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Gary Washburn | On basketball

So what happens now with the Celtics and Al Horford?

The talking isn’t done, but the time in green might be short for Al Horford (left) and Kyrie Irving.
The talking isn’t done, but the time in green might be short for Al Horford (left) and Kyrie Irving.(file/Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

It seemed way too easy in this current free agent climate for Al Horford to opt out of the final year of his Celtics contract and then sign a neat, three-year extension for a reduced price, albeit with added security.

The Celtics counted on this happening. But with several teams having money to spend, Horford has decided to explore his options.

As a result, the Celtics are no closer to an NBA title than they were when Horford arrived three years ago.

The Celtics can still sign Horford, but probably at a four-year, $100 million rate, which would adversely affect their salary-cap flexibility. Then again, the Celtics have been preparing for the future for so long that the present has been slipping away before their eyes.

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Horford is important to the Celtics’ fabric, he is the Uncle Phil of the team, the voice of reason, the pillar of maturity, showing the younger players how to survive and thrive in the NBA.

At age 33, Horford was the old man of the locker room. Before a game this season at TD Garden, the players were discussing where they were 10 years ago. Jayson Tatum asked Horford where he was 10 years ago and then answered his own question.

“Damn Al, you were in the league 10 years ago,” he said laughing. “I was in fifth grade.”

That was a classic example of what separated Horford from his teammates and how much of a generational gap there was between him and the younger players.

His leadership and defense is important, near critical. But how much is it worth? How will president of basketball operations Danny Ainge feel when Horford signs a four-year deal with the Lakers or Nets or Bucks or another title-contending team?

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The answer is it depends on the alternative. Can the Celtics make another move to bring in a veteran who can provide as much? It’s possible. Horford is not indispensable, but his potential departure is a sign that the team’s structure is slowly deteriorating, and the Celtics will have to depend on youth to carry them through.

There comes a time where you have to invest in your investments, you have to overpay players who are loyal and valuable. It may come back to haunt you in the end, but that’s how you keep an organization relevant. Everything in the NBA can’t be done with total ration, and the Celtics have been so rational over the past five years that they have been burned by their conservatism.

They didn’t want to invest enough assets to get Anthony Davis, which was the right move, but now they want to pay Horford exactly what they feel he’s worth and, of course, he believes he’s worth more.

There remains time. The Celtics could call Horford’s representatives and strike up a new deal, if they add a fourth year. Horford would be 37 at the end of such a deal, but he takes good care of himself and is capable of playing four productive years.

However, his salary in the final years of that contract would likely be a salary-cap anchor. That’s the way the NBA is. You pay your debts on the back end for services provided on the front end.

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Forcing Horford into free agency may be an astute move for the Celtics, but right now it feels as if the family is being broken up, the voice of reason is departing, the one player the Celtics could consistently rely upon is headed elsewhere because other teams appreciate him more.

It’s about time the Celtics take some chances. And this chance is the most likely to work in the end. Horford was a guaranteed 13 points and seven rebounds each night, and he fought off recurring knee pain and other ailments to become a staple in the lineup.

Of course, he will age. He won’t be the player at 35 that he was at 33, and that contract could be regrettable, but the alternative is watching quality veterans walk away with no compensation. To see Horford sign with an Eastern Conference contender and make a title run would be painful for Celtics faithful.

So the organization has about two weeks to make a decision. It can step up its offer and re-sign a player who truly enjoys Boston, and then chase other pieces to help maintain respectability.

If an alternative is better, perhaps bringing in a younger player, then maybe this is the right move. But right now it doesn’t seem that way.

There’s an unsettling feeling in Boston, the premonition that what Ainge has built is about to collapse quickly — primarily because they didn’t take enough chances.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.

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