The Boston Celtics’ 2017-18 season was a success by all accounts. They fell one win shy of advancing to the NBA Finals and did so without two of their best players – Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. At first glance, the 2018 iteration of the Celtics is even more intriguing. The Celtics return both aforementioned stars, with two other young pillars – Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – on the precipice of stardom, too. Additionally, the Eastern Conference championship is almost certainly up for grabs with LeBron James heading west to Los Angeles, concurrently eliminating Cleveland from contention. But think twice before penciling the Celtics into the NBA Finals. There are questions to be answered about the Celtics’ future, as well as concerns about the season at hand.
The most pressing item to be addressed is the team’s chemistry and rotation. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens must delicately manage his roster. He will likely rely heavily on Irving and Hayward considering both are proven All-Stars. And considering both will be working back from a knee procedure and a gruesome leg injury, respectively, there will likely be minutes restrictions in place that allow for the younger Celtics to continue contributing early on this season. However, what effect might lesser roles have on the likes of Terry Rozier, Brown and/or Tatum as the season wears on?
Rozier, Brown and Tatum flourished while averaging 36.6, 32.4, and 35.9 minutes per game, respectively, in the 2018 postseason. Basketball is a rhythm game and few players can find theirs without a requisite amount of playing time. That could hinder their progress, and potentially hinder production. Further, will splitting minutes with the younger Celtic wings prove to be counterproductive to Hayward, who averaged 34.5 minutes per game in the 2016-17 season with Utah – his last complete season prior to the injury? Similarly, will Kyrie’s effectiveness dwindle due to a dip in playing time from his pre-injury 32.2 minutes per game last season?
Less direct implications are also possible. Marcus Smart will likely see a decreased role due to the talent stockpiled on the roster, but Smart’s contributions last season were noteworthy. He is an ultra-versatile defender who can guard four positions. While he is limited offensively, his hustle and grit are contagious. Limiting his minutes might be a necessity, but his energy is difficult to replace. Having too much talent is rarely a detriment, but all of Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Smart, Rozier, and Irving can’t be maximized. Long-term, this is much more of a problem for general manager Danny Ainge than it is for the team (or even coach Stevens), but it is a problem nonetheless. Maybe Ainge packages two of the above players for Jimmy Butler, or another superstar before the deadline; but barring a similar move, maximizing all of the talent on the roster will be challenging.
And then there are the challenges that await the Boston Celtics outside of their locker room – most notably, the development of Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. Both of the Celtics’ divisional rivals stand to improve in 2018. The Raptors took a chance in trading for disgruntled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. While he very well may leave Toronto after the 2018-19 season, Leonard is a definitively better talent than DeMar DeRozan on both sides of the ball. Canada’s only NBA franchise also took on Danny Green in the DeRozan-Leonard transaction. Green is a career 39.5 percent three-point shooter who can still defend at a high level. Add Leonard and Green to the Raptors’ existing foundation of Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and C.J. Miles and you have a contender in the making. What’s more, the arrival of Leonard and Green does more than simply infuse talent; they represent players who came up big in key moments throughout their respective careers (e.g., in the 2014 NBA Finals, Leonard was named the Finals MVP and Green shot 45 percent from three-point range over the course of the five-game series). The addition of the two former Spurs should improve on the Raptors’ poor execution in recent trips to the Playoffs. While the trade represents a major risk on behalf of Raptors’ President Masai Ujiri and the franchise, it could just as easily pay off with one or more NBA Finals appearances.
Comparatively, Philadelphia had a relatively quiet offseason. They traded the twelfth overall pick, Mikal Bridges, to the Phoenix Suns for Zhaire Smith, who, in typical Sixers fashion, injured his foot in summer league and will miss at least the beginning of the 2018 season. The team also re-signed J.J. Redick, and traded for Wilson Chandler. But most of the improvement that Philadelphia stands to undergo will come from standing pat, as their core is relatively young. Currently, Joel Embiid is 24, Ben Simmons is 22, and Markelle Fultz is only 20 – and all reports indicate he has successfully worked through his shoulder injury and subsequent shooting hitch. The infusion of a productive Fultz alone should add a few wins; for comparison’s sake, Lonzo Ball, who was selected immediately after Fultz in the 2017 NBA Draft, posted a win share of two last season. Philadelphia will ask less of Fultz than was asked of Ball by the Lakers, but a similar net effect is reasonable given Ball’s ups and downs in 2017-18. And that doesn’t take into consideration the progress that can be expected from Simmons and Embiid.
The Sixers represent less of an immediate threat to the Celtics than the Raptors, having lost to Boston in the second round of the 2018 Playoffs 4-1; but they pose a very real threat beyond 2018-19. Entering 2019-20, they should have only around $70 million in salary commitments, assuming all team options are picked up. The majority of that money is spread between the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Zhaire Smith – a formidable six-man rotation. The team will have approximately enough money to sign one free agent to a max deal. Philly’s core is young and talented, and they can add a superstar to it to improve even more quickly for next season and beyond – a scary concept to anyone building an NBA franchise.
If all of that doesn’t worry Ainge, Stevens, and the Boston faithful, there are the rumors about Irving’s desire to team up with Jimmy Butler and/or flee to New York. Rumors are anecdotal at best, but this particular rumor is more substantive than most. Irving’s hometown Knicks were on a short list of preferred landing spots, communicated by the point guard to the Cavs last summer. Further, rumblings have permeated the mainstream media about Irving and Butler’s desire to play together next season. Butler was recently quoted by Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times in a recent interview saying he has grown sick of “the nonchalant attitude of his younger teammates, specifically Karl-Anthony Towns.” While any number of scenarios can play out in Minnesota, it is unlikely that ownership approves of a deal in which Towns is moved. Therefore, odds of a continued working relationship between Butler and Minnesota appear unlikely. And Irving’s unwillingness to sign an extension, while expected given the current salary cap environment, opens the door to suitors next July, which will likely result in the two players looking at signing with the same team a la LeBron James and Dwyane Wade circa 2010.
None of these scenarios by themselves spell disaster for the Celtics, but the sum of the parts certainly causes more anxiety for the Boston front office than each issue would individually. The Boston Celtics’ rebuild, which began immediately after the 2012-13 season via the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade, took hold quickly. The 2017-18 season is the culmination of that rebuild, with steady progress between the two points in time. Traditionally, perennial contenders like the current Golden State Warriors, 2000’s Lakers and 1990’s Bulls enjoy years of success after struggling to build a team and overthrow an antagonist. Nothing is promised in the NBA, but the path to success for the Celtics, which appeared seamless to many, has cracks in its armor. The Celtics could end the 2018-19 season as Eastern Conference champions facing off against whoever wins the West; but they could just as easily be eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, lose Irving to free agency and have two formidable opponents in their division to contend with for the foreseeable future. Neither scenario is overtly bad, but from the potential chemistry issues to the intra-division competition, to the potential to lose their best player, the Celtics’ future is far less certain than it appears at first glance.
NBA All-Star Friday Recap
Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.
NBA All-Star Celebrity Game
The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.
The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.
Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.
Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.
— NBA (@NBA) February 16, 2019
What could have been with Jay Williams…
Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.
There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.
Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.
Other participants included:
From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)
From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)
MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars
If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.
Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.
Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.
As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).
Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’ collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.
Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.
Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.
Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!
NBA Daily: Can Tobias Harris Put the 76ers Over the Top?
Shane Rhodes breaks down whether the addition of Tobias Harris can push the 76ers into the NBA Finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers made perhaps the biggest move of trade season when they acquired Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. Harris, in the midst of a career year, was on the path to a lucrative contract come this summer. But, with an uncertain future in Los Angeles, Philadelphia capitalized and made their move to win now.
In doing so, the 76ers have put together, arguably, the most talented starting roster in the Eastern Conference. But what exactly does Harris bring to the team, and can he put them over the top of their competition in the East?
Harris has very much looked the part of an All-Star this season and has given Brett Brown and the 76ers coaching staff yet another weapon with which to attack defenses. The 26-year-old has posted career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (7.8) and assists (2.8) per game, field goal percentage (49.7) and three-point percentage (43.0) this season and should prove a significant upgrade over Wilson Chandler, who was sent to Los Angeles in the trade, on both offense and defense.
In a superior lineup, his Harris’ play should only improve as well.
His statistical values may dip with the move to Philadelphia, but, in a way, the team may look at that as a positive; with so many talents on the floor together, Brown, in theory, should be able to utilize Harris in order to reduce wear and tear on his other players — namely Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler — and keep them somewhat fresh for the postseason, if not at the expensive of some personal stats.
Harris is another player that can handle the ball and should lead to even more movement within the 76ers offense. He has shown over the years an ability to push the ball up the floor in transition and should relieve some of the pressure from Simmons in that area as well. In the event that he is the lone star on the floor, or should the ball movement stop, Harris able and willing to break out his do-it-himself kit; he may not dance a defender like Kyrie Irving, but he is more than capable of sizing up his man and either hitting a shot in their face or brute-forcing his way to the basket.
Harris is a more-than-capable shooter and, off the ball, should provide Simmons with another reliable perimeter outlet and open things up on the interior open things up inside for him and Embiid as well.
Defensively, Harris isn’t a wizard, but the effort and energy are there and should shine in the already competent 76ers defense. While it may not be ideal in all situations, Harris has the size to bang down low with some centers and the quickness to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter. Harris’ length — a near seven-foot wingspan — should also prove an asset, as he will allow the defense to switch on almost every possession. In the postseason, that could prove invaluable.
As good as this acquisition may look on paper, it isn’t without its cons or risks. Harris’ is another primary option on a team that already had three of them in Embiid, Simmons and Butler; could the presence of too many options bog things down a la the Boston Celtics earlier this season?
His contract situation, alongside the impending free agency of Butler, should give some pause as well.
The team has hedged its future on those two players and given up some good (and some great) assets to acquire them. Should Butler leave, Harris would provide the 76ers with the ultimate insurance policy but, should both players move on after the season it could set the team back years.
The 76ers have plenty of pre-existing issues to figure out as well, a losing record against their chief Eastern Conference competition — Milwaukee Bucks (0-1), Toronto Raptors (1-2) and Celtics (0-3) — most prominent among them.
But, with Harris in the fold, the 76ers seem to have all the pieces of the puzzle. If the players can put it all together, they could very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.
Gordon Hayward Clearing Hurdles, Finding Joy In Comeback From Injury
Spencer Davies sits down with Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward to discuss the first half of his season, returning from a devastating injury and the team blocking out the noise.
As his Boston Celtic teammates got some shots up to prepare for a morning practice in Cleveland, Gordon Hayward sat in a chair on the baseline watching.
Quicken Loans Arena held a particular place in his mind. Not because of a championship memory, nor for any individual accomplishment.
But because nearly five months after an emotional return and season debut, Hayward had come back to the scene where the course of his career shifted in an instant.
“It’s something that I was thinking about sitting in the hotel last night,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders before shootaround at The Q. “Like, last time I was here, my whole world changed. I’ll probably think about it, be a little anxious about it at the beginning when I first check in, but then when I get going it’ll be fine.”
If there was any trepidation, it was either short-lived or didn’t show. The 28-year-old looked as confident as ever, packing a powerful punch off the bench as a scorer and a distributor for a depleted Boston team. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“I didn’t even think about that until this morning,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Hayward’s return to Cleveland. “I thought about it in the preseason and then for whatever reason, I probably should’ve thought about it.
“I just think he has played enough now where he’s past that initial hurdle, right? So it’s probably not fun to walk out on the court the first time and shoot around and those type of things but ultimately, I think he probably moved past that really quickly. I thought he was great tonight, both ends of the court. I thought his offensive playmaking passing the ball was as good as his scoring.”
Hayward has scored 20 points or more on just three different occasions this year. It’s a far cry from the All-Star numbers he used to put up nightly. He understands, however, that perseverance is necessary as he slowly, but surely gets re-acclimated to playing.
“Physically, I’ve felt pretty good. I think I’m definitely moving way better than I was at the beginning of the season,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting more and more confident with each month, each week. There’s definitely still games where I just don’t feel like myself, but I think I’m trending in the right direction.”
When asked about those areas that don’t feel right yet Hayward pinpointed attacking the basket, specifically going at big men in the paint, taking contact and finishing.
Knowing that he can go up, get hit and be able to come down fine is a mental hurdle Hayward admittedly still has to clear—and the only way to get past that is repetition.
“You just have to do it, and do it more than one time,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “It’s like an experience-type thing. You’ve got to just do it and feel confident doing it, and until that happens, then you’ll just keep thinking about it.”
Once Hayward is driving and dunking on a regular basis without thinking about what happens next, he says he’ll officially be back. Until then, an appreciation of being able to play the game he loves again is the true big picture—especially after an injury that could’ve taken it all away from him.
“That’s been a mental thing as well is trying to find some joy in just the fact that I’m back out on the court,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Because some people don’t return from that and a blessing that we have the technology that we do these days that they were able to fix my ankle. So I guess just being patient with the whole thing, that’s been a challenge.”
CELTICS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Coming into the 2017-18 season, the excitement in Boston was palpable. Hayward signed a four-year maximum contract with the Celtics that summer. Shortly thereafter, Danny Ainge made a blockbuster deal to acquire Kyrie Irving, creating a dynamic duo to begin a new era of C’s basketball.
The Celtics started the campaign on the road against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers in October. Since the storyline of the night was Irving facing off against the franchise he had won a championship with on opening night, Hayward’s debut took a bit of a back seat…until the unthinkable happened.
Less than halfway into the first quarter, Irving saw a cutting Hayward with an open path to the rim and threw up a lob looking for an alley-oop finish. Cleveland’s Jae Crowder and LeBron James came to double before Boston’s pair could connect, leaving Hayward afloat in an awkward position.
Hayward came down almost horizontally, with only his left leg there to brace himself for the fall. Tragically, he dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia simultaneously in one of the most gruesome moments in the history of sports.
As he was consoled by trainers and wheeled away on a stretcher with an air cast, the whole arena was dead silent. Players from both teams were praying in disbelief of what they’d just witnessed. Just like that, Hayward’s season was over, and even perhaps his career.
Following multiple successful surgeries and going through rehabilitation programs over the course of a year, Hayward was able to make a miraculous return to the court on October 16, 2018. He’s been on the floor for 26 minutes per night, playing in 53 of 58 total games.
Just as Hayward has tirelessly ground away to get back to form, so have the Celtics. With a healthy Irving and returning Hayward, along with the group that unexpectedly went seven games into the conference finals last year, they were supposed to be the top dog in the East.
It’s no secret that the Celtics boast an abundance of young talent. Jaylen Brown has shown plenty of growth after a shaky start to the season. Terry Rozier is on track to get paid in the offseason by a team in need of a starting point guard. Jayson Tatum is Boston’s second-best scorer (16.5 points per game) and rebounder (6.3 boards per game) at just 20 years old.
That goes without mentioning rookie center Robert Williams. Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, while not quite as young, are two inexperienced NBA players who have overseas experience. The Celtics’ depth is a quality that is necessary for a deep run in the postseason.
“I think anytime they have an opportunity, they seem to make the most of it. That’s at every position,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders.
At the halfway mark headed into the All-Star break, Boston holds fifth place, locked in a battle with the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers for the three seed. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors each have 43 wins with over five games separating them from the trio of teams behind them.
Despite back-to-back blown leads and losses to both Los Angeles franchises at the TD Garden, the Celtics have won 12 of their last 15 contests.
“I think when we all play with energy and when we’re connected defensively – and offensively, for that matter, but especially on the defensive end – we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Then, when we are able to move the ball and put together games where we have 30-plus assists, that’s when we’re really tough (to beat).”
TUSSLING WITH THE MEDIA
It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, though. Early in the season, there were many things said by multiple players on the record, including some pointed words from Irving in more than one instance. These comments can be twisted and turned easily.
Add in an example: the day he told reporters, “Ask me July 1,” regarding his free agency plans, it turned into a big mess of speculation. What many people didn’t hear was Irving’s thoughts regarding the media’s spin on what was actually going on.
“This is like college recruitment for me all over again. I don’t know. This is just weird,” Irving said to the scrum of reporters in New York. “It’s a new position to be in answering all these questions, seeing all this stuff that I’m trying to avoid, and it’s just a distraction. It’s crazy how stories and things and storyline can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms. That’s just what it is….”
Hayward had plenty of his own thoughts on the matter.
“I mean, I think certainly all outside noise has an opportunity to put a wedge between people and between teammates,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I think especially in today’s age where there’s social media and information is right now, all-the-time, like everybody sees what everybody says. There’s guys that are paid to give their opinions on things and, if you read into all that stuff, can definitely put a wedge in between guys.
“More than anything, just talking to people,” Hayward said of the proper remedy. “If you have an issue with somebody, just tell ’em, talk to ’em. But I think for the most part if you block all that stuff out and really just focus on yourself as a group and what the coaching staff is saying and what your teammates are saying, it’s usually better.”
FATHERHOOD IS A BLESSING
We talked about the youth Boston has already, but Hayward isn’t in that same category anymore. While it’s not that he’s old, per se, he is a nine-year man in the NBA.
Hayward considers it “weird” that he’s the veteran now. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t mind that time has flown by because of the gift of fatherhood. The injury he sustained was absolutely devastating.
But it put things in perspective for him, and no matter what happens from here on out with his career, Hayward will always be grateful for the most important thing in his life—family.
“No doubt. I think no matter what happens on the court, my girls don’t care,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “They just care that dad’s home and they want to play hot lava and play picnic and all that stuff. Like having three healthy kids and a wife at home, those things are good.”
If Hayward’s recent play is an indication of what we’re going to see from him moving forward, he might just get the best of both worlds.