There should have been no animosity toward Al Horford in his return to TD Garden because his departure worked out well for both sides. And there wasn’t. Horford received a standing ovation when he was shown on the video board after the opening quarter of Thursday night’s game.
The Philadelphia 76ers paid a hefty price for the stretch four they wanted, enticing Horford to leave the Celtics for a four-year, $109 million package and the opportunity to play alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
And because Horford departed unexpectedly, the Celtics gained a significant salary slot, acquired Kemba Walker, and continued their ascension in the Eastern Conference.
Would the Celtics have been better had they kept Horford? That’s an unfair question because it would have meant taking away Walker and inserting Terry Rozier as the starting point guard because the Celtics would not have been able to afford a point guard upgrade with Horford back.
Horford gave his all in his three seasons in Boston, but he made it clear why he left: A chance to win now. A chance to play with two of the league’s top 15 players and a chance to play power forward a majority of the time.
Obviously, he didn’t feel Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were quite at the Simmons-Embiid level.
“Just really looking at that opportunity [in Philadelphia]; I really felt like the opportunity to go over there and play alongside a guy like Joel and Ben,” Horford said. “It was something that was going to be hard for me to pass and to have that opportunity to I feel like win now was one of the things that really drove me.”
Horford missed Thursday’s return game with knee and hamstring soreness. It appeared legitimate as Horford did not participate in the team’s shootaround and didn’t feel game ready when he went through pregame workouts.
It was a heartwarming return, however. Horford was popular with his Celtics teammates as well as arena employees. He was a first-class gentleman, a leader by example who left his imprint on the organization.
“Al’s a really good person, he’s a really good player,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “We won a lot of games with him being a huge, huge part of what we did. I was just looking at his stats as I was getting ready for this game, it’s almost identical. He just brings the same thing to the table every day. He’s a great pro and we’re looking forward to competing against him.
“I thought that he gave us an unbelievable bump when he came here and you can see it when he’s on for Philly, as well.”
But when Horford couldn’t agree to a long-term extension with the Celtics and seemed to have an agreement ready to sign with Philadelphia (before the free agent period began), then the Celtics had to shift thoughts. Horford’s departure created enough salary cap space to sign Walker to a maximum deal.
The Celtics have tried to compensate for Horford’s absence at the center position, playing the quartet of Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, and Enes Kanter. The result has been a 17-6 record entering Thursday night’s game, the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics made out OK, and that’s what minimized the pain of Horford’s return in a rival 76ers uniform.
“I just credit our front office for writing up all the different scenarios on the board and going with the decision [to sign Walker],” Stevens said. “We had a number of free agents last year on our team we were going to have to make decisions on.
“We had the ‘With Al’ scenario and the ‘Without Al’ scenario. We would have loved to have had Al back, but at the same time we truly respected his decision. He got a great contract and a chance to play with a great organization. They have a really good team.
“But we were really happy with the direction we were able to move after that and to be able to come out of it and get Kemba was a huge blessing from a standpoint of what he’s added to our team.”
Horford said he and Stevens do keep in touch and talk about the success of the 76ers and Celtics. They are amicable. He appreciates the impact Stevens’s coaching has had on his career, turning him into more of a playmaker than he was during his years with the Atlanta Hawks.
“He’s great at what he does and the years that I was here, different players may be out and he was always finding out ways to put the team in a position to win, so that doesn’t surprise me,” Horford said. “But then you have guys like Jaylen Brown playing at an All-Star level, Jayson Tatum playing at an All-Star level, Kemba. They have talent. The talent is here, that’s why it is no surprise.”
Horford called signing with the Celtics in 2016 a “big leap of faith.” He was the first major free agent to sign with the Celtics in decades. Players in their prime didn’t come to Boston willingly. They had to be influenced. Horford was the first player to truly believe in Stevens’s ability to build a title contender.
“Leaving my stability and everything that I had in Atlanta, and then I didn’t realize that what I was building here was something I felt like was very special with this group,” he said. “It was definitely tougher when I had to make the decision to leave [Boston], but ultimately I understood that was the best decision for me to do.
“When I went back to Atlanta, it was something very new to me, I didn’t know what to expect. It was very emotional. Coming here, I knew what that’s like. I feel like I’m in a better place. I’m just disappointed I’m not able to play today.
“Regardless, I’ve got no hard feelings. It’s all love.”