The so-called “team without a star” just landed a big one.
The Celtics have agreed to sign unrestricted free agent center Al Horford to a four-year, $113 million maximum contract, according to Yahoo Sports and USA Today Sports. Horford, 30, averaged 15.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 3.2 APG while earning his fourth career All-Star nod with the Hawks last season. After spending the entirety of his nine-year career in Atlanta, where he made the playoffs every season, Horford joins a Celtics team that’s on the rise and flush with future draft assets.
News of the agreement comes one day after the Hawks agreed to sign center Dwight Howard to a three-year, $71 million contract. Howard will now fill the hole created by Horford’s departure.
This is a strong marriage of team and player, one that could help vault Boston out of the East’s packed middle and into the conference’s upper echelon. The on-the-rise Celtics were ready to take the next step toward contention while Horford needed a spot from which to compete during the tail end of his prime years and a franchise that has proven it can get over the hump from being “very good” to “great.” Together, Horford and the Celtics could become the East’s top threats to LeBron James and the Cavaliers as soon as next season.
Aside from Kevin Durant (and LeBron James, if you count him), Horford was the best player in this year’s free agent class, a versatile two-way big who can function effectively as a power forward or a center. An unselfish team player who is nevertheless capable of scoring from the rim to the three-point line, Horford represents a significant talent upgrade over Boston’s incumbent bigs.
After playing all 82 games for the East’s top defense last season, Horford will join a fifth-ranked Celtics group that is loaded with impact perimeter defenders. His interior presence will allow Boston’s guards to play as aggressively as they like on the perimeter, and he’s an ideal backline option if the Celtics decide to lean more heavily on smaller lineups.
Although Horford is 30, Boston should feel comfortable extending a max offer without hesitation. First, this contract is only four years, and Horford has missed just six combined games over the last two seasons after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in 2013–14. Second, players of his caliber rarely change teams in free agency, and his arrival allows the Celtics to continue exploring trade scenarios with all of their young players and surplus of draft picks in search of a second star to pair with Horford.
As it turns out, Celtics fans who grew frustrated with president Danny Ainge’s inability to land a star in a draft day move simply needed to exercise patience for an additional 10 days or so. Adding Horford should be comparable to the Spurs’ 2015 signing of LaMarcus Aldridge in terms of impact, and it should open up a path to contention that should last for the duration of the deal.