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


No trade, perhaps in any sport, will ever surpass that, though it must be noted the Ice Capades’ trade value has dropped through the years. But the Celtics have 17 championship banners hovering above the TD Garden parquet in part due to other one-sided deals.

Their second-best trade would rate the best in most franchises’ history: June 1980, pushed for by Celtics coach Bill Fitch, with the Golden State Warriors that brought Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick in the upcoming draft for the Nos. 1 and 17 selections. The Celtics swiped Kevin McHale at No. 3, and ended up with two future Hall of Famers. The Warriors ended up with two tall fellas named Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown.

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

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

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

A few more tiers down from those blockbusters was a recent trade bringing great joy right now. This one will likely be regarded as more of an Honorable Mention in the first volume of “Hilariously Lopsided Trades in Celtics History” than one of great historical magnitude. But then again, if the Celtics get the victories necessary to secure Banner 18, the deal that brought the ever-admirable Al Horford back to Boston last summer is going to require its own chapter in franchise lore.

Horford, who turned 36 Friday, is often playing as if he’s a decade younger in these playoffs. He’s had 14 rebounds or more five times, including exactly 14 in the clinching Game 7 win against 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 Thursday — the first Finals appearance of the six-time All-Star’s 15-year career — he scored 26, including back-to-back 3-pointers in the fourth quarter that put the Celtics up 6. And his defense and passing remain as steady as his proud-dad demeanor.

Horford arrived the first time as the first big-name free agent to ever 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 who you could see thriving on any great Celtics team through the generations, but he didn’t click in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons — seriously, how can anyone struggle to mesh with the malleable Horford ? — and was sent to the Oklahoma City Tankers … er, Thunder, who sat him down out of concern he might do the inexcusable and actually help them win some basketball games.

When Brad Stevens, barely two weeks into his new role as president of basketball operations, reacquired Horford in a June trade, serious Celtics fans were pleased to see him come back even if there was some uncertainty about how much he had left to contribute. But the deal was already a surefire win because it got the Celtics out from under the 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 unfailingly tried to do the right thing. But his sore knees and high-usage, low-efficiency approach to offense made him an increasingly unreliable option, especially with Tatum and Brown emerging as the primary scorers.

Walker started the All-Star Game his first season in Boston — playing in that actually may have exacerbated his knee problems — but by last season, that had begun to feel like a long time ago. He was not in Oklahoma City long, and was last seen sitting at the end of the New York Knicks bench.

During 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 just all screaming in the car, just really, really excited. Really, really grateful. Right away, we’re just making plans about heading back to Boston, doing the physical, doing all this stuff. It was a really happy time for my family at that time. Especially for me, because it’s where I wanted to be.”

Some of the takes around the Horford/Walker deal are amusing in retrospect. Much of the speculation was that Stevens made the deal to clear room 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 Horford out, just a means to moving Walker.

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

Once the trade happened here and everything, you know, I texted with Jayson a few times,” said Horford. “I told him that I was looking forward to being in these positions this coming season. I really believed that. I already played with these guys before; I know what they’re about. I just knew that if we got it together, we were going to have an opportunity, we were going to have a chance. It’s something that I believed from the beginning.”

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

Bringing him home wasn’t the best trade in Celtics history, but it’s already among the most satisfying. And if he keeps playing like this, we all might get to steal away for a parade soon.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.



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