LOS ANGELES -- Only seven players in the NBA have played 20 or more NBA seasons. That is a number that is expected to grow in the future as players benefit from improvement in training technology, injury management and conditioning methods across the association.
Players are not only capable of lasting longer in the league, but their prime years are also being extended thanks to the wisdom of load management and smarter training staffs. There may be no better example of that this year than Celtics big man Al Horford. After struggling through the first two months of the regular season with a bout of Runner’s Knee, the 32-year-old was shut down for seven games in December as part of an extended recovery plan. He returned on December 23rd and was placed on a minutes limit (25) for the next three weeks, easing his path back toward a full workload. While the Celtics have struggled collectively at many points in 2019, Horford has been playing his best all-around basketball as a Celtic during the new calendar year.
“I think the medical staff has done an unbelievable job with me, to come up with the right plan and everything,” Horford told BostonSportsJournal.com in a recent interview. “I feel good. It's something that I don't have any complaints about. I dealt with that in December, but I think it was probably like mid-January, that's when I felt back like myself. Hopefully, I won't have any issues with it.”
Since that return date, Horford has been sensational on both ends of the floor, shooting 55.7 percent from the field, 36 percent from 3-point range and 92 percent from the free throw line. He has led the team in rebounding (7.1 per game) and ranks among the team leaders in nearly every statistical category including points (13.5/3rd), assists (4.4/2nd) and blocks (1.1/1st) despite averaging a career-low 28.8 minutes per game.
The numbers from a team perspective are even more impressive when Horford is on the floor. Boston is scoring nine more points per 100 possessions (115.6) when Horford is on the court and the center holds the highest net rating (+9.2) among Boston’s rotation players. He may not be the best player on the Celtics, but it’s hard to argue that he’s not the most indispensable piece on the roster based on his impact on winning. His performance against the Kings on Wednesday night (21 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, +18 in a two-point win) was exhibit A on that front.
This type of production makes it clear Horford is playing some of the best basketball of his career as he prepares to turn 33 this June. The question that is pressing for Celtics fans, though, is just how much longer he will be doing it?
The 12-year veteran has a player option for $30.1 million for next season and clearly has put a lot of miles (over 29,000 minutes) on his tires over the course of his NBA career. He has also earned over $160 million over the course of his NBA life, so it’s fair to wonder just how much longer he plans on going through the NBA grind. The answer should be music to the ears of Boston fans.
“For me, as long as I'm healthy and feel good, I would like to play until I'm 40,” Horford told BostonSportsJournal.com. “Why not? As long as I'm healthy and feel good. I don't want to be out there struggling or hurt or things like that. I really take the time to work on my body and I enjoy the game, so I wouldn't see why I wouldn't keep playing on it. I'm not going to put a limit on it. I'm just going to keep playing as long as I feel good.”
There are only 27 players in NBA history that have played at age 40, including two active ones (Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki) this season. A few of the more prominent names that remained as valuable contributors at that stage of their career include Jason Kidd, Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Karl Malone and John Stockton.
While eight years in a lifetime in the NBA, it’s clear the NBA’s recent evolution, with an added emphasis on outside shooting and ball movement, caters to Horford’s strengths. There is perhaps no more valuable weapon in the NBA many nights than a sharpshooting stretch big, and that’s a skill that has just improved for the 2007 No. 3 overall pick as his career has worn on (40 percent from 3 over last two seasons).
“Even though they try to make me be like I'm 40 already, I feel pretty good,” Horford explained. “I definitely know that I have a lot of years left in me so I'm happy about that.”
While plenty of attention has been placed on the uncertain future of Kyrie Irving in Boston, Horford’s presence is just as important to this team’s championship aspirations over the next few years. The four-time All-Star holds all the cards on that future with a decision looming regarding his player option on June 29th that will help shape the Celtics offseason and told BSJ back in October that he could envision himself finishing his career in Boston. There are a few different paths this team can take toward a championship core this summer, but almost all of them involve Horford in some form.
The easy thing for him to do would be to simply exercise his player option of $30 million, a salary he may not necessarily be able to command on the open market at age 33. However, that won’t be the most appealing option from a Celtics standpoint.