This is not an ode to Al Horford or some ridiculous claim that he was better than Kyrie Irving.
The fact of the matter is, the Celtics found someone who can replace Irving in Kemba Walker. Is he as talented? No. Can the Celtics have more success with him than they did with Irving? Yes.
In some ways, because of what Irving does, he’s an easier player to replace than Horford. Irving is one of the best offensive players in the league, but he has yet to prove he can be a team’s No. 1 — or Batman, as everyone likes to keep repeating. And he’s only going to have a year to take on that role again, assuming Kevin Durant doesn’t make an early return toward the end of 2019-20.
But when it comes to Horford, it’s not easy to find a big man who could shoot from deep, go battle for rebounds and defend someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Not to mention, there aren’t many, if any, bigs who pass as well as he does.) “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind when trying to summarize Horford’s game, though it doesn’t seem to fully explain what he is.
Horford was, and still is, the perfect third piece on a “Big Three.” In addition to the reasons previously mentioned, he didn’t need to score a ton. He could when he wanted to, but only did when the Celtics needed him to.
This year’s (abbreviated) playoff run is a great example. Horford averaged 11 points per game in the first round against the Pacers and was not Boston’s third-highest scorer in a single game. When it came time for the Bucks, he averaged 18 points per game and shot 52.2 percent from three through the first four games, finishing second in scoring for Boston twice and third once. Game 5 did not go as well for Horford, but that isn’t the point.
We’ve seen guys like Kevin Love and Chris Bosh turn into lesser versions of themselves as third members of a “Big Three” because they couldn’t do what they do best: score. Horford’s game is built to survive and thrive in a setting where he doesn’t need to score. The Celtics just lost that. To the 76ers.