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The free agent that elevates the Nuggets to championship contention is Al Horford

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The Boston Celtics are imploding, and the Nuggets could look to take advantage by reuniting two former Atlanta Hawks bigs

NBA: All Star Saturday Night Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

According to multiple reports from Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Al Horford of the Boston Celtics is expected to leave Boston and pursue a long term deal with a new team.

Horford, who just turned 33, was an integral member of the Celtics for the last three years, operating as a secondary playmaker behind point guards Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. The versatile big man from the Dominican Republic averaged 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists over 29 minutes per game with the Celtics in 2018-19. His 21.2% Assist Rate ranked fourth among qualified bigs in the entire NBA behind Denver’s own Nikola Jokic, NBA champion Marc Gasol, and Nikola Vucevic.

The 2019 free agent class is filled with stars. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, though injured, rank among the top 20 players in the league and are due for new contracts. Kawhi Leonard, two time NBA champion and Finals MVP, will choose where he wants to play next year. Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, and other stars will all appear on the free agent market too.

But for the Nuggets, their best option in free agency is the understated and underrated Horford.

The allures of Horford’s skill set are tantalizing, as he operates as one of the best defensive big men in the league and converts a moderately high volume of three pointers every game. He has the versatility to play both power forward and center at a high level in today’s NBA. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus ranks Horford’s defense 14th among other centers, and while he doesn’t always make flashy plays on that end, it’s his intelligence, quick hands/feet, and positional skill that place him among the most valuable playoff contributors every year.

He doesn’t average elite steal or block numbers, but Nuggets fans should be very familiar with elite big man defense from a former Atlanta Hawks star. Paul Millsap and Horford share many similarities in their play styles defensively. Both maximize the tools they have and let their brains do the rest of the work on the court.

Offensively though is where Horford would shine most brightly in Denver.

During the playoffs, the Nuggets were greatly limited in their flexibility when Jokic went to the bench, either with foul trouble or to rest and recover. Mason Plumlee, for all of the excellent traits he possesses as a passer (Fifth in Assist Rate right behind Horford) is greatly limited in two ways: he doesn’t space the floor as a shooter, and he doesn’t hit his free throws with regularity. This hurt Denver’s offense at the worst possible time, as guards like Monte Morris and Will Barton were impacted in their ability to finish through contact when faced with multiple defenders.

Horford would change the dynamic of this bench unit with his ability to space the floor while playing a similar passing game. During the 2018-19 regular season, Horford made 73 of his 203 threes, good for an even 36%. That efficiency jumped up in the playoffs (36.0 to 40.9%) as did the attempts per game (3.0 to 4.9). In Boston, Horford made 43.2% of his playoff threes across three seasons, proving that the efficiency isn’t a fluke either.

The versatility of Horford’s game meshes well with both Jokic and Millsap. Any two of the three can play together, creating a unique opportunity for the Nuggets to load up on a position that is already a strength. Jokic and Plumlee already play together, and they do it well. That advantage was lessened in the playoffs though as opposing teams continue to go small and create challenging situations for Plumlee as a power forward, but the Nuggets were still able to survive.

When Jokic went to the bench though, they didn’t have the same skill set they could replicate with Morris, Barton, and others. The pick and pop center that could facilitate at the top of the key just wasn’t what Plumlee was best at, and it showed in Denver’s stats without their superstar center. The Nuggets were a Plus-84 in the 556 playoff minutes with Jokic on the floor and minus-58 in the 136 minutes he sat. If the Nuggets want to eventually be a championship contender, that number has to change in some way.

At first, I thought that strengthening Denver’s weakest positions were the most important avenue for growth. While that may still be the case, Horford’s free agency opens up another avenue: leaning into Denver’s unique style of play. To be clear, Jokic is as unique a player as there is in the NBA today and nobody can match what he does entirely. But for the minutes that Jokic isn’t on the floor, acquiring a top 3 Jokic lookalike in Horford helps the offense operate in a similar way. The Nuggets attempted this idea with the acquisition of Mason Plumlee, and it has worked reasonably well in the regular season.

Adding Horford would be doubling down on that strategy, and the Nuggets would be able to surround their three excellent big men (Millsap, Horford, and Jokic) with competent pieces that work around that style of play. Jamal Murray developed an excellent synergy with Nikola Jokic in the regular season, but in the minutes when Jokic goes to the bench, Murray’s synergy with Horford would operate in a similar way. Similar in fact to Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. In need of a strong defensive rotation from the bench while also scoring enough points to close the gap? Play Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Millsap, and Horford together. Need an offensive burst with multiple playmakers and shooters at every position? Play Murray with Gary Harris and Will Barton while playing Horford and Jokic together.

If there’s one thing to learn from the Toronto Raptors, it’s that having too much of a good thing isn’t always a problem. The Raptors were really good before the trade deadline and had found a starting unit in Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Serge Ibaka that they liked. Instead of sitting on their laurels, they upgraded their big man position, sending Jonas Valanciunas (along with Delon Wright and a draft pick) to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol. They knew they needed another guy, and while it probably made Serge Ibaka unhappy to be pushed to the bench, the Raptors won an NBA championship, and he probably doesn’t really care anymore.

Horford may seem like overkill at the big man position or somebody that Denver “doesn’t need” but it would be helpful to have another big man to try and guard LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers. When the rotations shorten in the playoffs and head coach Michael Malone can only trust a handful of players, I have the utmost confidence that Horford is a guy he can trust at either power forward or center, and his center minutes would be absolutely huge for the Nuggets in a playoff setting.

How Al Horford can be a Denver Nugget is actually pretty simple. The Nuggets have a clean cap situation that only involves a couple of moves to clear the space necessary to add Horford. Right now, the salary cap is set at about $109 million for the 2019-20 season, which means Denver must clear up enough salary below $109 million to entice Horford into coming to Denver.

First, Denver must decline Paul Millsap’s team option and sign him to a more team friendly deal. Let’s say Millsap takes a three-year deal worth roughly $40 million total, close to a $10 million increase in guaranteed money to his team option stretched over three seasons. The first year of that deal would be about $12.7 million, which leaves over $5.5 million in cap space.

Second, Denver must move Mason Plumlee’s expiring contract and take back no salary. This will be difficult but not impossible. On top of only being due the one year and $14.04 million on his upcoming contract, Plumlee is most certainly a helpful player for most teams. The New Orleans Pelicans could use a veteran center to play next to Zion Williamson. The Orlando Magic could be in need of a center if Nikola Vucevic leaves. Hell, Boston definitely needs another big man now that Horford is on his way out the door. There are places Plumlee could go and at least be a reliable contributor, maybe even a starter, so moving that salary won’t be a major issue, even if it costs a current player or a draft pick to move it.

If Denver is able to move Plumlee without taking any salary back, the Nuggets will have freed up roughly $20 million in cap space to offer to Horford. He may need less than that to sign in Denver, in which case Millsap’s contract could have more money attached to it instead, but the process in acquiring Horford is very simple if he’s willing to come to Denver.

After that, the process is quite simple. Jokic, Millsap, and Horford would rotate in and out of the game with Jokic serving as the de facto center, Millsap serving as the de facto power forward, and Horford playing the hybrid role between the two. Maybe Horford starts games next to Jokic, comes off the floor early, and then reappears as the bench center during most games. The Nuggets would have to carefully monitor his minutes, but he averaged 29 per game last season with the Celtics. Recreating that scenario seems like the best way to keep him fresh and ready for the playoffs, and the Nuggets have the talent around him to do so.

One of Millsap or Horford would have to come off the bench, but those two and Jokic would all play a high number of minutes, especially in the playoffs. During the regular season, I’d expect Jokic and Horford to start games together to improve the chemistry as quickly as possible. Jokic and Millsap are already comfortable with each other, and Millsap and Horford spent four seasons together in Atlanta, two of which they made the Eastern Conference All-Star team as a tandem. I’d have to imagine that one of those guys, maybe even both, would be okay with reduced minutes or a bench role if it meant competing for a championship together again.

This entire strategy is predicated on Horford being receptive to Denver as a free agent destination. They can’t give him the rumored $100 million contract he’s interested in without moving additional salary beyond Mason Plumlee, but they could offer him a four-year $86 million contract without really breaking a sweat. If he’s willing to take a small pay cut to play in Denver, then he would have a real chance at winning an NBA championship, something that changes his legacy forever.

Things fell apart in Boston for him. The Celtics have wanted to trade for Anthony Davis for the last three seasons. Kyrie Irving bailed on him. Gordon Hayward has struggled to come back from a horrid injury, and the team doesn’t have any flexibility go get sizably better if Irving departs. Horford went to Boston to compete for a ring. That didn’t happen, but it could happen in Denver. Nikola Jokic’s superstardom, combined with a versatile cast of characters next to and behind him, are the reason why.

All it takes is a leap of faith.