Celtics fans have forever prided themselves on knowledge, on identifying and appreciating nuance. There was a time when all of the local sports media, even those scraping the bottom of the bog on sports radio, did too.
That hardwood wisdom was a generational thing, passed from one to the next, like a Dennis Johnson half-court bullet pass to Larry Bird sneaking backdoor. The heritage and history of the Celtics and their fans’ informed appreciation of them can be traced through eras, our personal basketball ancestry.
Through the seasons, we learned, from anecdotes from our elders and eventually our own experiences, that, oh, K.C. Jones didn’t need to average 8 points per game to have a Hall of Fame-caliber impact; that Bob McAdoo’s 20.6 points per game in 1978-79 sure as heck didn’t make him more valuable than Paul Silas and his 10.7 points per game in 1975-76; or, say, that Cedric Maxwell could be counted upon to put the Celtics on his back in big moments as reliably as almost any bigger-name forward in franchise lore.
Nowadays, it sometimes feels as though all of that nuanced knowledge is lost to the past, a nostalgic notion that should be acknowledged on a plaque at the Garden (“When Our Fans Knew The Game”).
How else to explain the almost deliberate lack of appreciation for Al Horford?
I should issue some exemptions before acknowledging the depth of the “Average Al’’ foolishness. Celtics Twitter is generally wonderful, a funny and informative accompaniment to watching the game, and many of the beat writers fit into that vibe. It might be the only decent thing about Twitter at this point.
Celtics Twitter digs Horford. And there’s irony in the unscientific realization that younger fans seem to appreciate the myriad things Horford usually does to help the Celtics win more than the older generations do. Maybe that’s a benefit of growing up watching Kevin Garnett, who along with Tim Duncan was the co-ultimate unselfish superstar of his time.
But my generation was raised on what intelligent high-level basketball is supposed to look like. Yet so many like me who grew up in the ’80s dismiss Horford. I try to make sense of it, but it just leaves me disappointed and annoyed that a defense remains necessary.
No, Horford does not put up quintessential stats for a high-end power forward. He is not a 20-and-10 guy. And he makes money by the stack — a base salary of $27.7 million this year — which suggests to some who mistakenly believe there’s some correlation between player salaries and ticket prices that he should hit those statistical markers.
But that’s not who he is, and thank goodness the Celtics knew this when they outbid the Wizards, Hawks, and Thunder, among others, to bring him to Boston, the first true coveted, big-money free agent signing in Celtics history.
Horford has been in the league since 2007. The Celtics knew what they were getting. True NBA fans knew what they were getting. He was exactly what they needed on their front line. Even amid the disappointment of missing out on Kevin Durant, the Celtics were ecstatic to get him, and those who didn’t get it in the first place have had more than a year and a half now to understand why.
Here is what we should see when we watch Al Horford: A remarkably versatile big man who can guard virtually anyone inside the paint or on a switch on the perimeter, knock down the 3-pointer (43.3 percent this year), dish the ball like a guard (4.9 assists per game), score when called upon (12.8 ppg), rebound capably (7.5 rpg), show up for big games (he slashed 15.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.5 assists while shooting 51.9 percent on threes last postseason, and he submitted some tour de force individual performances, most notably in Game 5 against the Wizards), and teach his younger teammates what professionalism looks like.
Here is what Brad Stevens sees in Horford; these are his comments after Horford was named to his fifth All-Star team earlier this season:
“It’s good to see a guy that may not have the ‘stats’ that other people have recognized for all that he brings to the table, night in, night out, on both ends of the court.
“He’s a huge, huge reason why we’re where we are. And he has a huge influence on everybody in our locker room. He came here a four-time All-Star. He came here nothing but a winner. And I think we’ve all benefited more from him than he’s benefited from us.”
None of this, not a syllable, is meant to suggest Horford should be excused from criticism. Until the Bulls game Monday, he had played poorly since the All-Star break. He made a brutal (and uncharacteristic) mistake in the loss to the Rockets, turning over the ball with a bizarre pass to nowhere while he was flat on the floor. He should shoot more. Aesthetically, he’s not always a fun player to watch, especially when his mechanical shot isn’t falling.
But his detractors have such desperation to be right that the criticism also comes with undertones of eagerness. It’s snide. “Oh, can’t criticize Al! He’s untouchable! Celtics fans are so sensitive!”
Some of it is sports radio noise, which can be easily ignored. There are lots of excellent podcasts these days, many that don’t cause the blood pressure to soar. But it’s disheartening how many fans parrot what they hear on the radio.
Horford isn’t a perfect player. When this team has a genuine shot at an 18th banner, perhaps next season when Gordon Hayward is healthy, he will be their third-best player at best.
What he is, unquestionably, is a winning player, the kind who would fit on any Celtics team of any generation. Once upon a time, we recognized that around here without a reminder.