A friend of mine recently brought up how Boston Celtics center Al Horford has a levels problem. Horford has been playing "one level up" his entire career. In Atlanta, he was the no. 1 option, and in Boston he’s the no. 2, behind Isaiah Thomas. But in reality, he should have been the second option in Atlanta, and in this new NBA, he should be the third option in a Boston Big Three. Once he’s in that role, assuming the Celtics add a perimeter scorer this offseason (through the draft or by acquiring an established star like Gordon Hayward or Paul George), Horford will finally be on the right level. He essentially becomes better the more his role shrinks.
Radical changes have hit the big-man position in the NBA, and Horford represents the evolving role of the 5. "[Al Horford’s] value to this team — you can’t describe it. It’s bigger than the stat sheet." This was Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, speaking after his 53-point performance in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Washington last week. Thomas got all the glory. Statistically, Horford was ordinary, scoring just 15 points, grabbing 12 rebounds, and handing out three assists. But Horford was anything but a big-money bystander: The center’s play beyond the box score was an example of the immense impact stretch 5s can make across the league, even when they aren’t posting lofty numbers.
In previous eras, contenders relied on big men as a consistent source of offense. But in the new league, the most important thing someone like Horford can do for his team is to space the floor and make plays when he needs to. Young bigs across the league could learn a lot by watching Boston’s big man.
Not everyone is onboard with this evolution. There’s still an expectation that a max-contract big man needs to produce counting numbers to hold value. Huge franchise investments like the one Boston made in Horford can cause fans and radio pundits agita, demanding bang for the team’s buck in the form of big box-score numbers. But in the modern NBA, a stretch center can still play an important role simply by stretching. For these players, points and rebounds are secondary to spacing the floor and letting the ball handlers go to work.
Thomas is effectively in a one-on-one situation here against Otto Porter Jr. You could digitally edit out the eight other players on the court, and the result would be the same. The lane opens because Marcin Gortat is being pulled out of the paint by Horford. Draymond Green was the only big man who tallied more assists per game (seven) than Horford (five) this season, but Horford’s movement is its own kind of assist. The beauty of basketball is a player doesn’t need to touch the ball to make an impact on the game.
Here’s a second example, this time from the first-round series against the Bulls:
Again, the paint is wide open because Robin Lopez is glued to Horford. If a non-shooting center, like Jahlil Okafor or Enes Kanter, is standing out there instead of Horford, there’s no reason for Lopez to play so close. He could clog the paint, making it either a more difficult play for Thomas or a nonstarter.
Thomas scored 1.1 points per possession in isolation plays during the regular season, per Synergy, and much of the credit should go to Horford. Even when Horford scores, it’s because the defense overplays the Little Guy, leaving the big man open:
Centers creating space has become an essential component of high-octane NBA offenses ever since the Warriors’ Lineup of Death took the league by storm two years ago. The Warriors set the coordinates for the NBA’s future, as The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote. More and more teams are employing small-ball lineups. Here’s LeBron James going one-on-one with a full head of steam, which should be illegal, with Serge Ibaka unable to help because he has to run to the corner to defend Kevin Love:
We’ve all seen it before. If Ibaka crashes the paint, LeBron kicks the ball out to Love for an open 3. Love scored five points on seven shots in Cleveland’s Game 4 win over Toronto. Sometimes his quiet nights are every bit as important as the big ones, because he’s creating room for LeBron and Kyrie Irving. When Love has his high-scoring performances, which he’s still capable of, it’s because the defense has been helping on LeBron or Kyrie drives, freeing Love for open opportunities.
Like Love, Horford is criticized for not always performing traditional big-man duties. Horford is knocked for his rebounding, and rim protection is Love’s flaw. You could argue there are better roster constructions for the Cavs that don’t involve Love, but with the team they have, he does what he’s asked to do at the highest level he can. Even if Horford and Love aren’t putting up max-contract numbers, they’re making max-level contributions within their defined roles.
Only the Rockets shot a higher distribution of 3s than the Cavaliers and Celtics this season. At a fundamental level, these offenses are designed to provide the lead ball handler with as much space as possible, to either attack in a one-on-one or make a play for someone else. "With [LeBron and Kyrie Irving] playing downhill, they’re very tough to stop," Love said following Game 4. "When the defense crashes in, we’re all out on the perimeter ready to shoot, I think that’s where you see the efficiency on the 3-point shot."
The Rockets generated a record amount of 3-pointers this season, typically playing with one traditional big man who set screens and rolled into the paint. They sparingly played with a "five-out" offense, featuring a center who could shoot 3s. When they’ve done it, the offensive results can look like this, with Ryan Anderson spacing out toward the outer reaches of the galaxy, and James Harden feeling the benefit:
It’s comical when you think about it; there’s nobody in the paint to stop three of the league’s most dominant scorers: LeBron, Isaiah, Harden. Russell Westbrook must be jealous. The game shouldn’t be that easy for All-NBA players. The league values shooting and ball movement more than ever, but perhaps an isolation renaissance is coming, just with a new twist. It would certainly be an ironic ripple effect of the floor-spacing craze!
Defense still matters, though. The Rockets don’t play Anderson at the 5 very often because the results haven’t been pretty defensively. Love isn’t a lockdown player, but he’s an elite positional rebounder. Horford rebounds like a guard, but he’s a master of angles, rotating and communicating on defense. Boston coach Brad Stevens has referred to Horford has an "anchor," an apt description for a player whose job isn’t to shine but to merely keep the team steady.
Our perception of the center position needs to change. One thing that seems like a given, at least from the execs I’ve talked to, is that the league will keep getting smaller. I’m not sure how small, but more and more teams will follow Golden State’s formula. The Cavs essentially become a carbon copy of the Warriors when they put Love at center. The Celtics have their own B-grade version with Horford and Thomas serving as their Draymond and Stephen Curry.
There will always be superstar bigs like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid. There will be Defensive Player of the Year candidates like Draymond Green. The players I’m interested in are the guys like Horford and Love, who don’t put up big numbers because they aren’t asked to. Is the big man really dead? I don’t think so — they just look different than we’re used to. The NBA just evolved and demands them to be more complementary than featured.
Maybe we’ll be saying that about the non-superstar centers entering the league in the coming years. There is no Towns or Embiid in the 2017 NBA draft, but it does have a handful of potential "do-it-alls" (like Zach Collins and Justin Patton), floor spacers (like Lauri Markkanen), and rim runners (like Bam Adebayo and Ike Anigbogu). I’m curious to see where they’re drafted and how their value changes as the NBA evolves.
The chances of a 2017 pick contributing toward winning on a contending team as a rookie or second-year player are slim. Teams should be drafting with an eye toward production in 2019 or 2020 and beyond. It’s unclear what the league will look like then, but the game we have today might be giving us a strong indication, where players like Horford and Love are paid the max for their presence, not their numbers.