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NBA Trade Watch: The Southeast

Buddy Grizzard outlines prospects for Southeast Division teams as the trade deadline fast approaches.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Southeast Division features the two worst teams in the NBA (the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic), as well as the disappointing Charlotte Hornets and a pair of teams in the thick of the playoff race (the Miami HEAT and Washington Wizards). It’s a down year for a division that’s been pretty tough in the past.

With the NBA’s trade deadline right around the corner, here’s a look at things to keep an eye on for the Southeast.

Atlanta Hawks (11-30)

Losing former All-Stars Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap in the space of two seasons has been more than the Atlanta Hawks could overcome. The result will almost certainly be the first missed playoffs since the season before Atlanta drafted Horford. Atlanta’s 10 consecutive playoff appearances trails only the Spurs (20). And with the Grizzlies and Clippers also in danger of missing the postseason, it could be the Rockets and Warriors sharing second place with six consecutive appearances each if they make it.

And the Hawks might not be done bleeding talent.

Dennis Schroder may not be long for Atlanta. The mercurial point guard is nearly impossible to guard, but he isn’t a leader. It’s hard to believe that a player who frequently dresses down teammates when they make mistakes, then goes out and shoots a two-pointer at the buzzer in a game the Hawks trailed by three, understands accountability. Schroder is known for his after-hours lifestyle, which resulted in a battery arrest in September.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Marco Belinelli — $6,606,060

Ersan Ilyasova — $6,000,000

Dewayne Dedmon — $6,000,000 ($6.3 million player option)

Mike Muscala — $5,000,000 ($5 million player option)

Malcolm Delaney — $2,500,000 ($3,125,000 qualifying offer)

Luke Babbitt — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

The name most worth talking about for the Atlanta Hawks is Trae Young. The Hawks are being outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions with Schroder on the court, a net rating that is worse than any other Hawk with at least 600 minutes this season except Marco Belinelli (-9.2). Young could be a generational talent. Schroder is an offensive-minded point guard who doesn’t make his teammates better.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk was part of the Warriors front office that drafted Stephen Curry in 2009, then made the momentous decision to trade Monta Ellis and build around Curry in March of 2012. Young gets compared to Curry because of the absurd range on his shot, but he’s leading the nation in both scoring and assists. If his game translates to the NBA level, he’ll be a nightmare to guard in the pick and roll. Getting value for Schroder could be difficult due to the off-court issues.

Another player to keep an eye on is Kent Bazemore, who turns 29 in July. With Atlanta building a young core, Bazemore will likely be in his 30s by the time the Hawks are ready to make a run to the playoffs. One team to watch regarding Bazemore is the New Orleans Pelicans, which signed small forward Solomon Hill to a four-year, $52 million deal in 2016 only to lose him to a hamstring injury that has prevented him from playing this season.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

The Hawks need to get whatever assets it can for players on expiring contracts or player options. Among expiring contracts, Ersan Ilyasova has started nearly 400 games and has the best on-court net rating of any Hawk with at least 700 minutes. Belinelli’s name gets thrown around, but as mentioned, he hasn’t been good.

Dewayne Dedmon has also struggled and been slowed by injury. His nearly 44 percent shooting from three on 32 attempts this season after attempting only one three in his first four seasons has been a shock. Dedmon has a player option and could test free agency this summer, which makes it difficult for the Hawks to get value by trading him before the deadline. Luke Babbitt had excellent on/off numbers as a starter for the HEAT last season but hasn’t made much of a dent in Atlanta.

Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto reported Thursday that the Hawks are seeking high second round picks for the expiring veterans. The Raptors and Rockets are contenders currently in position to pick high in the second round, according to NBADraft.net.

Charlotte Hornets (15-24)

Things look grim for the Hornets, which currently sit five games out of the eighth playoff seed in the East. However, the team will play seven of the next eight at home. This gives Charlotte a chance to show improvement ahead of the deadline and help the front office decide if it should be buyers or sellers.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Michael Carter-Williams — $2,700,000

Johnny O’Bryant — $1,524,305

Names Worth Talking About:

Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote a speculative piece suggesting that the Hornets should trade Kemba Walker to jump-start a rebuild and help the team avoid future luxury tax penalties. Most of the roster is under contract through next season and Charlotte, as currently constructed, would be a tax team in 2018-19. That will be a tough pill for Michael Jordan to swallow if his team misses the playoffs again this season.

If the Hornets actually make Walker available, half the league would likely register interest. Trading Walker wouldn’t just trigger a rebuild, it would tear the Hornets down to the studs. Charlotte is 13.4 points per 100 possessions worse whenever Walker is out of the game, an impact that is double that of any other player. Kemba Walker is the Charlotte Hornets. It’s hard to imagine the fan backlash if such a move was executed.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Charlotte’s top six players, including Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Dwight Howard, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum and Jeremy Lamb, have been solid all season. All six have posted a positive on-court net rating. But from there, the bench falls off a cliff, ranging from Cody Zeller’s -3.6 to Malik Monk’s -14.6. Michael Carter-Williams and Johnny O’Bryant are the only expiring contracts, but they’ve posted a -7.4 and -9.5 net rating, respectively. The Hornets need any bench help they can get, but will have trouble making moves due to the cap. Backup point guard continues to be the biggest issue, with neither Carter-Williams nor Monk making a positive impact.

Miami HEAT (24-17)

After an 11-13 start, during which the HEAT barely resembled a team ready to build on last season’s near playoff run, Miami has gone 13-4 and rocketed to fourth in the East. That’s a lot more like last season’s team, which closed the season 30-11, only to miss the playoffs on a tiebreak. The problem is that, unlike the HEAT of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, these HEAT are decidedly lacking in star power. Miami has taken the intriguing route of spending over the cap on a group of overachievers in a way that could limit the team’s ceiling.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Wayne Ellington

Names Worth Talking About:

People are talking about HEAT center Hassan Whiteside. A lot. Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote Wednesday that he spoke to two NBA scouts who speculate the HEAT could get a late lottery pick for Whiteside. That strains credulity. What team in possession of a lottery pick is so desperate for a center that it would trade for one who has been made virtually obsolete by Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk?

As the HEAT have surged, Whiteside’s impact has been marginal. He’s playing just 25.8 minutes per game, his fewest since the 2014-15 season. And in a league where the traditional center is fast becoming fossilized, ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes that Whiteside is shooting just 42 percent on post-ups, which ranked 43rd out of 52 players with at least 50 attempts.

The real name worth talking about is Wayne Ellington, who is shooting 41 percent on over seven three-point attempts per game. He’s the only notable Miami player on an expiring contract, and that status puts the HEAT in a tough position. Miami has most of its roster under contract through next season, which places it in luxury tax territory. The HEAT outscore opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions with Ellington on court, a team-best net rating by more than two full points. The team may have to dangle Ellington in trade talks in hopes of getting an asset back since it will be extremely difficult to retain him past this season.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Aside from getting something significant in return for Ellington, the best result for Miami would be to move off one of its larger contracts to subdue the salary cap issues and add flexibility. Moving Whiteside would accomplish this, assuming the HEAT took significantly less salary back, but it would leave the team without a proven rim protector. Such an outcome seems unlikely, as does getting a significant return for Justise Winslow, whom the Celtics reportedly pursued with a chest of draft picks during the 2015 draft but has yet to develop into an impact player.

Orlando Magic (12-30)

Victor Oladipo’s emergence with the Pacers has left the Magic organization with egg all over its face. The team drafted a young core, panicked, tried to leapfrog into the playoffs with veterans, and now sits a half game ahead of the league-worst Atlanta Hawks. There’s no way to sugar coat this: The Magic are years away from putting a competitive product on the floor and will have to go back to building through the draft.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Shelvin Mack — $6,000,000 ($6 million non-guaranteed in 2018-19)

Mario Hezonja — $4,078,320

Arron Afflalo — $1,471,382

Names Worth Talking About:

Things might have been different if Elfrid Payton had popped early. With Aaron Gordon emerging as one of the league’s exciting young players and center Nikola Vucevic — out of nowhere — shooting over 34 percent on 140 three-point attempts, Orlando might have had something with a stud point guard and a do-over on the Oladipo trade. As it stands, despite Payton shooting a career-best 37.5 percent from three, the Magic are being outscored by nine points per 100 with him on the floor.

Vucevic has the best net rating among Magic with at least 500 minutes, and one of the league’s more team-friendly contracts with just over $12 million on the books this season and just under $13 million next. But it may be too late to get anything significant for him. Meanwhile, Evan Fournier’s flat $17 million guaranteed for three seasons starting this season with a player option in the fourth is prohibitive for a player not known for his defense. And let’s not even talk about Bismack Biyombo, who sports a team-worst -15.4 net rating and is guaranteed $17 million this season and next with a player option after.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Where to begin? The Magic need everything. There’s a decided lack of defensive identity after Orlando traded Oladipo, a two-way wing (among the league’s most precious commodities). Jonathon Simmons has played the most minutes on the team but his -9.4 net rating is worse than anyone but Biyombo. The team declined its option on Mario Hezonja so it likely can’t get anything for him. He’ll probably emerge as a rotation player for a less dysfunctional franchise after he hits free agency this summer.

Washington Wizards (23-18)

The Wizards are spent into the luxury tax and in full win-now mode. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Ian Mahinmi are all locked up through at least the 2019-20 season. Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre are fully guaranteed through next season. Injuries and inconsistency have been a factor, and fifth in the East just doesn’t feel good enough for a team that aspires to contend.

Notable Ending Contracts:

Jason Smith — $5,225,000 ($5.45 million player option)

Jodie Meeks — $3,290,000 ($3.45 million player option)

Tim Frazier — $2,000,000

Names Worth Talking About:

Mahinmi has played only 571 minutes, but his +4.6 net rating is fourth on the team and some small comfort after the team invested major dollars in him. There’s almost no chance another team would take his contract, but at least the Wizards are performing well when he’s available. Marcin Gortat likewise appears to be a player few if any teams would be interested in.

Mike Scott has been a pleasant surprise with 9.4 points per game, which is good for sixth on the team. Washington only signed him to a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, so he can test free agency after the season with the Wizards facing a cap crunch.

Biggest Area of Need at the Deadline:

Backup point guard Tim Frazier’s -6.7 net rating is a team worst and Jodie Meeks is next at -3.8. Jason Smith has played only 160 minutes. None has trade value. The Wizards’ biggest need is depth and an upgrade at backup point guard. But with the team’s cap situation and lack of assets, it’s going to be very tricky to get anything done.

With the Southeast Division’s competitive teams lacking cap space and lesser teams short on attractive trade assets, this could be a ho-hum deadline in Dixie. That is unless the Hornets go crazy and make Walker available, or another unexpected piece suddenly comes on the market. The league is still coming to terms with the hangover from the cap explosion of recent seasons. And with cap levels set to remain relatively flat in coming seasons, deadline deals will be harder to execute than in recent years.

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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.

David Yapkowitz

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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.”

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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

James Blancarte

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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.

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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.

Chad Smith

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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.

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