Sometime in July, the internet unanimously crowned the Atlanta Hawks as basketball’s newest darlings — everybody’s favorite upstart, League Pass-worthy, fun-as-heck roster that could shock the world and make a postseason bid through high-tempo and athletically electric hoops. Although such claims may, in truth, be premature — at heart, the sport does love a good underdog story and the Hawks have all the trappings of a cult classic, sort of like NFL Odds in NJ.
Basketball Insiders kicked off its annual season previews again this week — and, as always, they’re some of the most comprehensive, detailed looks around. If you missed the grand opening, you can check out the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls already. Later on, our team will tackle the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and everybody else by the time October rolls around.
But, for now, the focus is on Atlanta, Trae Young, John Collins and the pressures of making that next big leap.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Hawks — along with the Pelicans — are the most interesting team in the NBA – to me at least. They had a great second-half of 2018-19 and should see fairly substantial gains given their youth. Trae Young lived up to all of the hype he generated two years ago at Oklahoma and he will continue to dazzle this season. The rest of their starting lineup is incredibly well-rounded and – on paper – fits together almost perfectly. The additions of De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando add significant young talent, while Evan Turner, Alex Len and Jabari Parker add more skilled veterans to the roster. And, of course, the return of Vince Carter guarantees a savvy veteran presence. The Hawks have almost too much depth.
They will continue to struggle as they grow into themselves and learn how to win at the highest of levels. But we should see considerable improvement on the 29 wins they posted in 2018-19. The main challenge for head coach Lloyd Pierce will be managing minutes and keeping his roster happy with playing time, along with the growing expectations.
3rd place – Southeast Division
– Drew Maresca
There’s a lot of expectations being put on the Hawks. Despite a record with only 29 wins, it was the perfect definition of what a developmental season should be. Trae Young started out with some struggles, but ultimately came into his own and worked his magic. When John Collins returned, he was a double-double machine. Aside from DeAndre’ Bembry, those are the only young ones left, as longtime Atlanta favorite Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince were both moved this summer. General manager Travis Schlenk decided to bring in a few veterans to help, in addition to drafting three legitimate rookies in De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando. Lloyd Pierce will continue to excel and mature his roster – and there won’t be a bottom tier finish – but playoffs aren’t quite a given for this writer.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Hawks have one of the highest upside teams in the NBA right now. Trae Young is a budding star. John Collins might be one too. Point guard is probably the toughest position in the league to play and Young has all the tools to be an elite playmaker. Collins has looming potential as an elite defensive player, but he can score the ball as well — especially with Young feeding him the ball. They had a solid draft too, and both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish should get meaningful minutes right away, but development is the key for them this season. They could fight for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, but as long as they show some true growth, that’s all that matters.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– David Yapkowitz
The Atlanta Hawks had a busy offseason, making too many moves to cover completely in this short blurb. To keep it short, the Hawks added De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, while moving on from Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Deyonta Davis, Jaylen Adams. I like Hunter as a prospect, but I don’t think I would have traded the 17th pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ protected 2020 pick to draft Hunter fourth overall.
However, I did like Atlanta taking Reddish with the 10th overall pick since I think his game is much better suited for the NBA than it is for the college game. I’m not a big fan of the terms of the Jabari Parker contract since the Hawks gave him a player option on the second season. If Parker has a big season and passes on his player options, the Hawks have limited ability to retain him. Having said that, the team continues to add more young talent to an exciting core of prospects and will have a ton of cap flexibility next season.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Hawks have been following the Golden State Warriors’ blueprint for two offseasons now and the results have been pretty solid. The Hawks amassed a ton of assets in taking on bad cap money in order to allow themselves to cash in on draft prospects they strongly liked. This summer, not only did they get two that fit the current roster — but the additions could augment it in a way that gets them seriously in the playoff hunt this year. If Trae Young continues to figure out the NBA game, he could be a borderline All-Star, John Collins is already a borderline All-Star, but adding De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to the squad makes the future looks incredibly bright — bright enough to think maybe the Hawks could win 30 or more games this season. The Hawks are still on the outside looking in, but that might not be the case for long if the young guys gel quickly.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Hawks are the lone team in the NBA with any real cap room, at roughly $7 million (before signing Vince Carter as rumored). Look for Atlanta to shop that cap room in a trade before the season begins, possibly to take on more unwanted salary along with draft considerations as compensation. If not, Atlanta may take that space all the way to the trade deadline.
The team can sign DeAndre’ Bembry and Damian Jones to contract extensions before the start of the season. The team will undoubtedly take the team options on Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter before November. Looking forward to next summer, the Hawks could have up to $80 million in spending power to add to their emerging core.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Trae Young
According to many unfair onlookers, Trae Young was considered called a bust before he ever stepped on the court, mostly due to the hype around Luka Doncic — last year’s eventual, inevitable Rookie of the Year and the phenom that Young was dealt for on draft night. And although Young began slow, he gradually adjusted to the speed of pro-level competition, found his groove and then lit the league on fire. Following the February break, Young looked the part of a future superstar, pulling up from all over behind the arc — his money-maker during that sole stint at Oklahoma the year prior — and even made a late, legitimate push for that aforementioned award.
From Feb. 22 on, Young tallied 20 or more points in 17 of the Hawks’ final 22 contests. All in all, the soon-to-be 21-year-old finished with a promising average of 19.1 points, 8.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game.
Even better, the unwieldy, turnover-prone efforts should happen far less after his first full offseason — but never fear: Young, without question, is an offensive show-stopper with an All-Star-level ceiling.
Top Defensive Player: De’Andre Hunter
Shockingly, the Hawks’ best defensive player already may just be De’Andre Hunter, a 21-year-old, 6-foot-7 do-it-all protector. Unsurprisingly, Atlanta didn’t have a single player in 2018-19 with a standout defensive rating and most of the names high on the list either played very little or are no longer with the team. Jeremy Lin, over 19.7 minutes per game, tallied a defensive rating of 107.7 and now he’s back in China, leaving Vince Carter and DeAndre’ Bembry as the best remaining assets.
So, right, Hunter: He’s an NCAA champion, a former second-team All-American, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in both the ACC and NABC — even better, he should be ready to contribute from day one. Although his counting statistics in both steals and blocks don’t appear noteworthy, Hunter can defend in the paint and on the perimeter, able and willing to switch on screens and stick to his opposition too. For a team that bled points every night and finished with a defensive rating of 113.1 (28th-worst), Hunter is an immediate rotation piece and hopeful game-changer.
If anything, Atlanta can only go upwards from last season — that alone will give Hunter the room to shine once again.
Top Playmaker: Trae Young
Of course, calling Young one of the league’s most-impressive, young playmakers would somehow be a disservice to his penchant for bucket-scoring euphoria. Despite questions surrounding his size and efficiency — and still needing to make major strides in the latter — Young was must-watch television when he got hot. And there may be no better example than one jaw-dropping performance in which Young dropped 49 points and 16 assists on 17-for-33 from the floor and 46.2 percent from deep. A few weeks later, Young tossed 16 assists to just a single turnover; which was also his fifth and final effort with 13 or more dimes during a rookie season that only seemed to rise.
Watching Young can be an infectious activity — with speed to burn and a lightning-fast trigger finger, the ceiling is already tantalizingly grand. Between keeping opposing defenders on skates and finding the open teammate, Young is set to befuddle head coaches for years and years to come. Among all rookies, Young finished second in points and first in assists per game — furthermore, the only players in the entire league that tallied more of the latter last season were an All-Star-worthy trio of Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook.
Top Clutch Player: John Collins
For now, both John Collins and Young will share the throne in this all-important category until somebody can manage to separate themselves this season. Young, although never afraid of the big moment, had bouts of inefficiency and the Hawks trailed so often that his collegiate-level madness couldn’t peak at a consistent rate until the end of the year. But, as mentioned, that springtime star left many with a taste of just how special Young could be someday. Again, when he got hot, there were few players more unguardable than Young.
On 24 different occasions, Young hit three or more three-pointers in a contest. He scored more than 30 points nine times and was the owner of magical moments like this and this. Expand those highlights to those that made him a nation-wide hero as a Sooner and, of course, his clutch gene is undeniable. With gained wisdom, strength and an evolving supporting cast, it’s fair to expect Young to reach (and beat) even more of those high-pressure situations in 2019-20.
But Collins, too, deserves mention as one of the Hawks’ key-building blocks. Thanks to a late surge in popularity, Collins generated some deserved All-Star bid buzz and, thankfully, he should only continue to soar from here. At 21 years old, Collins is an athletic, stretchy forward with all the offensive tools of a future unicorn. The 6-foot-10 high-flyer scored 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, even expanding his three-point range to a reasonably exciting 0.9 makes at a 34.8 percent rate as well. Young’s flashier, deep-range appeal is hard to look past, but Collins’ ability to get a much-needed bucket or contest-clinching exclamation point is not something to sleep on either. Collins may be an All-Star for the next decade or so — and if he provides more moments like this, it’ll be nearly impossible to disagree.
The Unheralded Player: Kevin Huerter
It’s hard to believe that Kevin Huerter might be considered unheralded, but with Young and Collins, deservingly, in the main stage spotlights, here we are. To wit, Huerter owns the much-needed consistency trait that Young must strive to find in year two, plus a fantastic 38.5 percent mark from three-point range. Out of college, the 6-foot-7 first-rounder was pegged as the best three-point shooting threat in the entire class — so far, Huerter has begun to live up to that hype and more already.
Among rookies, Huerter’s 1.8 three-pointers per game were fourth-best, only trailing Landry Shamet, Doncic and Young. On the percentage side of proceedings, it was just Collin Sexton, Alonzo Trier and Shamet to beat him there too. Furthermore, Huerter played in 75 games and notched 12 or more points in 26 of them, topping out with a magnificent, red-hot January performance of 29 points on 5-for-8 from three-point range. Even as a 21-year-old, Huerter has proven early that he’s a shoulder worth leaning on. Comparing him to Klay Thompson is perhaps a bit too easy — since, duh, Thompson is a three-time champion, one of the greatest three-point shooters of all-time and a member of the All-Defensive Second Team currently — but Huerter has shown promise as a perimeter defender as well. As Kyler pointed out above, the Hawks have adopted the Warriors’ team-building blueprints and Huerter looks like a strong fit in that sense.
For a team that desperately needs playmakers on the defensive end, Huerter’s 6-foot-8 wingspan will make him a steady, reliable cog — if not much, much more — for years to come. If Young and Collins are the compelling forces of potential stardom, Huerter may just be the secret sauce that’ll keep it all together.
Best New Addition: De’Andre Hunter
Quickly, the focus returns to the aforementioned De’Andre Hunter, who has a special opportunity to be a ready-to-go, NBA-made contributor from day one. Over his four seasons at Virginia — capped off with a net-cutting championship last spring — Hunter became collegiate basketball’s best man-to-man defender. If that talent transfers over to the infinitely faster NBA — and it should, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound force is already 21 — then Hunter is a dose of medicine the Hawks badly need.
Last season, Atlanta owned a nearly passable offensive unit — although the league-wide rank says differently — but with Young, Huerter, Collins and others involved, that should come as no surprise. Unfortunately, the defense was beyond cataclysmic. With that downright bad rating of 113.1, the 28th-ranked squad just leaked points in every possible way at nearly every possible opportunity. Hunter can’t solve all those questions immediately, but he’ll surely help push Atlanta up toward the middle of the pack, a reasonable goal that will go far in their efforts to make the playoffs in a weaker conference. Scroll back up if you’ve already forgotten his laundry-list of collegiate honors and Hunter can flat-out defend, a trait that forced the Hawks’ hands early on in the draft.
With the other-Cavaliers, Hunter averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds on 43.8 percent from three-point range, while his size and strength should allow him to guard three positions at the professional level. During the National Championship, Hunter exploded for 27 points on 8-for-16 and thrived on the sport’s biggest stage and brightest moment. Given their imminent offensive firepower, Hunter will be concentrated mainly on shutting down the opposition’s best player — but if his collegiate resume is any indication, it won’t be long before he’s an impact player in the NBA either.
– Ben Nadeau
Who We Like
1. Allen Crabbe + Evan Turner
Clearly, the Hawks are a roster fully run by their up-and-coming youngsters — but the veterans are no slouches either. Allen Crabbe — acquired in a pre-draft move for Taurean Prince — was hurt for much of last season, but he’s the owner of multiple three-point seasons with a percentage over 37 or better — three to be exact. If he’s healthy, Crabbe will have plenty of room to let fly in Atlanta’s fast-trigger, high-scoring offense. Additionally, Evan Turner, a former teammate of Crabbe’s in Portland, has been maligned in recent years for his bloated contract, but he’ll be fine fit — 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 2018-19 — as the Hawks’ second-unit leader and floor general.
3. Chandler Parsons
Chandler Parsons is around and kicking too following his midsummer move from Memphis. Parsons, now 30, hasn’t played more than 35 games since 2015-16, but the massive deal that’ll pay him $25 million this season is set to expire next summer — so the once-uber-promising shooter will have something to prove. Giving Parsons the classic if-healthy caveat is a dangerous game — if not completely naive at this point — but we’re willing to take a final spin on the Parsons Express.
4. Vince Carter
Vince Carter, perhaps surprisingly, is returning to Atlanta for another ride this season, ready to play consistent minutes and mentor the cornerstones rather than receive spot minutes for a contender. Many playoff-ready rosters were interested in Carters’ services in July, but the will-be 22-year veteran remains in his stewardship role — a position that many, many young Hawks appreciated all year long. He’s no longer Half-Man, Half-Amazing but Carter is an important part of Atlanta’s culture and fabric, so he belongs here as much as anybody else.
5. Bruno Fernando
Cam Reddish will likely struggle as a raw, slender 20-year-old — but another rookie, former Terrapin Bruno Fernando, offers an intriguing look at the Hawks’ long-term plans at center. Albeit inconsistent, Fernando frequently put up lottery-worthy efforts over two years at Maryland — instead, the Hawks snagged him at No. 34 overall. At 6-foot-10, Fernando is another rim-protecting diamond in the rough that averaged 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks over 34 contests last season. After losing Dewayne Dedmon to the Kings this summer, Fernando is a beyond interesting watch off the bench.
– Ben Nadeau
As mentioned, the Hawks haven’t struggled to score in a hot minute — that’s never been in doubt. Although the offensive rating, likely affected by the porous defense, was unspectacular, it was head coach Lloyd Pierce’s first year on the job, flanked by impressive, but raw, talents. The Hawks’ 113.3 points per game were the 13th-highest mark in the league and their warp-speed pace of 104.56 was the fastest of any in 2018-19. Led by Young and Huerter’s combined total of 11.7 three-pointers per game, the Hawks finished in the top five in both attempts (37, third-highest) and total conversations (16.1 made, fourth-best).
In points off turnovers, the Atlanta did well too, notching a serviceable 17 points per game, 11th-highest last season — they, too, finished in the same spot for steals league-wide at 8.2 during every contest. Adding Hunter to the mix should only improve the roster in that regard and, for a team headed by four sub-22-year-olds, it’s an impressive feat no matter how you slice it.
Given the assumed progression by cornerstones like Young, Collins and Huerter — and no major offensive departures this offseason — the Hawks should continue to do just fine there again.
– Ben Nadeau
Before diving into the defensive-related worries, the turnovers were a result-plaguing issue for the Hawks too. At 17 turnovers per game, the Atlanta Hawks led the league in giveaways in 2018-19, handily beating out second-placed Los Angeles too.
Given Young’s high-usage for a rookie point guard, it’s not fair to tag him with all of the sloppy blame — but it was a concern for him out of Oklahoma as well. Naturally, those tasked with both scoring and playmaking for others will often have higher-than-usual totals — see: Russell Westbrook. However, Young tossed away four or more turnovers 42 times as a first-year professional. Worse, he reached the six-turnover plateau — with a season-high of nine — in 18 of those contests.
Only James Harden, Devin Booker and Westbrook averaged more turnovers than Young last season — two of whom are recent MVPs and certain Hall of Famers — and he struggled frequently with it in Division-I two years ago. There are great odds that his tallies, as he matures and bulks up, will subside, but it’s a clear weak spot in an otherwise promising offense.
Defensively, they’ve got plenty of room to improve, especially with Hunter now in tow. The Hawks allowed the third-most three-pointers per game at 12.4 during 2018-19 and opponents put up 49.3 points in the paint as well, meaning that they were getting scored on from just about everywhere. Atlanta’s defensive rating — as a reminder: 113.8, 28th-worst — couldn’t stop a chair from scoring on most nights and were only beat out in futility by the Suns and Cavaliers.
If they truly aspire to be a postseason-bound squad, that’ll have to improve on defense in a hurry.
– Ben Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
Can the Atlanta Hawks make the playoffs in 2019-20?
Well, probably not.
Still, even being in the hypothetical conversation is worth some points on merit alone. Thanks to some savvy front office transactions, promising up-and-comers and a modern, practical NBA offense, the Hawks are closer to that goal than ever. Even if they don’t end up in a final Eastern Conference playoff spot, reaching the ninth or tenth slot on the ladder would be a welcomed improvement. Bye-bye to the cellar, most certainly, if that’s an adequate consolation prize too.
They’ll remain exciting. Young will continue to get terrifyingly-hot and unrelentingly cold. Collins will keep reaching for rim-rattling stardom and Huerter will be the glue that makes the whole train rolling on — regardless, as of now, it’s a major ask for extra springtime games. Give Reddish, Fernando and Hunter a year to fully find their footing, let Young chop those turnover numbers in half and give Collins the freedom to do whatever he wants — then the race for the postseason will truly be on.
Ultimately, the defense will doom far too many of the Hawks’ strong offensive performances to make this question any more than wishful thinking in September. But there’s nothing that we all love more than a good story and Atlanta owns the makings of one. Come the All-Star break, or maybe even earlier, it’ll be easy to tell if the Hawks are on the cusp of breaking through or if some patience needs to be afforded.
Either way, transforming a cellar-dweller doesn’t happen overnight — however, it’s never been more obvious that the Hawks are on the right path back.
– Ben Nadeau
NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks
David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.
Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.
The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.
For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.
He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.
“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”
Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.
But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.
“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”
In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.
Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.
But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.
“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”
Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.
“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.
Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.
“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.
“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”
At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.
“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”
NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA
Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte
The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.
So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.
Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.
“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.
With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.
“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.
The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.
After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.
“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.
While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.
“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”
On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.
“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.
Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.
Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.
“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”
Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.
“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”
Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.
Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.
“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”
The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.
NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return
Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.
Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.
Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.
Then, it happened.
With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.
Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.
His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.
To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.
After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.
Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.
And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor
That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.
Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.
Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.
For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.
With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.
But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.
In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”
Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.
And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.