It's easy to forget this, seeing as the Trail Blazers just got done capturing the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference and winning a round in the playoffs to boot, but everything that Portland did this season was all just the very beginning of a long-term plan. This year was remarkable, but it was not a final destination. No - if anything, it was just a rest stop on a trip to someplace still far away. It was a nice rest stop, with clean bathrooms and good food and even free Wi-Fi, but a rest stop nonetheless.
It's important to bear this in mind as we evaluate the Blazers' options in free agency this summer. The Blazers captured the No. 5 seed and won a playoff round; as a general rule, when you're in that position, it's time to acquire that one last piece that will get your team over the hump and into true title contention. Typically, that's how it works. The Blazers, however, are anything but a typical No. 5 seed. Their 44 wins were quite paltry for a team seeded that high, and there's a prevailing sentiment around the league that even at a modest 44, the Blazers overachieved their true ability. You can't blame people for thinking this way. After all, this team was just so young, and expectations were just so low.
Neil Olshey has always been keenly aware of his team's youth. All along, it's been the guiding principle behind his team-building strategy. He knows full well that Damian Lillard is his franchise player, that Lillard is 25 and that 25 is still a bit young to be the leader of a serious NBA title contender. That's why he's made small, careful moves so far in the 11 months since losing LaMarcus Aldridge. He's yet to push all his chips in and make a big bet on the team's chances to win right away.
He's said as much on the record. Remember, here's what the Blazers' GM told then-Grantland's Zach Lowe back in August 2015 about how the front office approached the possibility of life without LaMarcus:
What we weren't going to do was become a victim of LaMarcus' decision. We had made that decision months in advance. The contingency we had in place was not to replace LaMarcus Aldridge, because quite honestly, that player didn't exist. Our contingency was we were going to move away from the veterans that had complemented LaMarcus on the current roster and build around young players on favorable contracts, or with restricted free agent status down the road, that were on the same career arc as Damian Lillard. That's the path we chose. We went straight ahead in that direction without looking back.
That "career arc" thing became the core of the Blazers' mission statement. From the moment that Aldridge declared his independence from Portland on July 4, the front office was ready to pursue young guys with future potential. They signed Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu the moment the moratorium unded on July 9. They called up the Magic and offered them basically nothing for Maurice Harkless on July 14. Throughout August and September, they worked internally to develop their young guys - CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and so on. The Blazers made it clear. If you're 25 or younger and you have promise, you're just what we're looking for.
I know all of this. I know the Blazers made a deliberate choice to go young, and I know that even though this season went well, it makes perfect logical sense to stay young and keep building that way. But I can't help myself.
I want Al Horford.
It's no secret that when the Blazers hit the free agent market this summer, finding a big man is going to be a priority for them. Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis are still under contract, and neither is a bad option per se, but both have fairly limited games, and it would behoove the Blazers to go out and get a big with a little more versatility. Someone with an 18-foot jumper would be nice. Defense is also a concern - the Blazers finished No. 20 in the NBA in defense this past year, averaging 108.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, and having a stronger last line of defense at the rim would certainly help.
Perusing the list of available free agents this summer and bearing in mind the whole arc thing we just talked about, there are a bunch of 20-something centers who might make a decent amount of sense for the Blazers' needs. A few names to think about right off the bat are Hassan Whiteside (26), Festus Ezeli (26), Tyler Zeller (26), Dwight Powell (24) and Bismack Biyombo (23). None of the above are known for their midrange shooting, but at the very least, they're athletic young players who have size and should help make the Blazers better defensively.
Then you have Horford, who is obviously counterintuitive for a Blazers team that's been building the way it has. The Dominican-born big man just finished his ninth season with the Atlanta Hawks, and he won't be 20-something for long - his 30th birthday is a week from today. He's got 19,342 career NBA minutes on him already, plus another 2,560 in the playoffs. He's been a Hawk his whole career, which means he's part of a strong basketball culture led by Mike Budenholzer, who's built a stable nucleus around Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. That's two reasons right there that you might consider Horford off limits to the Blazers in free agency - one, he's got it made in Atlanta, and two, he's old.
To the first point, the Hawks' foundation might not be as stable as it seems. While Atlanta has won 108 games and three playoff rounds in the last two seasons, establishing itself as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks are also 0-8 in the postseason against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and there's a growing level of buzz that they're pessimistic about this current group and its ability to get over the hump. That's why, according to reporting back in February from Kevin Arnovitz and Brian Windhorst of ESPN, the Hawks were actively working the phones to move Horford, Teague or Korver and start rebuilding. It's quite possible that the Hawks aren't as solidly built as we initially thought, and this might actually be the perfect time for Horford to leave before the team gets stuck in a major rut.
As for the age thing? Nah, I'm not worried. Horford might be approaching 30, and with a lot of miles on his odometer, but you watch him on the floor and it's clear he can still play quite a bit.
The play above, from the Hawks' January win in Portland, is a great example of how useful Al Horford is to a modern NBA offense. With the Hawks during the last three years under Budenholzer, Horford has been used in rather simple, straightforward sets - it's a lot of 1-4 and 1-5 pick-and-rolls with a lot of dribble handoffs and a lot of motion off the ball to free up shooters. This play is super basic - it's a give-and-go between Horford and Teague, with Horford handing off to his teammate and screening Lillard to give him space for a drive to the rim.
The Blazers play Teague aggressively, with Lillard going under Horford and Mason Plumlee dropping back to the rim. Against most NBA centers, this would work just fine, but Horford is no ordinary NBA center! Instead of following Teague to the rim in pursuit of an offensive rebound, he hangs back at the elbow. Teague finds him, and his 16-foot jumper is right on the money.
Having this threat is a tremendous asset for Atlanta's spacing. Horford is one of the best pure shooters in the world for his size - in three seasons under Budenholzer, his field goal percentages from 16-plus feet have been 49.6, 49.4 and 49.2 percent - remarkably consistent. Compare this to the Blazers' current options, and we all know that Plumlee and Davis, for all their strengths, do not have this skill.
What makes Horford even more interesting is that he doesn't necessarily have to shoot in these situations. He's a versatile, unpredictable player and it shows every night. Check this out. It's a very similar play, from the same game:
This is why I love Horford so much. You think he's zigging, he zags; you think he's zagging, he zigs. Just like on the last one, the Blazers play the Teague/Horford pick-and-roll by collapsing into the paint with both defenders (in this case, it's McCollum instead of Lillard). Teague kicks out to Horford, who's open for 3 - and he's a respectable shooter from that distance, 34 percent for his career. Instead of shooting, though, watch what he does! He waits, suckers Plumlee into a closeout that he over-commits to, and ends up creating a wide-open lane to cut to the basket. He makes it look too easy.
There are very few players in the NBA that meet this set of criteria - 6-foot-10, a capable shooter from anywhere on the floor and a good enough athlete to attack driving lanes and find the basket. When you find a player like that, you generally wave $100 million in his direction and beg him to take it. For the Blazers, having this skill set in the mix would be a massive win - Horford's jumper would create a great deal of spacing to help Lillard and McCollum drive, and vice versa. The guards would also open up chances for Horford to make plays like this.
Of course, there's the concern that Horford's almost 30 years old, and if you give him a max deal now, he'll be playing here until he's 35 and his slashiness isn't guaranteed to age well. That's a valid point! But then again, Horford can do other stuff besides score.
This play is evidence that Horford isn't just a shooter and slasher - he's also a 6-foot-10 extra point guard on the floor. This is one of the reasons the Hawks have been so great throughout the last two years - having a playmaking center allows them to basically play with a five-out offensive structure that breaks defenses down with nonstop passing. Watch what happens as the Blazers cheat away from the weak side against the Hawks on this possession, from their December loss at Atlanta. Plumlee and Noah Vonleh both inch away from Horford and Kent Bazemore, and then... bam. Horford makes them pay. You close out on one perimeter guy against the Horford-led Hawks? No problem - he'll just swing it to another.
Imagine having this weapon in Portland, combined with the personnel the Blazers have already. Think about what Terry Stotts could do playing a spread offense with Horford, Lillard, McCollum and Crabbe spread out all over the floor. It would be just about unguardable, wouldn't it?
And hey. Even if one of those guys occasionally a missed a jumper, Horford would be able to help out on the offensive glass as well.
Just look at that rebound. That's what happens when athletic ability meets intelligence - Horford starts this possession horribly out of position, as Vonleh has boxed him so far out that he's practically out of bounds, but he manages to get a second-chance opportunity for the Hawks anyway. All he has to do is time his jump perfectly, reach out and tip the ball up over Vonleh, and aim it in just the perfect direction that he finds teammate Thabo Sefolosha open on the perimeter. Five seconds later, it's an easy bucket inside for Tiago Splitter. Horford for his career averages a rebound on 22.3 percent of all defensive board opportunities and 8.3 percent of all offensive - not DeAndre Jordan numbers, exactly, but Plumlee-esque numbers without sacrificing the superior perimeter play. That's absolutely an asset.
Add all of this up, and it's clear that Al Horford would be a major get for the Trail Blazers this summer. The much tougher question, obviously, is whether Portland could realistically get him. This, I don't know, and it would be tampering for anyone to answer in May anyway, but know this. The market is going to be super competitive. The question isn't, "Who could use an All-Star big man?" - the easier way to go about it is to ask, "Who couldn't?"
Atlanta is a threat to keep Horford, of course. Boston is going to chase him hard. Dallas is always involved whenever there's a big-name free agent to be had, as are the Lakers. San Antonio, Miami or Houston all could get involved if they don't bring back Tim Duncan, Chris Bosh or Dwight Howard respectively. Given Horford's versatility and the crazy amount of cap space out there this summer, it's going to be a particularly hectic free agent chase. Just about everyone will take a shot at a big name like Horford.
For Portland, though, it would be especially gratifying to get him. Think back one more time to that summer of 2015. Remember again what Neil Olshey said about moving on from the Blazers' previous era - he said that the plan was "not to replace LaMarcus Aldridge, because quite honestly, that player didn't exist." Those were his words. But what if, I dunno... now he does? What if Horford is that player?
For almost a full year now, the Blazers have stuck to the script and slowly developed a roster full of young players. This summer offers an opportunity to flip that script. Olshey and the Blazers would be crazy not to at least consider it.