Al Horford knew it was coming. His lone season in Philadelphia wasn’t bad—it was awful. The lowest scoring average since his second season. The lowest shooting percentage of his career. A three-point percentage not seen since he wasn’t shooting three-pointers.
Horford’s addition—at the premium price of a four-year, $109 million deal—was supposed to push Philadelphia into the Finals.
Instead, the Sixers were broomed out of the first round of the playoffs.
“I just think, just putting it all out there, I just think it just wasn't a good fit,” Horford said in a telephone interview. “We just weren't jelling. We weren't meshing. And obviously, we had a lot of big guys out there in particular out playing and it just wasn't fitting.”
The Sixers agreed. In December, Philadelphia flipped Horford and a future first-round pick to Oklahoma City. The Thunder wanted the pick. Horford’s contract was the price for it. A year after linking up with a championship contending team, Horford was headed to a rebuilding one.
Horford admits accepting a trade to Oklahoma City was difficult. “My initial reaction was that they weren’t in the same place that I was,” says Horford. At 34, he wanted to play for a winner. The Thunder, which had just jettisoned Chris Paul, were going in a different direction.
But Oklahoma City liked Horford. Thunder officials watched him play in the NBA bubble. They didn’t see a fading former All-Star. They saw a good player in need of a change of scenery. With the team investing in rising guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City was searching for a stretch five to pair him with. Horford is limited at power forward, where he can be beaten by smaller, quicker bigs. At center, though, he is still a presence.
Horford has warmed to Oklahoma City quickly. He appreciated the straightforwardness of Thunder GM Sam Presti. “He just told me he wanted me to come in here and have an impact in the culture here in the locker room,” Horford says. “Just everything that I'm about, to bring it over here.” And he marveled at the lengths the organization will go to for players. “I've been in different places, but this is just a very special place,” Horford says. “And I had no idea. From afar, I've always seen Oklahoma City and the Thunder as a good organization, but I didn't realize how special it is here. The people that work here, everybody's very connected. That honestly that has blown me away. They make everything so much easier for players. It's something that I've really enjoyed. I felt it as soon as I got here and it's been like this all season and it's real, it's genuine.”
The Thunder have, predictably, struggled this season. Oklahoma City is 13–19, with an offense that ranks dead last in the NBA in efficiency. Yet team officials rave about Horford’s impact. About his contributions defensively—the Thunder rank just outside the top 10. About his willingness to hold teammates accountable on the floor. About the example he sets as a professional off it. Trading Paul created a leadership void. Horford has filled it.
The role, Horford says, is similar to one he played for three years in Boston.
“In Boston, when I was there, a lot of those guys, they were just starting to figure it out, to put things together,” says Horford. “We got on a roll there, winning a lot of games, getting into habits of success. The key was playing team basketball. And that's something that I've always embraced. I tried to instill in it in that group. And that's what I'm trying to do over here. Making sure that that these guys feel confident in how they're playing and understanding how to play the game, how to move the ball, how to do things like that.”
Horford isn’t a wallflower, either. He’s averaging 14.6 points, his highest scoring average since his days in Atlanta. He’s attempted 5.6 threes per game—a career high—and connected on 38% of them. A full-time center in Oklahoma City, Horford has thrived in pick-and-pop situations, with the Thunder encouraging him to use his athleticism to beat opposing bigs up the floor.
Horford is a realist. He knows his days in Oklahoma City could be numbered. The better he plays, the more appealing he becomes to contenders. Months earlier, Horford’s contract—he is owed $53.5 million over the next two seasons, with the last year partially guaranteed—was seen as dead weight. Now it’s more manageable. Boston could desperately use a player like Horford; Charlotte could be a Horford trade away from solidifying a playoff spot. The right offer of cap flexibility and draft picks could have Horford relocating.
Horford understand this. He says Presti has been up front with him. “I think anything is possible,” says Horford. “But I'm not going to dwell on [any trade talk] too much.” And it’s worth noting the Thunder are in no hurry to deal him. Oklahoma City has one of the NBA’s lowest payrolls. And they see value in keeping Horford around. He insists he is satisfied with his situation—and thrilled to get the chance to wipe the memory of last season away.
“Last season was frustrating because I could never really show what I was capable of or play my game,” says Horford. “I've always known that I'm able to play. I know that I can play at a high level. That's never been an issue for me. I'm not trying to look too far ahead. I'm as healthy as I've been physically in a couple of years. It's something that is very encouraging for me. I feel really good, body-wise. I just want to make sure that I'm at a level that I can still play at a high level, still contribute to things, to impact winning.”