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Al Horford changes everything for the Celtics

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The stigma that Boston couldn’t land a major free agent is gone now. So is the critique that the Celtics lack a star. Al Horford changes all of that.

Al Horford agreed to join the Celtics on Saturday. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With one deft maneuver, the Boston Celtics improved their present and revitalized their future. The team that couldn’t sign big-name free agents just added one of the biggest on the market. The team without a top-20 player now has a four-time All-Star on its roster. And to think it was only 10 days ago when owner Wyc Grousbeck was booed on draft night by his own fans. Life comes at you fast.

All of the things that were true before the Celtics came to terms with Al Horford on a 4-year, $113 million deal are still in place. That is, they have a brilliant coach to go with a versatile and deep team and a cache of draft picks. But now they have a star and stars change everything. Not to mention, they have a star who didn’t force Danny Ainge to deal any of his core players or prime picks.

The Celtics are legit now in a way they weren’t before landing Horford. He not only gives them a defensive presence on the backline and a versatile offensive threat, but he also gives them credibility both now and in the future. For all the banners and lore and tradition of playing in Boston, their biggest free agent moves to date had been signing aging veterans like Rasheed Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal, or useful role players like James Posey and Amir Johnson. (You can throw Dominique Wilkins or Xavier McDaniel in there if you like, but that’s so last century.)

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The team has always believed that their inability to lure big-time free agents to Boston said less about their circumstances than their opportunities. They weren’t in the running because they weren’t good and when they were good, they didn’t have any cap space. It was only last summer when they finally renounced long-dormant cap holds and officially freed up space. Semantics aside, until they landed a prime free agent the stigma was not going away.

Horford changes that narrative now and forever. He was a top-5 free agent and the biggest (so far) to change teams this summer. Thanks to Horford, the Celtics can now rightly boast of being the modern destination franchise they always believed they were. And with Horford in place, Ainge now has a significant drawing card to entice the ultimate free agent prize in Kevin Durant.

Even if he doesn’t land KD, Ainge has positioned his team to be a power in the Eastern Conference for the next few years. They may be closer to the Toronto Raptors than they are the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference hierarchy at the moment, but at the least they have separated themselves from the muddled middle while dealing a serious blow to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs. (Long live the pace-and-space Atlanta Hawks. It was a good run.)

Horford’s numbers are not overwhelming, but he has always been a true hoops connoisseur’s idea of a star and his presence solves a ton of problems for the Celtics. He’s a terrific mid-range shooter and a tremendous passer, all of which makes him an ideal pick-and-pop partner for Isaiah Thomas. Even with a top-10 offense, the C’s were one of the worst shooting teams in the league as evidenced by ranking 24th in effective field goal percentage. Now imagine Horford spotting up from 18 feet or hitting Avery Bradley on backdoor cuts from the high post.

His defense has long been his calling card, and while he’s undersized for a center, Horford is a master of positioning and should play well with Boston’s ballhawking guards. Even without a defensive anchor of Horford’s caliber, the Celtics still ranked fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions. This is a good team that just became very good.

Of course, very good is not Ainge’s endgame. He and the ownership group want to contend for championships and they haven’t been shy in expressing that desire. Ever since Grousbeck hinted at fireworks entering the 2014 offseason, the Celtics have made an art form out of raising expectations and then failing to deliver the goods. Whether it was the failed pursuit of Kevin Love, the inability to swing a draft-day trade for Justise Winslow or any other rumored trade that never happened, Ainge and the Celtics have taken a pounding locally for not landing a marquee player. That changes now.

If the Horford signing winds up being this summer’s finishing move, Ainge is still far from done in his ongoing quest to remake the roster. He has those picks and he has his core players, some of whom will look increasingly appealing next to a player of Horford’s caliber. Depending on a few variables -- such as Durant’s decision -- the Celtics could also have space and flexibility to go after a star in next year’s free agent class, which is much deeper, or continue to explore the trade market. He’ll still be selling a future, but now it’s one that’s tied to a much stronger present.