For the first week of training camp, the majority of the speculation swirling around the Celtics’ future crop of free agents focused almost solely on Kyrie Irving. Yet, the possibility remains that the most indispensable part of the Celtics’ core, Al Horford, will be able to hit the free agent market himself next summer.
The All-Star has a $30.1-million player option awaiting him in 2019-20, three years after making the initial plunge as a free agent to join the Celtics after beating them with the Hawks in the first round of the 2016 postseason.
Horford made a leap of faith that summer, gambling the Celtics brass would be able to deliver on their promises and turn an emerging team in the East into a true contender while the versatile big man was still in his prime. Just over two years later in training camp, Horford can only smile when asked about the team’s evolution.
“Coming here ... what Danny, coach and the owners sold me on was this,” Horford told BostonSportsJournal.com. “They talked to me about a new facility. I felt like they knew that was important to me. We had a lot of draft picks coming up and we have the potential to get free agents and trade for people. Everything they've said, they have delivered. They've put us in a position this year to contend.”
The ball will be back in Horford’s court next summer. The easy thing for him to do would be to simply exercise the max player option of $30 million, a salary he may not necessarily be able to command on the open market at age 32. However, that won’t be the most appealing option from a Celtics standpoint. With a new max contract looming for Kyrie Irving, along with several role players commanding new deals (Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes [player option] Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis, etc.), it’s going to be close to impossible to keep this core intact without paying an outrageous luxury tax bill.
There are few ways the Celtics will be able to find savings across the roster with the players that matter. Irving isn’t going to settle for less than the max after playing on an under-market deal for the last few years. Brown and Tatum will both want to get paid big money when they become eligible for extensions as well. The one guy who could be in a position to sacrifice is Horford after earning $160 million over the first 12 seasons of his career.
The All-Star big man could reduce the team’s luxury tax burden by opting out of his $30 million deal for 2019-20 and accepting a longer deal with a far lower annual salary. Accepting a contract around $20 million per year would save the Celtics upwards of $20-plus million in luxury tax penalties, money that could be the difference in retaining a key supporting piece or two.
For Horford to make that kind of sacrifice, he has to be comfortable in Boston for the long-term. It needs to be a place where he feels good about ending his career. He confirmed that was the case in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
“No question,” Horford said on whether he envisioned himself finishing his career in Boston.
“Obviously, my focus is on this year and the opportunity we have, but with everything that we have, the stability with coach, with the players and this young core, it's a place that I'm very lucky to be here and be a part of this.”
That mentality isn’t completely due to the C’s success on the floor in recent years either. Horford and his family spent the majority of the past summer in Boston, an experience that only enhanced his enjoyment of the region.
“It's great, especially after spending a summer here,” he acknowledged. “Really enjoyed summer in Boston. It's just so different than what we're used to. Being able to take my kids downtown, we tripped New England through the summer in Maine and Rhode Island. We did a little bit of everything. It feels like home to me now.”
From a big-picture perspective, there are very few players around the league who can do what Horford does for this team. Outside of Anthony Davis and a couple others, finding a big man that is a high volume 40 percent 3-point shooter, has the versatility to guard multiple positions and can anchor an elite defense just isn’t possible. Even as Horford moves further away from his prime, his value to Boston will remain strong for what he can bring on the offensive end. He’s also coming to terms with playing more center with this group, knowing that unit is what unlocks Boston’s best offensive lineup.
“I think with the way the league is changing and how explosive we can be with having Gordon, Jaylen and Jayson out there together, it's very clear that I'm going to be fine playing the 5,” Horford said. “I'll be able to do it, and I'll be very happy with it. It's just threats all over the floor. I've come to terms with it. I'm okay with playing the five.”
Barring a blockbuster trade emerging for Davis over the next couple of summers, Horford remains the most realistic and elite choice for that center spot on a nightly basis. The question now becomes whether he’s willing to sacrifice some money in exchange for long-term security and a chance to contend for the remainder of his career.
He’s seen from afar how some Warriors veterans (Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson) have, at times, taken less to ensure key pieces of the core (Andre Iguodala) were retained. The same may be necessary for some members of the Celtics in future years if the likes of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are going to command max deals (or something close to it) when their rookie contracts expire in 2019 and '20 respectively. Horford remains the top candidate to help on that front.
No formal negotiations have occurred with Horford’s reps on the prospect of an extension, according to a league source. That shouldn’t change over the course of this season since Horford can’t sign an extension that is a reduction of his player salary in 2019-20 (CBA rules). However, this will be one of Boston’s most appealing options to maintain most of their core when tough financial decisions arrive next summer.
Horford has sacrificed his own individual numbers for his teammates over the course of his career. Come next summer, he may end up doing the same for them with his numbers off the court as well.