston may not be playing for championships next year, the continued development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown depends on Horford. He’ll both keep the Celtics competitive, crucial for the spirit of the youth, and facilitate for them.

The beauty of Horford is that even though he’ll be the best player on next season’s team, he’ll allow it to become Tatum’s team.

Ainge will need to project how he builds the next championship Celtics team. That will demand quality draft picks and cap flexibility. An extension for Horford could hinder both of those things. The Celtics need to rebuild their culture as much as they do their talent though. Rewarding Horford for his services and keeping him around for the rest of the team helps there.

At a middling salary he could become a valuable trade piece down the line to maintain flexibility. That could be a factor that makes Horford hesitant. He’d solidify championship teams on many rosters across the league at this point, including the Rockets. At 33, he’s never won a championship and may not have a chance to in Boston.

Horford is uncertain about his player option for now. Opting in would allow him to get a massive payday for one more year before taking on a new challenge next year. He’s posted a 59% EFG percentage in the past three seasons, and his value continues to rise in that environment.

The Celtics would have been placed in a difficult position negotiating for Davis while Horford sat in limbo. Now their path forward is clear: bring him back.