Call it a tribute and call it the truth. Al Horford would have fit beautifully on any Celtics team of any era.
All right, maybe not every era. He would have stood out for a lot of reasons in the prehistoric age of the set-shot-chucking goofy white dudes, though his own deadeye shot sometimes looks like a relic of those times.
But isn’t it easy to see him as the smooth sidekick to Bill Russell in the 1950s and ’60s, or as a gentler but just as respected Paul Silas stand-in in the ’70s, or a selfless sharer of the basketball in the Larry Legend ’80s, or even someone who would have been a perfect complement rather than a competitor to the New Big Three earlier this century?
It all works. They all win. Horford’s smart, versatile game is malleable to any winning era in Celtics history.
Which is why it’s such a bummer, perhaps more so than all of the other assorted recent bummers that have left Danny Ainge’s best-laid plans in tatters, that he might not be a part of the next one.
Horford declined his $30.1 million player option for the 2019-20 season, which is not a surprise. What is a surprise — though we now realize that it should not have been — is that he is not doing it to sign a longer deal with the Celtics at a lesser rate. He’s doing it to move on, to presumably pursue a championship elsewhere (with a lucrative new long-term contract) now that winning one here any time soon seems about as likely as a Pervis Ellison comeback.
We should have known that this might happen. Heck, we should have known it would probably happen. While Horford clearly enjoyed Boston, once he opted out, we should have known that a frenzy of sharks would show up in those free agent waters, offering him opportunities to get paid and win that no longer can be promised in unison here.
Horford would have fit with every great Celtics team, every one of the 17 that put a banner in the Garden rafters. Of course any team in the NBA with cap room and legitimate championship dreams would want him. We should have known that once he opted out, it was going to be very tough to bring him back in, especially with the relative turmoil the Celtics are dealing with.
I assume no deep-dive of a rehash is necessary. You know what’s gone wrong, and when, and now you just wonder when it’s going to stop.
Ainge did virtually everything right in rebuilding the Celtics after age caught up to the New Big Three. He stole a bounty of draft picks from the soon-to-be-hapless Nets, made the inspired hire of Brad Stevens, signed Horford, drafted Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, signed Gordon Hayward, and traded for a rising star who wanted his own team in Kyrie Irving.
Ainge aced the team-building calculus. Entering this past season, the Celtics were, justifiably, the popular choice to do what the Raptors just did — take down a Golden State dynasty made vulnerable by injuries.
And then he found out that the best-laid plans can be ruined on a whim, a twist, lousy breaks both literal and figurative. Hayward snapped his leg 6½ minutes into his Celtics career in the 2017-18 opener, but he was back this past season to join a richly and diversely talented roster.
Excellence was anticipated, but instead the season brought a prolonged, disappointing revelation: The pieces just weren’t compatible. Hayward got minutes when he wasn’t ready, and the young players losing those minutes chafed. Tatum showed up with an array of new moves that looked an awful lot like a collection of Kobe Bryant’s bad habits. The backup point guard became such a me-first gunner that he should have changed his name to World B. Rozier.
And most damningly, Irving proved again and again what kind of ugly chaos can ensue when your best player wants to be perceived as the leader but has no interest in actually doing it.
Man oh man are there going to be some stories about him after he’s gone. We’re going to find out the depths of how detrimental he actually was. I had to laugh when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Nets might not want him in free agency as “a solo act,’’ meaning without an accompanying superstar also signing on. Welp. Brooklyn, that’s exactly what he is, no matter who his teammates happen to be.
Celtics fans found this out the hard way, but they know it’s the truth now. Which is why, as we’ve reached this point of seemingly inevitable departure for Irving and Horford, that the perception of the two players is so different.
The social media waters suggest a strong consensus: Fans are respectful of Horford’s decision — he’s 33, he did everything he could here, he deserves a chance to win — and resentful of Irving’s.
This is how it should be. Horford is receiving the kind of respect that happens when you build up goodwill, when you try to do the right thing even when it doesn’t benefit you or your brand, when your contributions on the basketball court make your teammates better.
Horford didn’t win a championship here, but otherwise he was a quintessential Celtic.
He was everything Irving wanted us to think he was, but never intended to be.