Al Horford isn’t a name we’ve discussed too much around here as a Mavericks free agent target because, frankly, we weren’t expecting the Celtics to completely crumble this summer.
Things have changed, obviously. While we’re still trying to figure out whether the Horford/Mavs rumors are typical free agent smoke or something a bit more real, it made me for the first time in years consider what Horford would look like in a Mavericks uniform.
You know what? I think it’d be pretty damn good!
Before I go further, a few caveats: Horford is not my preferred option for Mavericks free agency. The team desperately needs some guards and wings who can dribble and make jumpers. With Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Powell and the presumed return of Maxi Kleber, Dallas has enough rotation bigs on the roster. Spending big money on *another* doesn’t seem like the best use of resources, especially one that would be 37 by the time the contract is up.
So a Horford deal definitely has its issues. When I polled Mavs Twitter last week, it was pretty clear what Mavs fans would want:
Preferred Mavs free agency outcome— Josh Bowe (@Boweman55) June 21, 2019
I feel lost in all of this is the fact that Al Horford is really good! The Mavericks have two young stars — they are finished rebuilding with 30-win squads. While Horford doesn’t fill the most pressing hole on the roster, he provides a big talent boost, needed experience and smarts to a team that is still a little raw in terms of knowing how to win basketball games.
Building a winning team
Perhaps the biggest question for the Mavericks is how do you build a winning team with two bigs being big money players in a league that is shrinking by the minute?
There’s no doubt the NBA is getting smaller, faster and more spread out. Wings are the premium currency in the NBA right now; just look at how hard they are to find and how expensive they are every summer. To win a title, the league practically demands that you have a killer lineup with five guys that can all do some things offensively and defensively — whether that’s switching or shooting.
So look, I get it — a Horford/Porzingis pairing isn’t exactly the model blueprint to a Mavs title. But what if we look sooner than that. The Mavericks need to make the playoffs. They then need to win some series. Going from 30 wins to title winners is basically unheard of, so the Mavericks need to crawl before they can walk. Why couldn’t a Horford/Porzingis pairing do well in the regular season, picking on less talented front courts over the course of a long season?
I think something the Warriors have done is that they’ve almost shifted the narrative at hyper speed. People saw Golden State’s five-man death lineup and we assumed this was it, the future was here. They were right, to a degree. The next NBA arms race has been teams trying to find their own “death” lineup to compete with the Warriors. But the Warriors are unique. They drafted well, got lucky with Steph Curry’s first extension, got lucky again with Kevin Durant becoming free during a historic cap spike. Copying the Warriors is admirable, but almost impossible. Very rarely did most of the league employ lineups that could match the Warriors, as noted by their dominance over the last five years. Look at the two teams to have dethroned the Warriors during their run — Cleveland had Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson and Toronto had Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Those are bigs! They are a bit rangier than Horford and Porzingis, but again, we’re talking just make the playoffs, not win a title.
How would Horford work in Dallas?
How often are the Mavericks going to run into a death lineup like the Warriors over the course of 82 games? Look at the Mavericks’ own conference — Denver starts two bigs in Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap. The Trail Blazers, Jazz and Thunder either start two bigs or start one non-threatening wing at the four. The Spurs’ best lineup had LaMarcus Aldridge at center, but they still started Jakob Poeltl for 24 games.
Perhaps teams wise up against the Mavs and try to run them off the court to close games, but remember that teams are not nearly as mindful of scouting reports in the regular season as they are in the playoffs when things tighten up. Not every team has great shooters — the Mavs can put Horford on the weakest shooting wing/big and scheme their defense to force shots to those worse shooters. This is easier said than done, but it’s definitely easier with a big as smart as Horford on that end of the floor.
Plus, Horford is good all around! The Mavericks could exploit smaller teams during less intense regular season play, using Horford’s smarts as a defender to compensate for the Mavs lack of footspeed in the frontcourt. This isn’t even mentioning Horford’s offense, where the Mavs could truly play five-out basketball as Horford has become a steady shooter from three. The Mavs could absolutely punish teams with their talent and basketball IQ.
The biggest worry is perhaps when Horford is older but guess what — to get the next two years of what should be pretty good Al Horford, you have to get the final two years that could be not so good. That’s the tax. Same as with the Mavericks having to take on Tim Hardaway Jr. to get Porzingis. Newsflash: getting good players costs a lot. That’s because they’re good players! That’s just the cost of doing business if you want this tier of free agent. The nice part about those final two years is that Hardaway’s deal comes off the books before Horford’s does, which potentially frees up some cap to make further moves. Then Horford is up a few seasons later and the Mavericks (should) have some playoff series wins banked to pitch the franchise to the next crop of free agents when Horford’s time is up.
That matters, as Luka and Porzingis are very green when it comes to winning games in the NBA. If Dallas wants to be an organization that attracts top talent around their young star duo, they need to win some playoff games. Horford helps, without necessarily crippling you as much as you’d think.
Stop overthinking this
Again, Horford isn’t my first preference. If I had my choice, I’d rather the Mavericks get Kemba Walker or a gaggle of strong role players like Patrick Beverley and Danny Green. But just because Horford might not be the preferred option doesn’t mean he’s a bad one. If the Horford smoke is real, the Mavericks should absolutely bring him on board and pay him his money.
Don’t overthink this! Al Horford is very good. The Mavericks need very good players.