At first glance, Boston’s explosive start to the 2017-18 season is a little unexpected. Not only did the team lose All Star wing Gordon Hayward, but the C’s have had to lean on new pieces and unproven young players. This was supposed to be a trying time.
Brad Stevens deserves credit for the team’s success. As does Kyrie Irving’s defensive effort and offensive wizardry. And Jaylen Brown’s improved game. And Jayson Tatum’s unbelievable talent. And on and on.
But perhaps the most brilliant piece to the puzzle, the engine behind Boston’s impressive play, is the man they call the Godfather.
A track record of leadership
Al Horford was a known quantity when he first arrived in Boston. An athletic big with a knack for passing and an ability to space the floor. He’s been this way since college. He deftly observes both his opponents and his teammates, and makes choices accordingly. Said his old coach Florida Billy Donovan,”You cannot put a price tag on his basketball IQ.” A proven All Star for a team on the rise.
Off the court, though, Horford’s intangibles may have been what was so alluring to a Celtics system predicated on smart, collective play. It’s Horford’s quite leadership that has earned him true Godfather status. He’s neither flashy nor chesty. He isn’t ill-tempered nor does he demand the spotlight. Instead, he is tremendously good at his job and ensures that those around him are also set up to win.
As a member of the Atlanta Hawks, the so-called Spurs of the East, Horford was the centerpiece for an offensive that demanded high-level execution. It wasn’t a system of shoot-first-as-questions-last. It was a team for which the right play mattered. The Godfather was the critical node for maintaining a steady hand.
“I draw on him during moments when I’m not poised,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer once explained. “He’ll say something calming to me, and to the team.”
A tranquil presence. A cerebral leader. He’s the kind of player you can build a culture around, the kind who can anchor the likes of Kyrie Irving and teach Boston’s young guns. He’s the perfect piece for this Celtics team.
Xs and Os
Beyond the intangibles and the platitudes, what Horford has been doing on the court really bolsters his claim to the Godfather nickname. Because he isn’t just a sage old vet; he’s also a lethal two-way weapon.
Al Horford’s game in one video. Block, rebound, run the floor, find the open man for the assist pic.twitter.com/SAcJl0USqt
— Joe Spinosa 🇮🇹🇺🇸 (@jjspinny) October 25, 2017
On defense, he shoulders the load against the league’s new crop of hybrid big men. The likes of Embiid, Porzingis, and Maker join Aldridge and Love, among others, as athletic and difficult defensive assignments. He’s grabbing 9.2 rebounds en route to a ridiculous 93.2 defensive rating.
His switches are clean and, in the rare instances that they’re not, he covers his tracks with A-level effort. While Boston’s backcourt is busy racking up steals and pestering ball-handlers, Horford is leading a front court ready to pick up any slack. With the help of Aron Baynes, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Morris, the Celtics are finally protecting the rim and rebounding the ball with consistency.
The Godfather is doing more than playing good defense. His passing has always kept opponents on their toes. Now, however, a proficiency from deep is turning Horford into an offensive juggernaut. Shooting 47.4 percent from three means he can’t be left alone on the perimeter and, perhaps more importantly, it makes reading an Irving-Horford pick nearly impossible.
Could Horford really be a successful leader in an organized crime family? I’d like to think so. We at least know that he be the standard-bearer for an elite basketball club.
I’m not the only one who thinks Horford is a critical piece in the Hub. Here’s what Brad Stevens said just a few days ago:
“Al’s really smart,” Stevens stated. “I don’t think you can just come in and talk. You have to come in and observe, learn, meet, create relationships and then when you choose your words you have to choose them carefully. Al’s the best at it. Al’s as good a role model for young players on and off the court, as there is.”
This summer Boston purged most of its roster, negating years of chemistry and standard-bearing. Horford isn’t just a bridge between two eras, but the foundation for what’s to come. Culture matters in the NBA, and having such a wise and reliable leader like Horford is a big deal.
The Celtics are doing something special, and poised to continue this trend. Whether this year or beyond, Boston figures to be among the conference’s best clubs for the foreseeable future. Focusing this new era around smart, winning basketball is essential, and with the Godfather at the helm, achievable.
Irving will earn the highlights, and the interviews, and even the MVP votes. The young guys will be showered with praise and energy. But it will be the Godfather who presides over this team’s destiny.
Please follow me on Twitter @CTabatabaie
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