The deal to bring back Al Horford has already earned a special place in Celtics lore



Horford, who turned 36 on Friday, often plays like he’s ten years younger in these playoffs. And the Celtics he returned to last summer are a better-built team than the only version he left after the 2019 season.

“It was really, really exciting . . . It was a really happy time for my family,” Al Horford recalled when he learned the Celtics traded him back to Boston last summer. “Especially for me, because that’s where I wanted to be.” MATTHEW J LEE/GLOBE STAFF

In the Celtics’ long history of winning lopsided trades, there are varying levels of theft.

The ultimate heist – and there’s no debating that – was Red Auerbach sending Cliff Hagan and Ed McCaulay to the St. Louis Hawks for the No. 2 pick in the 1956 NBA draft. The Rochester Royals owned the first pick, but Auerbach (as a story Tom Heinsohn liked to tell) convinced Celtics owner Walter Brown to send lucrative Ice Capades show dates to the Rochester owner in exchange for passing on the player the Celtics wanted.

Rochester agreed, taking Sihugo Green from Duquesne with the first pick, and thus the Celtics had their man: University of San Francisco center Bill Russell, who became the center of 11 championship teams as the greatest winner in team sports history.

No trade, perhaps in any sport, will ever surpass that, although it should be noted that the commercial value of Ice Capades has dropped over the years. But the Celtics have 17 championship banners hovering over the TD Garden floor in part because of other one-sided deals.

Their second-best trade would be the best in most franchise history: June 1980, pushed by Celtics coach Bill Fitch, with the Golden State Warriors bringing in Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick in the next draft for No. 1 and 17 selections. The Celtics swept Kevin McHale at No. 3 and ended up with two future Hall of Famers. The Warriors ended up with two big guys named Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown.

A level or two below that was the June 1983 deal that brought in guard Dennis Johnson from the Suns for center Rick Robey. And more recently, a pair of deals involving Kevin Garnett reshaped the franchise in different but essential ways.

The first was the July 2007 arrival, with the Timberwolves bringing KG to Boston for center Al Jefferson and various roster fillers. The second, the departure, in June 2013 sent him and Paul Pierce (among others) to the Nets for a few veteran hikes and a bag of first-round picks, leading to the selections of Jaylen Brown and, after a savvy trade with the Sixers, Jayson Tatum.

Turns out Danny Ainge’s character knew what he was doing, huh?

A few more levels from these blockbusters was a recent trade that was bringing great joy right now. This one will probably be considered more of an honorable mention in the first volume of “The Hilarious Lopsided Trades in Celtics History” than one of great historical significance. But then again, if the Celtics get the wins needed to secure the 18 banner, the deal that brought the ever-admirable Al Horford back to Boston last summer is going to require its own chapter in franchise history.

Horford, who turned 36 on Friday, often plays like he’s ten years younger in these playoffs. He had 14 or more rebounds on five occasions, including exactly 14 in the decisive Game 7 win over the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. In Game 4 of the semifinals against the Bucks, he scored 30 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter. In Game 1 of the Finals on Thursday — the first Finals appearance in the six-time All-Star’s 15-year career — he scored 26, including 3 consecutive fourth-quarter points that put the Celtics up 6. And his defense and his passes remain as steady as his proud dad attitude.

Horford first arrived as the franchise’s first big-name free agent to come to the franchise in 2016 and was part of the exodus after the Kyrie Irving poisoned debacle of a 2019 season, taking a four-year contract from the Sixers for $102. million guaranteed.

Horford is the kind of versatile, selfless player you might see thrive on any big Celtics team across the generations, but he didn’t click in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons — seriously, how does anyone can he struggle to fit into the malleable Horford? — and was sent to the Oklahoma City Tankers… uh, Thunder, who sat him down for fear he’d do the inexcusable and actually help them win basketball games.

When Brad Stevens, just two weeks into his new role as president of basketball operations, bought out Horford in a trade in June, serious Celtics fans were thrilled to see him back even though he there was some uncertainty as to how much he had left to contribute. But the deal was already a surefire win as it relieved the Celtics of more than $73 million remaining on Kemba Walker’s contract.

Walker, the UConn legend who joined the Celtics the summer Horford left, was an affable presence who always tried to do the right thing. But his sore knees and heavy-duty, inefficient attacking approach made him an increasingly unreliable option, especially with Tatum and Brown emerging as the main scorers.

Walker started the All-Star Game his first season in Boston — playing in that game may have exacerbated his knee issues — but last season it started to feel like a long time ago. He didn’t stay long in Oklahoma City and was last seen sitting on the end of the New York Knicks bench.

At media day for the NBA Finals earlier this week, Horford revealed his reaction when he found out the Celtics were bringing him back.

“When I got the call from Brad, it was really, really exciting,” he said. “I remember I was driving home with my family from visiting my mom in Atlanta, and we got the call. We’re all screaming in the car, really, really excited. Really, really grateful. Right now, we’re just planning to go back to Boston, do the physical, do all that stuff. It was a really happy time for my family at that time. Especially for me, because that’s where I wanted to be.

Some of the takes around the Horford/Walker deal are fun in retrospect. Much of the speculation was that Stevens made the deal to free up space to re-sign Evan Fournier, who instead got his own $73 million to end up with Walker on a disappointing Knicks team. Others suggested the Celtics would buy out Horford, just a way to move Walker.

Instead, he was everything he was before, and maybe even a little better. With Tatum and Brown thriving in the alpha goalscoring roles and Marcus Smart, Robert Williams III, Derrick White and Grant Williams supporting them in all sorts of ways, the Celtics are now a better-built team than the one Horford left behind.

Once the trade was here and stuff, you know, I texted Jayson multiple times,” Horford said. “I told him that I was looking forward to these positions next season. I really believed it. I’ve played with these guys before; I know what this is about. I just knew that if we got together, we were going to have an opportunity, we were going to have a chance. It’s something I believed from the start.

Horford knew what he was getting back at, and the Celtics knew what they were getting back.

Bringing him home wasn’t the best trade in Celtics history, but it’s already one of the most satisfying. And if he keeps playing like that, we could all be flying off for a parade soon.


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