Al Horford has played in 1,005 regular-season and playoff games during his NBA career and plans to add to that total considerably before he is done. So when the Thunder approached him last March and said they wanted to shut him down for the season to focus on developing their younger players, Horford was uneasy.
He understood he was not in Oklahoma City’s long-term plans. He was sent there after the 2019-20 season by the 76ers solely because Philadelphia was looking to shed his four-year, $109 million contract. But he figured he would at least be able to play as he waited to see where he would end up next. Ultimately, though, he viewed this unusual predicament as an opportunity.
He would essentially use the rest of the season as an extended training camp before jumping into an extended offseason. There was time to refine his game while keeping tread on his tires.
“I just focused on what I could do better and just put myself in a position to feel really good physically and to be able to hopefully land on a team I could make an impact,” Horford said Tuesday, following the first Celtics practice of the season.
Although Horford was not playing and was almost certainly not going to be on the roster beyond the season, the Thunder did not treat him as an outsider. Horford worked extensively with assistant coach Dave Bliss. On offense, they focused on finishing near the basket and shooting jumpers on the move and more quickly. On defense, Bliss caught up Horford on the league’s rapidly evolving pick-and-roll schemes.
During the grind of a normal season, off-court work is centered on rest and recovery. But Horford was able to intensify his weight-room sessions while also experimenting with new approaches to physical therapy.
“Even though they were focused on the young guys, it was kind of like I was a young guy, too,” Horford said. “That year for me was very beneficial, learning a lot and watching a lot of film with them. I kind of felt like a rookie again.”
At Horford’s season-ending exit interview, Thunder general manager Sam Presti told Horford that the team would likely trade him as the NBA Draft approached. He also said that while he could not make any promises, he would do all he could to send Horford to a winning team.
Horford made it clear that Boston was one of his desired destinations. When he signed a four-year deal with Boston in July 2016, he was hopeful that he could help the team win a championship. The Celtics made the conference finals in Horford’s first two seasons, but the momentum fizzled there.
After Boston was knocked out of the playoffs by the Bucks in the 2019 conference semifinals, Horford opted out of the final year of his deal and signed with Philadelphia, which had offered a contract that Boston did not match.
While Horford stopped short of saying he regretted that decision, he said that his time away from Boston made him realize what he had with the Celtics.
In late June Horford’s agent, Jason Glushon, called and said there was some sudden momentum behind a deal with the Celtics. Boston’s new president of basketball operations, Brad Stevens, had been Horford’s coach with the Celtics and constantly gushed about his value. Now, while looking for a way to shed Kemba Walker’s four-year max salary, there was a chance to bring back Horford.
On June 18, Horford was driving home with his family after having dinner at his mother’s house in Atlanta when Stevens called with some news. The Celtics had traded Walker, the No. 16 pick in the draft, and a 2025 second-round pick to the Thunder in exchange for Horford, center Moses Brown, and a 2023 second-round choice.
“My family and I were all just jumping and screaming,” Horford said. “It was so exciting, because I know what kind of place this is. I didn’t want to be any other place but here. It’s taken me being away from here and having to go through what I went through to really realize that.”
When Horford signed with Boston five years ago, he was viewed as a cornerstone of a championship contender. Now, the expectations and his role have been reset a bit. He is 35 years old, and Boston is coming off a frustrating 36-36 season.
Still, Horford is excited about the possibilities as he reunites with former Celtics teammates such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams.
“We kind of all started growing here together and building the relationships and chemistry,” Horford said. “It just felt for me, it just feels like I never left. It honestly feels like I never left.”