We are in the final days PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past month we’ve tackled 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. Today:
Does Al Horford change the perception of the Celtics?
This summer, Al Horford shattered the myth that Boston couldn’t attract elite free agents.
It was always a perception that lived more in the heads of frustrated Celtics fans than it did NBA reality. The Larry Bird-era Celtics didn’t attract free agents because there wasn’t free agency until that dynasty was starting to slide (and free agency didn’t fully take hold for a few years after that). Then the Celtics struggled for a long stretch, and we know it’s hard to get players to go to a team that’s not winning. During the most-recent big three era, the Celtics did land name free agents — Rasheed Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Terry — that helped round out a roster already loaded with stars.
The past couple of summers, Celtics fans saw the potential, but the reality was the team was not yet ready to win on the big market — even as much as players raved about Brad Stevens as coach. It took the Celtics getting to 48 wins and showing real promise to get the attention of top free agents. Last summer the Celtics finally in position, and they got their man in Horford.
Now Horford should put that perception to rest.
For one thing, he will throw open the door to more wins — just through the preseason the spacing of the Celtics’ offense looks better than last season. Watching them through these games, the early high dribble-hand-off move the Celtics often use between Horford and Isaiah Thomas to initiate the offense has defenses spread out. Follow that with good ball movement off the multiple actions from that early set and defenses scramble with help coverages. Celtics are getting open looks. The Celtics pretty-good-but-defendable-in-the-playoffs offense of last season already looks far more dangerous, plus we know Horford will help on defense, too.
Horford puts the Celtics on the brink of contention, either the second or third best team in the East (depending on what you think of Toronto). If you’re worried about perception, know that other players (and their agents) notice that. They notice the ball movement, they notice the players like the coach. Another strong season will cement Boston as a team where other stars will want to go because of that coach, because of the system, because they can win, and most importantly because they can get paid (it’s always about the money).
In that sense, Horford does change the perceptions of the Celtics. Although Stevens had already started that process, opening the door for Horford.
It remains more likely that the next star the Celtics land is via trade. They have the picks, they have the young players a team losing a star and considering a rebuild likely wants, plus they have a couple interesting veterans whose contracts only have a couple of years left — Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas. It’s the worst-kept secret in the NBA — right up there with Rudy Gay is not loving Sacramento — that Celtics’ GM Danny Ainge is working the phones for any star player who becomes available. What’s holding those deals up is not a perception of the Celtics, it’s that trading for a star is difficult. Very difficult.
Celtics fans, enjoy what should be a very special season. Boston had the point differential of a 50-win team last season, and Horford makes them better on a number of levels. This is a team poised for a strong regular season and a deep playoff run. They are still a player away from challenging the team LeBron James is on, but so is everyone else east of Oakland. That shouldn’t diminish the joy of the ride this season.
And know the perception around the league of the Celtics is very good.