Is optimism even possible following a 22-win season? A 5-19 start, a head coach firing in December and another missed postseason a year later, Chicago once again has a reason for hope.
After drafting exciting rookies and signing established veterans, the Chicago Bulls are looking to regain relevancy in the Eastern Conference through a stable core bolstered by a pair of potential first-time All-Stars. It may not translate to team accomplishment just yet but, for the first time in a while, there is a real path to success in the Windy City.
Basketball Insiders began their yearly, substantial team previews, so if you’re looking for your favorite franchise — it’s almost certainly coming down the pipeline this month. But until then, we look at if Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine are enough to get the Bulls back in the playoff hunt or if they’re doomed to another lottery-bound season for now.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Baby Bulls might be one of those teams that give the opposition headaches this year. They’re returning the majority of their pieces and have added multiple solid pieces in the offseason with Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky. Granted he stays healthy, Lauri Markkanen may be poised for a potential Most Improved Player award. We know how solid Otto Porter Jr. is, and Zach LaVine can score the ball with the best of them. Bringing Coby White into the fold as the franchise’s point guard of the future on top of all of this should make Chicago a fun watch. We’ll see if head coach Jim Boylen can round up his guys and take a step forward.
4th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Bulls enter the 2019-20 season with a lot to look forward to. There is a good amount of young talent in Chicago: Coby White will immediately be the most talented point guard in Chicago since pre-injury Derrick Rose, Wendell Carter Jr. should improve on an underrated rookie campaign and Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter Jr. will help carry the load for the Bulls in terms of leadership and production. And, of course, there’s Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, on whom their success will hinge. If the duo makes additional strides this season, the Bulls could leapfrog the Detroit Pistons for third place in the Central Division. This season is probably a little early in their development for it, however, the Bulls are headed in the right direction and should get a taste of the playoffs soon – but not this season. Sit back and enjoy the ride, Chicago.
4th place – Central Division
– Drew Maresca
The Bulls actually have a nice young nucleus in place. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are budding stars. After the midseason trade, Otto Porter Jr. put up career numbers, while Wendell Carter Jr. was solid as a rookie before his injury. Chicago also lacked a real point guard, and they’re hoping that Coby White can develop into one. While also not a true point guard, White did display some nice playmaking ability during the summer exhibitions — better, the Bulls can afford to wait for him to develop. Depending on how these players perform, it’s not at all far-fetched to see the Bulls possibly fighting for perhaps the eighth seed, if all goes right.
4th Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
I give the Chicago Bulls a lot of credit for their work this offseason. For years, the Bulls seemed more concerned with qualifying for a bottom-four seed playoff position than constructing a team that could actually contend for a title. Coby White falling to seventh is more fortunate than anything else, but it’s a nice result regardless for the Bulls, who were in desperate need for a long-term answer at point guard. I also like the signing of Thaddeus Young and sign-and-trade for Tomas Satoransky, who could be a nice placeholder at point guard while White develops. Drafting Daniel Gafford in the second round was another solid move, especially considering that Robin Lopez left the team in free agency. Adding White and Gafford to a core featuring Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison is a solid outcome for the Bulls, who suddenly have a path to building a future contender.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Bulls have had enough swings at the NBA Draft pinata, they have got to come out of one of them with the gem. Is that gem Coby White? There is so much young talent in Chicago right now that it’s hard not to be optimistic that one of those guys turns into a real star, and that might be all Chicago needs to jump out of the basement. If not, the Bulls might have the best collection of trade chips in the NBA if a major star player hits the market. The Bulls sniffed at Anthony Davis this past summer but were unwilling to meet the asking price, that could change if the current bunch of youth doesn’t turn the corner. The Bulls could be the sneaky play to be in the hunt for the eighth seed in the East. Last year it was Orlando that turned the corner — this time, it could be Chicago.
4th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Bulls used their cap room to bring in players like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, joining the team’s core of Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Porter has a player option for the 2020-21 season at $28.5 million, but he doesn’t have to decide on it until next June. That’s probably too large an amount for him to turn down, but that’s certainly a key decision point in Chicago’s future planning.
Without Porter, the team could have up to $33.7 million in cap space next summer. Otherwise, the team will probably be over the cap, barring trade. The team also has Kris Dunn going into the final year of his contract. Both Denzel Washington and Dunn are eligible for extensions before the start of the season, but neither seems likely. The Bulls will presumably pick up the team options for Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen before November.
By acquiring Satoransky via sign and trade from the Washington Wizards, the Bulls are hard-capped at $138.9 million, well above their team payroll of roughly $114 million.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine
Let’s not overthink this – Lauri Markkanen may be Chicago’s best player, but Zach LaVine has earned the title of top offensive player to this point. Last season, LaVine averaged 23.7 points on 18 shot attempts per game. He finished with a true shooting percentage of .574, barely missing his career-high despite shooting at a higher rate and with more field goals going unassisted. He carried the offense for long stretches last year, posting the seventh-highest usage in the league. Plus, forced into a playmaking role, LaVine showed an improved ability to create for teammates with a 22.5 percent assist rate, putting him in the 95th percentile in the NBA, per Cleaning The Glass.
The only thing that held LaVine back last season — similar to much of the Bulls — was injury. LaVine has played 87 games in two years since being traded as part of the Jimmy Butler deal and only reached 47 games in Minnesota the season before that. The good news is that, although he’s entering his sixth year in the NBA, LaVine is still only 24. With good health this season, LaVine could be looking at his first All-Star bid – and many more in the seasons ahead.
Top Defensive Player: Wendell Carter Jr.
Just as we predicted last year, Wendell Carter Jr. was and is the best defensive player in Chicago. Carter led the team in blocks per game at 1.3 and block rate at 4.5 percent. He had the highest defensive box plus-minus and was one of the few players with a positive impact despite his status as a rookie. Carter also rebounded the ball well, posting seven double-doubles in his shortened rookie season and averaging right at ten rebounds per game per 36 minutes.
Carter has been compared to Al Horford, and he showed flashes of that defensive flexibility last season. Carter was able to fit well next to the 7-foot Lauri Markkanen because of his fairly solid ability to guard smaller, quicker players. This becomes all the more important down the road, where playoff games can be won and lost on a big’s ability to contain guards. Of course, Horford has been doing this for years. If last season’s small sample size was any indication, Carter could be well on his way.
Top Playmaker: Tomas Satoransky
Stepping in for the injured John Wall, Tomas Satoransky enjoyed a 3.33/1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. He averaged five assists per game in only 27 minutes every night. Even better, he did so with a low usage rate of only 14.1 percent, meaning that Satoransky was a capable playmaker without having the ball as often as many point guards.
Last week, Basketball Insiders touched on Satoransky’s knack for using pace to open up opportunities for himself and others. His ability to seamlessness blend into an offense, while still being assertive and putting his teammates in spots they can succeed, bodes well for the inexperienced Bulls this year. But Satoransky can be a leading man too – he’s currently averaging 15.2 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.0 rebounds per game for the Czech Republic in the FIBA World Cup.
Top Clutch Player: Zach LaVine
This is another tough one, but we’re going to give the edge to LaVine over Markkanen here as well. Clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of games separated by five points or less. LaVine played 36 more clutch minutes than Markkanen, scored 1.3 more points per clutch situation and scored 39.6 percent of Chicago’s points in crunch time compared to Markkanen’s 22 percent.
Throwing out small sample sizes, LaVine trailed only James Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Devin Booker and Kawhi Leonard in clutch usage, per NBA.com.
LaVine also gets a small advantage because of his ability to handle the ball and attack the rim late in games. There is no better example of this than Mar. 6, when he capped off a 39-point night with a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining to beat Philadelphia.
Markkanen will surely get his chances in clutch situations now that he’s back and healthy. In fact, the Bulls’ best option in these situations will likely be a pick and roll between LaVine and the Finish standout. But, for the time being, LaVine is Chicago’s top clutch performer.
The Unheralded Player: Shaquille Harrison
Second on the team in defensive box plus-minus and first in defensive win shares, Shaquille Harrison is an important rotation player that is often forgotten. Per Cleaning The Glass, Harrison is in the 98th percentile in steal rate at 2.7 percent, tied with Jimmy Butler and ahead of Kawhi Leonard.
Via NBA.com, Harrison was fourth in the entire NBA last season in steals and deflections per 36 minutes and tied for first in loose balls recovered. He was fantastic defensively and thrived under Boylen, who increased Harrison’s minutes to around 20 per game after taking over in December.
For a team that finished 25th in defensive rating and 28th in defensive efficiency last season, Harrison was a sparkplug and the team’s best defender, routinely putting pressure on opposing guards all over the court.
The Bulls added Satoransky and rookie Coby White, plus retained LaVine, Denzel Valentine and Ryan Arcidiacono in the backcourt. Still, there is a reason they brought back Shaq Harrison as well.
Best New Addition: Thaddeus Young/Otto Porter Jr.
Is this cheating? Yes, because Otto Porter Jr. arrived last year. However, he only played 15 games – and what an impressive 15 games it was. Porter averaged 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds over that stretch and shot a scorching 48.9 percent from three on 5.3 attempts per game. Porter was a pricey acquisition, but he adds consistency, versatility and a veteran wing presence to a young team trying to get back to the playoffs.
And what does Thaddeus Young bring to the table? The same thing! Chicago signed Young to a three-year, $41 million-dollar deal this offseason to shore up their bench and add a player with playoff experience to the roster. Young has been to the playoffs in eight of his 13 seasons, including the past three in a row with Indiana.
Both Porter and Young are exactly what these Bulls need heading into 2019-2020.
– Drew Mays
WHO WE LIKE
1. Lauri Markkanen
Finally, a place to give the Finnish big man some unaccompanied love. As mentioned, Markkanen is probably Chicago’s best player. He has shown flashes of brilliance in two seasons and health is really the only thing holding him back. In 52 games last year, Markkanen averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage of .553. He is a modern big who takes 67 percent of his field goals either from three or at the rim and shoots 85.9 percent from the free-throw line for his career. The Bulls are plus-5.2 points better with him on the floor than off, good for the 89th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass. Like LaVine, an injury-free year could lead to Markkanen’s first All-Star appearance.
2. Coby White
The seventh overall pick in this year’s draft is an explosive scorer and prolific shooter. He averaged 16.1 points per game in his lone year at North Carolina and shot 35.3 percent in 232 attempts from three. His production this year will be vital to Chicago reaching their ceiling, but with Satoransky in tow, White can progress at his own pace.
3. Daniel Gafford
The Bulls’ other rookie should also make an impact this season. Gafford showed tremendous athleticism at Arkansas and in summer league and will look to provide quality back-up minutes and rim protection in his first season. In Las Vegas, Gafford brought the thunder by averaging 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on 68.3 percent from the field in just 24.9 minutes per game. Rim-protection is a serious need for postseason-ready franchises and Gafford, at some point, has all the tools to fit the bill.
4. Denzel Valentine
After missing all of last season with an ankle injury, Valentine is back with more opportunity than he has seen in his career. No longer forced to stand and watch Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo, Valentine now has a chance in his third year to show why he was college basketball’s National Player of the Year at Michigan State.
– Drew Mays
Chicago will have a full offseason to prepare under Boylen and they have even more young talent than last year. LaVine has a year under his belt as a primary offensive option, Markkanen and Carter will be healthy, and the trio of Satoransky, Porter and Young give the Bulls veterans to lean on. Whether Chicago can successfully marriage the roster splits between young and old remains to be seen, but it’s a solid problem to have, overall, and they’ll be in the mix out in a weaker Eastern Conference if they can.
– Drew Mays
Obviously, the Bulls need to improve on both ends of the floor. Last season, they were 29th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions at 104.9 and 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions at 113.7. Detroit, who was eighth in the Eastern Conference last season, finished 21st and 12th in those categories, respectively. While that large of a defensive jump is unreasonable, Chicago will need to make improvements in order to become a playoff team. If they’re functionally the same team as last year — but a little bit healthier and with White — then the Bulls will still struggle.
– Drew Mays
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Chicago go over their projected win total of 32.5?
An 11-win jump for the Bulls may seem unlikely. The eight Eastern Conference playoff teams from last year will be the favorites to make it again this spring, while Miami and Atlanta both got better this offseason.
But regardless of how you feel about head coach Jim Boylen, the defensive-minded coach has all of training camp to establish his philosophy, one that follows analytical trends and forces teams to play in the midrange. That plus the new roster additions and the health of LaVine, Markkanen and Carter Jr. have Chicago primed to overperform. We’re bullish on the Bulls and expect them to win over 32 games in 2019-2020.
– Drew Mays
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.