The Boston Celtics would not have become the first NBA team to reach 30 wins this season without the contributions of Al Horford. Now in the second year of the massive contract he signed in the 2016 offseason, Horford has anchored the Celtics on both ends of the floor with his consistency and basketball IQ. He’s having the best season of his career as a primary offensive facilitator, ace three-point shooter, and defensive anchor.
With the Celtics getting a rare bit of rest in recent days, I’ve been thinking about Horford’s long-term legacy. Now in Year 11 in the NBA and on the wrong side of 30, the prime of his career is coming to a close and we’re starting to see the broader picture of his time in the league. Based on the information we have now and what we can safely predict from the third act of his NBA career, can Al Horford make a case for the Hall of Fame?
Let’s qualify Horford’s chances of induction by looking at a few of the criteria he’ll be evaluated on.
We’ll start with the simplest measure of Horford’s performance: his numbers. Horford doesn’t necessarily stand out by your typical box score stats; his career average of 14 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a block isn’t a line most people would go crazy about.
Advanced metrics are where Horford’s greatness starts to become apparent. Would you say he’s a top-75 player in the modern era? The numbers sure do — Basketball Reference has Horford at 62nd all-time in box plus-minus (+3.1), 55th in defensive box plus-minus (+2.3) and 74th in Win Shares per 48 minutes (.159). He’s only had one season with a negative net rating – his rookie year – and his teams have been three or more points better with him on the court in eight of his 11 seasons. He’s also become better with age; his +8.3 net rating this season is the best mark of his career.
Over the past few years, Horford’s game has evolved in two notable ways. The first, and most obvious, has been how he’s expanded his range out behind the three-point arc. After taking only 29 triples total across his first eight seasons, Horford had a 36-attempt trial period in the 2014. Apparently the trial was a success, because he took 256 threes the following season. This year, it’s possible that he could reach the 300-attempt mark for the first time in his career.
The second change has been Horford’s increased role as a facilitator. He’s always been a capable passer, but Brad Stevens has elevated his responsibility far beyond what he did in Atlanta. His assist rate with the Hawks sat at a respectable 14%; with Boston, that rate now sits over 25%. He’s often responsible for bringing the ball up-court and initiating the offense, and you could argue that he’s technically the second-best point guard on the team in that regard.
These new dimensions bode well for Horford’s NBA longevity. Frontcourt players who can shoot and pass on his level just aren’t easy to find. Here is the list of NBA centers to log 2,000 assists and 200 made threes in their careers:
Note that Horford makes the cut despite playing nearly 200 fewer games than anybody else. He has the highest eFG% by far, and only Sikma has him beat in usage rate; that combination of volume and efficiency makes him historically unique, though the generation that follows him will surely add a few more players to this list.
Through his first 10 seasons, Horford appeared in four All-Star games (2010, 2011, 2015, 2016), one All-NBA team (2011 Third Team), and the All-Rookie team (2008 First Team). It’s a surprisingly thin collection for a player of his caliber. In particular, it’s eye-opening to see that he hasn’t received a single All-Defense selection despite his prowess on that end of the court.
A fifth All-Star appearance for Horford is a near certainty this season, however. He’s the second-best player on the Eastern Conference’s top seed and he’s having perhaps the best season of his career in terms of overall value. Additionally, that elusive All-Defense appearance seems probable; though he might not make the first team. His importance to the Celtics’ impressive defense will make it difficult to justify leaving him out. Sneaking into the top three for Defensive Player of the Year would be icing on the cake, as would a surprise Third Team All-NBA appearance.
As our benevolent CelticsHub overlord Ryan Bernardoni pointed out, the benchmark for the Hall typically sits around seven All-Star game selections. Can Horford hit that mark? I’m not sure.
A sixth appearance would be a reasonable bet next season, as he should be an important contributor to another talented Celtics team. Beyond that though, he’ll be 33 years old in an Eastern Conference loaded with young forwards and centers. Assuming players like Giannis Antetokoumpo, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid are locks, Horford will find himself competing with the next tier of young talent – the Aaron Gordons and Myles Turners of the conference – for a spot. He isn’t getting any younger; it’s possible Father Time might just close the window on him in that regard.
NBA Team Success
Horford isn’t typically mentioned as one of the most prolific winners in the NBA, but he probably should be. Horford has lived in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Remarkably, his teams have never failed to make the postseason (although he did miss the 2014 Playoffs due to injury). This year’s Celtics don’t seem likely to break that trend and, assuming they win their first-round matchup, he’ll have appeared in over 100 playoff games through 11 NBA seasons. You don’t want to make too many assumptions about future success, but barring disaster, they seem to likely to return the next two seasons as well. If you’re keeping track at home, that would make him 13-for-13 in playoff appearances in his career, all of them coming on rosters where he was a top-three player. That is staggering.
The problem is that, before Boston, Horford hadn’t played on any teams that really registered in the public consciousness. Early in his career, the Hawks were more or less playoff filler — one of those teams that existed to lose in six games in the first or second round. In six seasons under coaches Mike Woodson and Larry Drew, the Hawks won an average of 44 games and never made it out of the second round. Injuries hampered the 2013-14 Hawks in their first year with coach Mike Budenholzer and forward Paul Millsap, but the 2014-15 team won 60 games and finally broke through to the Conference Finals… before getting swept by LeBron James. Such is life in the Eastern Conference.
While those 60-win Hawks might be the most underrated team of the decade, the fact is that the national spotlight has just never shone on Atlanta basketball. Much of Horford’s work there came in relative obscurity. That’s no longer the case in Boston, for better or worse — Horford now plays on a much more visible platform, and the stakes are likewise much higher. Last season was a good start, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in his career, but the Celtics are likely going to need to be more competitive against the East’s elite before the monkey will really be off his back.
One significant question: will these Celtics be good enough to win a title? “Top-three player on an NBA champion” is a massive resume piece, especially considering Boston would more than likely have to go through LeBron and either the Warriors or Rockets to do it. The truth of fringe Hall of Fame candidacies is that situation and teammates decide a lot.
This is the Basketball Hall of Fame, not the NBA Hall of Fame. That’s good news for Horford, who gets to pad his resume with two consecutive NCAA championships (2006, 2007), an All-American selection (2007), and an SEC Tournament MVP (2007). Additionally, he has three medals in international play with the Dominican Republic (two bronze and one gold), although he’s never appeared in the Olympics.
Much like Horford’s Hawks teams, those Florida championships might be a little overlooked. Florida is rarely considered to be among the NCAA’s elite programs. Nevertheless, since John Wooden led UCLA to seven consecutive titles from 1967-73, there have been only two schools to win back-to-back championships: Duke in 1991-92 and Horford’s Gators. That’s no small accomplishment, and has to be considered when evaluating Horford’s case for the Hall.
While thinking about Horford’s overall chances for induction, one player sitting similarly on the bubble kept coming to mind: Shawn Marion. Marion was a key piece to Mike D’Antoni’s infamous “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, and he won an NBA championship with the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks. Though he was seldom (if ever) the best player on his team, Marion’s versatility and ability to stuff a box score were unmatched. However, despite being one of the most versatile defenders of the 2000s and a prolific scorer early in his career, Marion was named to only four All-Star teams and made only two Third Team All-NBA appearances. Despite leading the league in steals twice, he was never selected to an All-Defense team. The Matrix might honestly be one of the most underappreciated players in NBA history.
The similarities between Marion and Horford are intriguing. They’re both largely underrated by casual fans, likely because their contributions came in forms that people don’t always appreciate. Good defense is a difficult thing for people to recognize. If you’re not a prolific shot-blocker or a lockdown 1-on-1 presence it’s just hard to stand out. Like Horford, Marion excelled with versatility and basketball IQ, and it’s hard to get people hyped about things like “making good switches” and “consistently being in the right place.” Additionally, both players lacked the traditional “Alpha Dog” persona that fans love so much, as neither has ever been particularly vocal. The top results in a Google search for “Shawn Marion quotes” are all generic sports-speak, which tells you all you really need to know.
The two players are even in All-Star games at four apiece, and if Horford manages to sneak onto an All-NBA roster before he retires, they’ll be even in that respect as well. They’re also equal in career BPM, with Marion recording a +3.2 and Horford a +3.1. Their numbers per 100 possessions are eerily similar — 22-13-5-1-2 on 54% eFG% for Horford and 22-13-3-2-2 on 51% for Marion. Though Horford has never been the scoring threat that Marion was early in his career, he’s currently one of the two most important players on a contending team at 31 — an age where Marion was settling into a supporting role with the Dallas Mavericks. Marion won a championship at age 32 with those Mavericks, to be sure, but he wasn’t asked to carry the kind of overall burden Horford is now.
While I find the comparison interesting, it creates a problem for Horford’s candidacy by default: Shawn Marion is not a Hall of Famer, and it’s unclear whether he will ultimately make it in. Horford has a big advantage in his college career; Marion did play for Team USA and win an Olympic medal, but it’s hard to say if a bronze is a plus or minus when you play for America. Though I think Marion is deserving of induction, his bubble status creates something of a bar for Horford to clear going forward.
Ultimately, we still have a simple question to answer: Where do we stand on Al Horford as a Hall of Fame candidate?
I don’t think it’s out of the question. By and large, it’s safe to say that he’s not a Hall of Famer based off his NBA performance to date alone. Basketball Reference reflects this — their estimation of his Hall of Fame probability has him at only 4.2%.
We’re not inducting Al Horford to the Hall of Fame based on just his first 10.5 NBA seasons, though. He still has five or six years of NBA basketball left in him at a minimum, and there’s a lot that can be accomplished over that span of time. Being arguably the best player on only the second NCAA team to win consecutive NCAA Tournaments since John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty helps, too.
I believe the next two seasons may be make-or-break for Horford’s chances of induction. These Celtics have the best opportunity for postseason success that Horford has seen in his NBA career, and the increased spotlight on Boston gives him the opportunity to show people just how good he really is. It helps that he has a coach in Brad Stevens who – like Budenholzer before him – will put him in the best possible situations to succeed even as age starts to catch up with him.
If you’ve come here expecting a strong take for or against Al Horford’s Hall of Fame candidacy, you’ve unfortunately been bamboozled. I don’t have one yet. Horford’s career still earns an “Incomplete” from me. What I will say is that it’s much more of a possibility than many want to believe. Twitter likes to debate the Hall of Fame credentials of guys like Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony when those players are already mortal locks to be inducted. In reality, the bubble looks a lot more like Shawn Marion or Al Horford — players who were always good-to-great, but were never necessarily associated with basketball’s elite. If Horford retires with a 16+ year career of consistent, high-quality play and a long track record of postseason experience, does that make him a Hall of Famer? Perhaps it should.