Al Horford’s unique overall impact has made him more valuable than Kyrie Irving
While Kyrie Irving has gotten the most publicity for the Boston Celtics this season, it is reasonable to believe that Al Horford, and not Irving, may be the Celtics’ most important player so far. Although Irving’s ball-handling and scoring exploits have been well-documented, Horford may be the Celtics’ most valued player so far in 2018.
For starters, let’s compare their on/off statistics, courtesy of basketball-reference.com. Boston averages 111 points per 100 possessions when Horford is on the court, and 101 points per 100 possessions when Horford is on the bench. In addition, Boston’s defense allows 102 points per 100 possessions when Horford is on the court and allows 103 points per 100 possessions when Horford is off the court.
That may not seem like much, but considering Horford normally only sits when opponents have largely their second unit on the court, it is impressive that teams score MORE points when their substitutes face a Horford-less Celtics defense, than when their starters play against Horford.
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In total, Horford makes the team better by around 11 points per game between his contributions on the offensive and defensive end. Irving has a great impact on the offensive end (111 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor, 100 points per 100 possessions when he is off) but teams have an easier time scoring when he is on the floor (opponents average 104 points per 100 possessions when Irving is on the court, 100 points per possessions when he is on the bench). Irving’s net rating is +7.4, a really solid number but is smaller than Horford’s +11.
To look at things away from the numbers, Horford’s individual strengths seem to have a greater impact on the Celtics’ overall strengths. Horford has been one of the very best defensive players in basketball, and his ability to both protect the basket and switch onto smaller players is rare. The biggest reason the Celtics’ defense is ranked first in the NBA in defensive rating and second in points allowed per game is because Horford is their anchor.
Irving’s best skill set has been his control of the game and his ability to score the basketball. Being able to score a lot of points consistently is the most prized skill in the NBA, and Irving has been magical at times, but the Celtics’ offense ranks just 23rd in points per game.
The Celtics are sitting atop the Eastern Conference because their defense has been terrific and has overcome their mediocre offensive output. Since Horford is their best defender, he deserves a lot of the credit.
Horford’s unique role provides immense value
Irving’s greatest skill set is his ability to put the ball in the basket, and he does that quite well, averaging 24.5 points per game. It’s hard to find a player that can score nearly 25 points on average every game, that is why those players are highly acclaimed.
You know what else is rare? Finding a big man that can both protect the rim and shoot three pointers at a good rate. Horford is one of only seven players in the NBA listed at 6’10 or taller who averages at least 3 three point attempts per game, and make at least 40 percent of those attempts.
The other seven are mostly offensively inclined big men (Nikola Mirotic, Trey Lyles, Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons, Kelly Olynyk). The only person in that group that is even solid on defense is Karl-Anthony Towns.
Add in Horford’s superb passing game and you could say there really isn’t another player in the NBA quite like Horford, and his contributions to the team are represented in his net rating to the team.
Irving is a fantastic player, but I’m not sure he has been better than Horford. Yes he scores the ball more often and with greater efficiency, but the ability to score is only one part of basketball. Horford’s contributions on both ends on the floor, as well as his unique skill set that hasn’t been duplicated by any other player in the league, makes him the most valuable player on the Celtics.