The Celtics have played 24 home games to date in the 2017-2018 season. In the majority of those games, the fans in attendance have done one thing consistently: They have showered Kyrie Irving with chants of “MVP” when he has stepped to the free throw line.
It’s a sign of respect from the Garden faithful for their franchise cornerstone. Make no mistake about it, Irving has been absolutely phenomenal for Boston this season. He has seamlessly adjusted to the system,been a good teammate, and he has delivered in the clutch for the team.
Still, Irving is not Boston’s MVP, at least this season. That honor belongs to Al Horford.
Horford’s numbers do not jump off the page. He’s averaging 13.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 5.3 assists on 52/42/71 shooting splits. Those are solid number for sure, but nothing that would suggest MVP production.
However, the Celtics are not 34-11 without all of the small contributions Horford provides on the court that typically go unnoticed. If you start by evaluating the offense it is clear that Horford elevates the teams play every time he is on the court.
When Horford takes the floor the Celtics have an offensive rating of 111.8 and an assist percentage of 60.0. Take Horford off and those numbers dip to 101.5 and 55.2, differences of 10.3 and 4.8, respectively.
That’s a huge drop and what those numbers show is that the ball moves more with Horford on the court and the offense is more efficient as a whole. Boston prefers to start most of their action with dribble handoffs and weave motion at the top of the key.
Often times, Horford is the one who executes these motions with the guards. He can create space with his frame, but is also trustworthy with the ball in his hands at the top.
It gets overlooked how difficult and rare it is for a 7 foot center to average over five assists a game but Horford is in the midst of doing that this season. His passing is not the only weapon he provides for Boston’s offense.
When the Celtics move into the further design of their plays they will deploy Horford as a screener. Every big man is asked to screen, but Horford is elite at it. A good example of Horford as a screen setter is the last game against the Pacers.
Kyrie had two late threes that put the Celtics in a position to steal (literally steal, thanks Terry Rozier) the win that they did. Both of those threes came from Kyrie running off of Horford screens.
The first one Horford was solid enough to force a switch with a big man and the second one Horford set a screen that was good enough to get Kyrie open for an uncontested three.
Irving gets the basket and henceforth he gets the credit and attention, but it’s Horford’s ability as a screener that opens up those looks and so much more for the Celtics.
Another way Horford has aided Boston is his intelligence as a passer. I already mentioned the 5 assists but on top of that Horford is also posting a career high assist percentage of 26.3.
Horford cannot be doubled in the post because he passes out of it so effectively, and if teams allow him to roll to the basket out of pick and rolls he can hurt them there.
This year Horford has had three plays out of pick and rolls that have consistently worked. When he pops to the three point arc he has been effective at pump faking, driving the close out, and then finding shooters or cutters in the middle.
When Irving is trapped Horford simply waits to receive a pass at the top of the key. Then he turns and faces the court and he has a mini 4 on 3 advantage, once again he is able to find cutters and shooters in this situation.
When Horford rolls to the basket and team’s tag him on the weak side he has a tremendous ability to catch, turn, and find the corner shooter who is left open because his man is tagging Horford.
All of those plays are what opens Boston’s offense. It is what gives Tatum his open threes, Jaylen Brown his drives for dunks, and opens up Irving’s lanes to get to the basket.
Horford can still score when he needs too. He scored the game winner in the Houston game on a play that was a designed post up for him. Also, if he is thrown the ball in the post with the shot clock under 5 he can often turn it into a bucket.
Take away Horford from Boston’s offense and it would fall apart. Coincidentally, the same could be said for their defense.
Statistically, nothing jumps out about what Horford is doing. He is posting 1.0 blocks per game and 0.6 steals per game. When he’s on the court opponents have an offensive rating of 102.7 compared to 102.4 when he’s off.
This is where the eye test comes in. Horford is the quarterback of the Celtics defense. He calls out actions, communicates screens, and is the first to acknowledge and correct slip ups or mistakes the team will have.
Part of why Horford is so valuable defensively is his versatility. Boston prefers to switch everything and Horford is mobile enough to switch onto point guards. He does a good job of containing them and keeping them in front.
He also has enough agility to hedge hard on a screen and allow the guards time to recover then get back to his man so the roll is not open.
Just last week in London Horford was tasked with guarding 6 foot 9 Ben Simmons, a point guard, and he did a good job on him. That’s versatility at its finest when in the next game he was checking Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins.
Horford’s presence allows Boston’s guards to take chances for steals and be aggressive. They know they can occasionally gamble because they have Horford behind them patrolling.
Horford is also reliable when it comes to boxing out. A big gripe with him since he came to Boston has been a lack of rebounding, and he’s still only posting 8 per game this season. However, Horford has never been a volume rebound guy.
What he does do is box-out which is key to closing out defensive possessions. Boston has many capable rebounders – Baynes, Tatum, Brown, even Irving and Rozier. Horford does not always need to grab the board himself, just clear his man out, which he almost always does.
Without Horford the Celtics lose their best communicator and their versatile switcher on defense. It is hard to envision them being the best defensive team in the league this season without Horford doing what he has night in and night out.
Let me make something clear: Kyrie Irving is the Celtic’s best player. He is 25, they traded a beloved figure to get him, and he is the future of the organization. Still, it is not always the best player who is the most valuable to a team in a given season.
The Celtics would still be a good team if Kyrie was here and Horford was not, but they are a great team because Horford is here and playing the way he is. He is their MVP this season, and that is more than fine.
Irving has not even hit his prime yet, his MVP seasons are coming. For now, understand and appreciate what Al Horford is doing for Boston, they are not 34-11 without him.