Was an Al Horford/Kemba Walker pairing ever realistic for the Celtics?

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Teaming up Al Horford and Kemba Walker was always going to be a very costly endeavor for the Celtics in the summer of 2019. Kyrie Irving boxed the Celtics’ flexibility into a corner by not only deciding to leave the C’s after giving a verbal commitment to stay in the preseason, but by going to a division rival that had ample salary-cap space to sign him in Brooklyn.

Horford’s future in Boston was always going to be directly tied to Irving to a degree since the team was never going to have the salary cap space to replace the All-Star without gutting other areas of the roster. It was with that backdrop during which the Celtics initially sat down for contract negotiations with Horford before the NBA Draft last June.

“We all kind of felt that Kyrie was going to leave,” Horford told the Boston Herald this week. “It was like, maybe he’ll stay, but then it was, nah, he’s probably going to leave just based on how everything was. And then I’m looking at my career and myself and the years that I have left. There were certain things that we wanted to accomplish as a team and things that we needed to make that happen. We got all those pieces last year, but it didn’t happen for us, and moving forward I didn’t know if it was going to be a two-year wait or whatever it was going to be. That’s when I decided, you know what, I’m going to have to open my free agency.”

That stance comes as no surprise as Boston Sports Journal reported throughout last season that Horford’s priority moving forward was winning on top of everything else. With Philly, he had the chance to do that and get paid at a top level, making it essentially a win-win for him from a fit perspective. However, there was one quote in Horford’s candid remarks that is worth noting from a Celtics’ perspective in the present. Asked about the possibility of staying in Boston if he had known about Walker’s arrival, he took a different stance.

“I don’t want to get caught up in the past, but yeah, that would have been totally different,” Horford said of his decision to leave.

This is a telling reaction from Horford but it also opens the door to more questions from all players involved.

Horford is a genuine individual so it’s not like him to say something like that just to save face. However, it’s important to remember here that the Celtics agreed to terms with Walker before the Sixers did so with Al Horford on the first night of free agency. There is no questioning there was some form of tampering/feelers sent out with both players but this is why the C’s were so miffed about the situation this summer.

Boston believed they had an exclusive window to negotiate with Horford for a week or two after he declined his team option. However, it’s clear that the big man’s reps had already tested the free agent waters before that and knew there was a mammoth four-year deal waiting for him from Philadelphia. Given how many moving pieces there was for the Sixers, the guess here is that Horford needed to give some kind of verbal commitment to Philadelphia early in order for them to keep that deal on the table, which is why his camp shut down negotiations with Boston so early. Having Horford in their back pocket allowed them to make complimentary moves and knowing they still had the budget to fit Horford in (i.e. trading Jimmy Butler for Josh Richardson). This was a huge advantage for the Sixers from a team building standpoint.

The Celtics clearly had a sense that Walker was going to come to Boston ahead of June 30th but that was not the case as early as June 18th (when Horford likely verbal committed with the Sixers). If Philadelphia does not have a chance to throw that offer Horford’s way in mid-June and the Celtics signal they feel good about their chances of landing Walker, then the chances of retaining Horford certainly go up if we take his remarks at his face value.

Now, let’s be clear here: The Celtics did not come close to matching the Sixers’ offer in negotiations. However, they did not think they would have to be bidding against another monster offer so early. If that offer disappears, something like a three-year/$75 million deal on a contender with Walker waiting in the wings may have been enough for Horford to turn down exploring the free agent waters. We will never know for sure but the blatant tampering done by the Sixers and other franchises this offseason had a big impact in situations like this, which was why the league will be trying to reel it in more in the future.

That still is not the whole story in this situation. The Celtics still needed to find a way to acquire Walker via a sign-and-trade with Brooklyn if they were going to pay Horford enough to convince him to stay. They never did come close to matching Philly’s offer, a defendable stance given his age at 33 but one that left them vulnerable to his departure with no clear backup plan from a roster standpoint in place to keep him from looking around once it became clear Irving was out the door.

There was also the issue of the compensation needed for a sign-and-trade. The Nets (a division rival) would have forced a heavy price to be paid in order to allow Irving to be dealt into their cap space (opening the door for Walker to be acquired in a three-way trade). Multiple first-round picks were likely to be the asking price from Brooklyn and that cost ended up being prohibitive from the C’s perspective. A deal wasn’t impossible but paying Horford big money and giving up two first-round picks on top of him was simply too much for the front office to swallow.

It was far from an impossible scenario; just a costly one. One look at the high price paid by teams for Anthony Davis and Paul George deals tell the story here. Those squads believed they were paying those prices to build a true contender and Ainge, perhaps, wasn’t sure if a Walker/Horford duo was good enough to get the C’s out of the East. Paying a high price for a chance to win now though would have been an understanable choice given the timeline of the top players involved.

If nothing else, the situation still comes back to Irving. His early commitment, which likely prevented any chance the C’s would cut bait with him at the trade deadline to ensure he walked with no return created a chain of events that led to Horford walking out the door. Even Horford was under no illusion that last year’s team could come back as previously composed with the top pieces.

“There would have had to be some major changes as far as players, because it was just clear that the group that we had just wasn’t going to be able to coexist,” Horford told the Herald.

The Celtics clearly had their eyes on building for the long-term last season and miscalculated just how much things could go awry in the interim. In the meantime, we can only wonder whether a pairing of Walker and Horford may have been worth the cost of an overpaid Horford and a couple of first-round picks to a division rival. The success of Philly over the next two seasons will tell the tale on that front.