By Shane Young
When debating or analyzing the stylistic transformations of the NBA, three-point volume is often (and rightfully) the main subject. An overlooked concept of the offensive metamorphosis, however, is playmaking. While the amount of record-breaking shooting performances is on the rise, so is the amount of skilled, perceptive passers who generate shots for others.
A common thing to do is automatically associate “passing” with smaller players, typically point guards. Whether you subscribe to the trite notion of “pure point guards” or not, it’s an instinct most of us have. We are asked who is the most frequent passer on a team, or see the word “assist” and subconsciously think of point guards.
In this era of basketball, playmaking roles are spread across the board. Since the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors claimed titles in 2014 and 2015, the NBA has transitioned to a league that embraces ball movement, versatility, and many positionless lineups. The idea that any position in basketball has a true definition in role or responsibility is becoming outdated.
Because of this, big men are evolving their play and unlocking new components of their offense. Aside from shooting more triples off pick-and-pops, a lot of bigs are becoming key facilitators for their team. Power forwards and centers, traditionally known as back-to-the-basket players, are more gifted passers in this era than ever before. Part of this development is due to the evolution of more athletic wings, who have the ability to switch nearly every action defensively. Instead of only attacking mismatches in the post, big men are able to operate from the perimeter, put the ball on the floor, and take advantage of any defender in front of them.
Before the rebirth of fast-pace offense that jumpstarted five years ago, teams were mostly following the 1990’s and early 2000’s formula of an inside-out style — generating 90 percent of their threes from dumping the ball into the post, letting the center draw double teams and burn the shot clock, and then waiting for a kick-out three.
Now, we see players 6’10” or over 7-foot working as a distributor from the elbow or top of the key. There are more ways to kill your defense, with the fatal blow coming off a pass from the biggest guy on the court.
Tim Duncan was both superb and underrated at it under Gregg Popovich. Pau Gasol and his brother, Marc Gasol, picked it up from international play and took it to the next level in the NBA. Draymond Green is now the poster child for power forward playmaking and running an offense through pick-and-roll.
In Atlanta and Boston, we have seen another special frontcourt talent establish this trait.
Under the offensive tutelage of both Mike Budenholzer and Brad Stevens since 2013, Al Horford has turned into one of the top multifaceted bigs in the league. This may raise some eyebrows, but Horford fits the mold as a “Tim Duncan lite.” He’s a player with the same altruistic on-court approach as Duncan, but obviously isn’t close to the productivity level and greatness of San Antonio’s legend. Horford offers a similar vision as a passer from anywhere on the floor. He also provides ideal defensive versatility off the pick-and-roll, but isn’t close to Duncan on that end of the floor, where Duncan may be a top five defender in history.
At age 31, Horford has already been an integral part of some fun, creative, and motion-based offenses. Now in Boston under Stevens, he’s the most important player that holds everything together. The term “glue guy” is overused, but there’s really no better way to describe him.
“He’s been through every scenario,” Stevens told BBallBreakdown. “He’s seen everything, he’s lived everything. He can play the four or the five very effectively.”
Since trading away Isaiah Thomas, it’s now Horford who leads the Celtics in passes made. Unless it’s a Kyrie Irving isolation, which is down to 3.4 per game compared to 5.1 last year, each possession runs through Horford when he’s on the floor. Each season since SportVu cameras have been installed in all arenas, his number of passes per 36 minutes has increased, now up to 58. As a natural result, he’s accumulating more assists:
His mark of 5.8 assists per 36 minutes is higher than any center, and those are coming off 9.6 potential assists, the real measure of distribution. Boston isn’t as efficient in terms of shooting as Golden State, Houston, or Cleveland, so his assist total doesn’t quite do him justice.
Horford is the Celtics’ conductor on the floor, and never stops finding optimal shots for his teammates. When he is on the court this season, Boston has a true shooting percentage of 58.9 percent, which would be third in the league and barely under the Cavaliers’ season-long percentage. When he’s off the floor, the Celtics shoot just 50.7 percent in true shooting, which is far worse than the 30th-ranked team, Chicago.
It has translated to Horford having the highest net rating difference on the team. When he plays, they outscore opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions, with an offensive rating of 109.6 — the level of the Raptors this year. When he sits, Boston is outscored by 1 point per 100, with an insanely low offensive rating of 98.7 — worse than the Kings and Bulls.
A lot of their scoring droughts are due to Horford and Irving, their best individual shot-creator, sharing minutes on the bench. But, that’s not the only reason the numbers shift so wildly.
In an offense already built on movement, Stevens can only do so much teaching. He encourages player movement, but the players have to buy in. Even though they’re following the system, Horford’s passing from all areas on the court is what motivates guards and wings to cut so frequently off the ball, set hard screens, and always move with a purpose. They know they have an extremely skilled passer that’s 6’10” and will be able to find them in spots most centers can’t.
As Irving tells BBALLBREAKDOWN, Horford not being confined to one specific spot on the court is what enables them to run so many effective sets. He has a finishing touch as a post player, but that’s not what he prefers to do now, in his thirties. Horford is often surveying the defense from the three-point line without taking a dribble, waiting to hit a cutter or a guard receiving an off-ball screen:
In the first play above, Horford is on the right wing, waiting for the action to unfold. At first, it appears Jayson Tatum is going to flash to the top of the key off a screen by Daniel Theis. But, Stevens throws a wild card in the play by having Tatum cut in between Washington’s defenders, right down the middle of the lane. Horford makes a timely pass, hitting Tatum on the cut once he realizes Beal is caught off guard and Morris isn’t covering the middle.
The second play is a simple dribble-hand-off between Irving and Tatum, which turns into Boston reversing the ball back to the other side of the court. Tatum clears out, and Irving is able to get a screen from Arron Baynes that frees him for just a second. Horford is watching this from the wing, acting as the quarterback ready to hit his receivers once they run their routes.
Mastering the timing of a pass, delivery, and chemistry it takes to become synchronized with everyone on the roster is no easy task. Horford has developed tremendous halfcourt vision through the years. It doesn’t matter which angle you’ll be cutting from, or how many people are involved in the play. Even if it’s just a two-man chemistry between him and the point guard, Horford keeps defenders guessing.
“When you know you have a great passing big who you’re able to throw it to, cut backdoor, and he’s able to deliver it on time, then we want to utilize that to the highest level,” Irving said.
Running fake actions with Horford planted at the elbow has become an important staple in Stevens’ system. In the first play above, the Celtics initiate a “Horns” set, with Horford and Marcus Smart on each side of the free throw line. It’s a little unorthodox with a guard (Smart) being where a power forward or center would usually start. Irving gives up the ball to Horford, and then goes to Smart’s direction. He mildly sets a screen on Smart’s defender, but Boston throws a variation in here to trick everyone. Irving loops around, returning to the same position in which he started. The Mavericks have no clue they are calling this play for Smart to cut down the middle, so they don’t make a defensive switch. Horford is able to throw an easy pass over the top.
When the Celtics finish possessions with a cut, they have the lowest turnover percentage of anyone in the league. Where 9.7 percent of the Nets’ cutting possessions result in a turnover (30th), that number is only 3.7 percent for Boston. Considering a passer must always find a cutter and Horford leads this team in passing, it reflects well on the big man’s awareness and mistake avoidance.
Oh, and we should take a second to applaud Stevens for one fun (and simple) play he’s had up his sleeve for a couple years. It was the last score in the video above, but it’s worth another look.
To begin, Boston engages in a short weave, with Tatum coming to the ball on the wing. It’s impossible to overstate the brilliant use of timing in this set. Watch Horford near the block, behind the goal. He waits for the exact moment Tatum receives the ball. When he does, Horford zips to his favorite spot at the high elbow and Tatum hits him with a bounce pass. Irving has to nail the timing here, too. While Horford moves when Tatum receives the ball, it’s Irving that moves at the exact moment Tatum passes it.
What this does is trigger the defense to worry about multiple things at once, a difficult exercise in basketball. Henson had literally no time to think about his coverage. He has to follow Horford up to the elbow, but that pulls away a rim-protector right when Irving is racing downhill, taking the handoff. Granted, Henson still made a solid recovery and contest. But against much slower and athletically-challenged bigs, this play has destroyed defenses.
As deadly as he can be with stationary passing, Horford’s top attribute seems to be his read-and-react dishing off the pick-and-roll. He does this differently than Draymond Green, but to a similar impact or degree. Green is far quicker than Horford at this stage of their careers, and he throws riskier passes. However, speed doesn’t stop Horford from being smart and skilled enough to know where all of his teammates are 100 percent of the time, and make instant decisions off the short-roll.
In the first two plays here, notice how Horford pinpoints his corner shooters once he catches the ball off a screen-roll, with the defense gravitating toward him in the paint. He can even do it immediately after grabbing a post-entry pass:
Of course, these are all simple maneuvers that every (great) playmaking big must learn, and you can bet anything Stevens has the team run these all the time in practice. While it’s easy to memorize and trust where your teammates will be at specific moments, having the knowledge and sheer accuracy to react that quickly, and make those passes within a second of catching the ball, is what separates Horford.
Playing high pick-and-roll with Horford has so many benefits, and we’re seeing them unfold with this Celtics unit. Shooters are getting cleaner and better opportunities from three-point range when Horford is involved in the action, particularly as the direct passer.
Irving, Tatum, and Smart are all shooting significantly higher percentages from three-point range when the pass comes from Horford, versus any other variation:
- 65-of-181 from three (38.9%) when the shot isn’t generated off a Horford pass
- 36-of-69 from three (52.2%) when receiving a pass from Horford
- 27.6% of his attempts come off Horford’s passes
- 42-of-93 from three (45.2%) when the shot isn’t generated off a Horford pass
- 15-of-28 from three (53.6%) when receiving a pass from Horford
- 23.1% of his attempts come off Horford’s passes
- 36-of-139 from three (25.9%) when the shot isn’t generated off a Horford pass
- 15-of-32 from three (46.9%) when receiving a pass from Horford
- 18.7% of his attempts come off Horford’s passes
In Smart’s case, which is curious because he jumps 21 full percentage points from long-range when Horford passes him the ball, is it just a part of small sample size theater? It could be, since Smart only shot 17-of-54 (31.5 percent) in these scenarios last season. But with a second year playing next to Horford and a completely different roster makeup, Smart is getting more volume and finding more success playing off the big man.
Most of it stems from Smart being on the wing, while his defenders either leave him or cheat off of him in their efforts to give a Irving-Horford pick-and-roll more coverage. Having Horford pop after the screen is what persuades Smart’s defender to leave, since Horford is shooting a career-high from distance. The extra pass to a wide-open shooter is always the right basketball play, even if Smart is the one waiting:
They can get it from the pop, or from the roll in this next situation. Smart’s man is already cheating to the middle, and Horford recognizes it. He just takes one dribble to pry the defender away, and then passes out of the double:
We’re seeing more dribble-handoffs that lead into a screen for Smart, since Boston knows everyone will go under any that are set for him. If Horford is the one setting it, there’s at least more time to square up and get off a good look.
Boston is one of the slowest teams in the league in terms of game pace, but that’s exactly how they would prefer it. The Spurs don’t run at a high tempo, and they’re a perennial title contender. Working later in the shot clock than most teams isn’t always a bad thing, as it gives Horford and the Celtics more opportunities for player movement, and better shots that unfold by allowing him to scan the floor:
It didn’t take long for Horford to fit right in with Boston’s new culture under a top five head coach. He helped them last year, despite taking criticism of his max contract. His absence in the rebounding department compared to other power forwards and centers has always stood out. His scoring has dipped since his prime in Atlanta. But, there was always going to be a smooth and seamless transition in terms of developing chemistry with the guards and making the game easier for his wings. He’s had the best teachers, but is also a wicked fast learner.
“(Horford) can step in with any unit,” Stevens said. “You can put him anywhere right now across the league, and he’s fine. “He’s an easy guy to assimilate with.”
Sitting at 30-10 and an impressive 11-2 against West teams, the Celtics are in the driver’s seat out East. Their more voter-attractive, clutch, and statistical MVP may be Irving. But, it’s clear that No. 42 is the transmission that takes them from gear to gear on both ends of the court.
Let’s not fail to appreciate Horford’s impact, or what he’s been doing in the midst of a changing era.
* All stats via NBA.com