I may be in denial here. I fully acknowledge that. But I refuse to just accept that Al Horford is a lock to leave the Celtics.
Is he right to chase a four-year contract worth over $100 million at his age? Absolutely. Are the Celtics justified to let Horford go because of the money he reportedly has waiting for him and the almost certain departure of Kyrie Irving? You bet.
Something just feels fishy here. So let’s break down what we know on Horford’s free agency to see if it adds up to a return in green.
An abrupt end to contract negotiations
When Horford opted out of the final year of his contract last week, the expectation was, and the reporting backed it up, that Horford would work with the Celtics on a three-year extension at a lower salary than the $30.1 million he opted out of.
Those negotiations came to an abrupt end after Horford reportedly had a four-year deal on the table for more money than the Celtics were willing to offer. Boston seemingly didn’t move off their number, so Horford’s agent leaked to Steve Bulpett that the center is expected to sign elsewhere in free agency.
Horford has said publicly how he has enjoyed playing in Boston, and reportedly was willing to work on a team-friendly deal to stay with the Celtics at a lower number. Perhaps Irving’s eventual departure for the Nets made Horford less inclined to take a pay cut, but this was a shocking development, making it seem like it was all about the money.
Contract specifics leaked
We already know that Horford wasn’t pleased with the amount of money the Celtics were willing to offer compared to the mystery team that came in with the major four-year deal. Then, Marc Stein reported Horford is looking at a four-year, $112 million contract in free agency, which is slightly less than the deal he agreed to with the Celtics back in the summer of 2016.
Jackie MacMullan reported the Celtics offered a “healthy four-year contract,” while also suggesting the team offering the $112 million is the Dallas Mavericks. Brian Windhorst also said he had the heard the Mavericks were involved. Stein’s report goes against what MacMullan’s saying, while Zach Lowe explained on his latest podcast how he doesn’t really know what’s going on with Horford.
You don’t usually see a specific offer leaked like this multiple days before free agency begins. If Horford was really gone, we’d first learn the details the moment he agreed to it. What this tells me is Horford’s maximizing his career earnings and saying to the Celtics, “Here’s my number. Meet it, or I’m taking my talents elsewhere.”
There’s nothing wrong with Horford doing that. It’s his life. He should try to make as much money as humanly possible before his career ends. But it may be up to the Celtics to meet Horford’s demands before losing a player they likely have no hope of replacing in free agency (Don’t come at me with Nikola Vucevic suggestions. Just don’t).
So you have a player you thought was on board with returning to Boston who suddenly shifted focus based on money, while multiple reporters who’ve been told a specific salary figure have conflicting reports on who the team offering it actually is. All the signs point to Horford and his agent using this as a negotiation tactic to get Ainge to pony up the cash.
Ainge called re-working Horford’s contract a priority after the season ended. Do you really think he’s going to let a five-time All-Star center walk away because of a difference of maybe $5 million per year? I’d be at least skeptical.
The Celtics’ brass had to figure Irving was a flight risk as a disappointing 2018-19 season wore on, and once it came time to shape the roster for next year, Ainge stated Horford and Terry Rozier as his priorities. Perhaps Plan B is to get Horford back in the fold, re-sign Rozier to a reasonable extension and play the season out with plenty of young talent and a crop of mature rookies to contribute right away. If another star player becomes available for trade, Rozier’s new salary could figure into those negotiations much easier, especially with increased production as a starter.
The main point that gives me pause is the trade of Aron Baynes. Why trade Baynes, who’s making $5 million next year, if you plan on putting together a competitive team without Irving? Maybe to free up more salary cap space to bring in more shooting? I’m not sure, but the fact that Baynes was dealt in a salary dump gives me reason to believe Ainge and the Celtics’ front office is ready to pivot to a youth movement, which would probably not include Horford making over $25 million per year.
We’ll see how the rest of this plays out, but if you ask me, Horford leaving the Celtics is far from a guarantee based on what we know to this point.