Analysis

How acquiring Al Horford could affect Robert Williams’ minutes for Celtics

"He’ll lean on every word Al says obviously, and they can make each other better."

Al Horford
How will Al Horford impact the Celtics' center rotation? AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File

For Brad Stevens and the Celtics’ new front office, the Al Horford acquisition was something close to a home run. The team offloaded Kemba Walker’s massive contract and cleared a path toward future financial flexibility while acquiring a player with institutional knowledge and a good relationship with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

“It was something that we needed to move on,” Stevens told reporters via Zoom on Monday, in his first comments to the media since his first trade as the Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations.

Horford’s return could be a fantastic fit for the Celtics, but some things have changed since he signed a four-year deal with the Philadelphia 76ers following Boston’s disastrous 2018-19 campaign. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown improved exponentially. Both Kyrie Irving and his successor Walker are elsewhere.

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Meanwhile, Robert Williams — who was just a rookie during Horford’s final season in Boston — looks comfortable and ready to start when healthy. The “when healthy” addendum is concerning given his history, but Williams has shown flashes as a rim-protecting big with elite vertical spacing and an intriguing eye as a passer.

Williams expressed admiration for Horford in December, and he appreciated Horford’s support after the veteran big signed with Philadelphia.

The dynamic now will be interesting, however. Horford played just 28 games in Oklahoma City, but he averaged 14.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, and his absence may have had more to do with OKC’s desire to draft Cade Cunningham than any worrisome health problem.

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“Al can move the needle,” Stevens said on Monday. “Al had a good year in Oklahoma City. Obviously didn’t play a ton of games … but statistically had a year that obviously applies across the board.”

The Celtics now have a logjam of potentially impactful bigs. Horford and Williams are two. Tristan Thompson still has another year remaining on his contract. The Celtics acquired Moses Brown in the Walker-Horford deal as well, a 7-foot-2 behemoth whose lateral defense is suspect but who gobbles up rebounds. Grant Williams is best utilized at small-ball center.

Another move is seemingly unavoidable, although Stevens noted that whoever he hires to coach could try multiple big lineups.

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“For instance, Tristan’s ability to switch and Tristan’s ability to rebound allows him to play with a spacer like Al, who also has a lot of flexibility,” Stevens said. “Rob’s ability to play in the dunker and hitting Al in the seams and playing with the lob game gives you flexibility. Those are things we’ll have to figure out. That won’t be as much my decision once those times come, once the roster is set. Then I’ll be out of that. Then whoever the coach is can figure out how they want to utilize everybody.”

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Multiple big lineups might not last, however. Last season, lineups with Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson struggled on both ends, particularly in the early going. Horford is a better shooter than Theis, but he isn’t Joe Harris.

If the Celtics decide to make moves, they will have options. Grant Williams is still young. Robert Williams is eligible for an extension on his rookie deal this summer, and any team interested in acquiring him would see his pending restricted free agency as additional value. Thompson is an expiring contract.

Still, a Horford-Robert Williams pairing might be more dynamic than Thompson and Theis, and Stevens maintained optimism about the duo.

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“Rob is a guy that really wants to be good,” Stevens said. “He is a listener — he wants to improve. He’ll lean on every word Al says, obviously, and they can make each other better.

“With those guys and Tristan and Moses, and we still have Tacko [Fall] on his contract — we have a lot of decisions to make but also a lot of flexibility. You’re talking about some really good players at that position. We’ll see how it all shakes itself out.”

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