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Chicago Bulls 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Chicago Bulls.

Basketball Insiders

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The Chicago Bulls made significant changes this offseason by trading Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks (in exchange for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant) and letting Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol leave as free agents. After making some other moves to clear cap space, the Bulls then signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to supplement Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler. The result of all these moves is a roster filled with talent that doesn’t fit together perfectly. Figuring out how to maximize the team’s talent will fall on the shoulders of second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, who struggled to get his team to buy in to his system last season, resulting in a disappoint 42-40 campaign and their first time missing the postseason seven seasons.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Chicago Bulls.

FIVE GUYS THINK

As previously constructed, the Bulls weren’t going anywhere in the postseason anytime soon, which apparently is why they made wholesale changes this past offseason, shipping off Derrick Rose and bidding adieu to Joakim Noah. In their place the team welcomes Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez, which actually isn’t too big a downgrade considering injury histories and current production. Of course, what really matters in Chicago this year is the arrival of Dwyane Wade, which should at its best be a ton of fun and at its worst another signing of a former star free agent brought in past his prime (Did he really have to choose Ben Wallace’s old uniform number?). The Bulls are probably better than everybody’s giving them credit for, but they’re not any closer to winning a championship than they were a season ago. The makeup is different, but the outcome looks destined to remain unchanged.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

The Bulls were having a bit of a rough summer, losing Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah in free agency, before securing signatures from Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade on new deals. Rondo and Wade have since publicly stated that the Bulls are All-Star guard Jimmy Butler’s team to nip any potential confusion in the bud, but the unit still has plenty of questions. Can a lineup featuring Butler, Rondo and Wade effectively create enough offensive spacing? Can Nikola Mirotic find consistency and take the next step in a larger role? Is head coach Fred Hoiberg the man for the job and how is his relationship with Butler? The Bulls are a hard squad to peg, but you can count on them being competitive on most nights.

4th Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

Fred Hoiberg, who is entering his second season as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, likes to run a high paced offense that can spread the court with shooting. However, Hoiberg may have to adapt his preferred style of play after the Bulls went out and signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade this offseason. Let me be clear – Rondo and Wade are two of the more talented guards in the league and can help the Bulls this upcoming season. But adding two ball-dominant guards to a team that already features Jimmy Butler may be problematic. These three players may find the right balance of sharing the ball handling duties, but that alone won’t solve the fact that Wade has shot 28.4 percent from the three-point line and Rondo has shot just 28.9 percent from distance over their respective careers. The Bulls have ways to offset these issues with versatile players like Nikola Mirotic on the roster, but this will be a challenging season for Hoiberg.

5th Place – Central Division

–  Jesse Blancarte

The marriage between Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade will be interesting to observe. Wade thrived with LeBron James and is certainly a team-first player. Butler, though, lacks the court vision and overall game impact that James does, so I am very interested in observing their dynamic. Rajon Rondo has always been an interesting case, and since he has never met a coach who he liked taking directives from, I’m inclined to think there will be a fair amount of fireworks in Chicago this season. Like the New York Knicks, this thing can thrive nicely or it can blow up right in Fred Hoiberg’s face. I’m willing to bet on the former, though. Without question, the Central Division will be the toughest in the Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers will win the day and I expect the Indiana Pacers to place second. After that, I think that Hoiberg, Wade, Rondo and Butler will find a way to work things out and with a supporting cast that features some nice young players, there’s reason to be optimistic. Bobby Portis has emerged as a figure of interest and you can’t ignore the potential of Doug McDermott, Tony Snell and the already productive Nikola Mirotic. The Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks will both have their fair share of wins this season, but I think I like the Bulls to place higher than them – assuming Dwyane Wade stays healthy.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Moke Hamilton

When I look at this Bulls team, I just have trouble figuring out how all of their pieces will fit together. As much as I like Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, they don’t really complement each other well on the floor and their supporting cast isn’t great either. I’m not a big fan of Rajon Rondo and I scratched my head when they made that move. Looking at the Central Division, I have Cleveland, Indiana and Detroit remaining in the playoffs and Milwaukee making significant strides this year. It seems strange to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bulls finished this year fifth in the division. The Central is just that tough, so adjusting to new focal points, dealing with injuries and having other issues surface could sink an otherwise talented team relatively quickly.

5th Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler

Both Butler and Dwyane Wade should average somewhere in the neighborhood of 18-21 PPG this season, but considering Butler’s age and relative health, there’s a much better chance that he ends up scoring more total points this season than anybody else on the team. What Chicago does on offense this year has been discussed at length this offseason, but whatever discord there may be among three alpha dogs that can’t shoot threes, Butler’s offensive strengths are still the type of skills any team would kill to have. Butler attacks the rim with precision, draws fouls and knocks down a number of tough midrange shots with ease, even when they’re contested. He’s the most athletic and well-rounded scorer on the team, which is a big reason why he’s made two All-Star teams in a row.

Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler

As a member of the All-Defensive Second Team last year (and the two years before that), Butler also is the uncontested best defensive player on the team this year. While his 1.6 SPG weren’t necessarily elite, his smothering defense on the perimeter, even on forwards much bigger and stronger than him, remains his calling card on that end of the floor.  He’s incredibly intelligent on defense and uses every pound of his muscle and will to shut down opposing players. His on-ball defense is the kind of thing that can save games, and while he has slipped a little on D the last couple of years as he’s ramped up his offensive game, he’s still the best all-around defender the Bulls have.

Top Playmaker: Rajon Rondo

Even though he played for a really bad Sacramento Kings last year, Rondo still managed to lead the league in assists. Now he brings that court vision to a Chicago team that, in theory, has more offensive weapons around him to keep those assist numbers high. He’s not the athlete he used to be, but he’s still a smart, crafty player that can carve into defenses and create for his teammates. If players like Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Denzel Valentine can knock down their fair share of three-pointers this year and keep defenses honest, there’s no reason Rondo shouldn’t be as effective as he always has been at making things happen on the offensive end of the floor.

Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade

With Miami, Wade almost always has been the guy to take the final shots in games, and that shouldn’t change in Chicago. In the final minute of regular season games in Miami last season, Wade had a usage rate of 50.8 percent, and in the 15 games that were decided by three points or fewer in that final minute, Wade shot 8-for-18 from the floor, 5-for-5 from the free-throw line and had zero turnovers. He does this heavily guarded, undersized, and with time winding down. He’s used to having the ball in his hands late in games and loves the big moment. That won’t change in Chicago.

The Unheralded Player: Taj Gibson

At 31 years old, Gibson is completely off the career arc of Chicago’s young core, which has to exist in life after Wade and Rondo, and that means there’s a really good chance that Gibson’s name will show up in more trade rumors than anybody in the Eastern Conference this year. Despite that, in 55 starts last season he averaged 9.2 PPG and 7.3 RPG, and he’s an incredible pain in the rear end for opponents because of how hard he plays and how tough he makes it for his opposition to score. He no longer has the upside he once did, but he’s still a grinder. Those trade rumors will exist because there will be teams legitimately asking about his availability all season long.

Top New Addition: Dwyane Wade

While Wade will turn 35 years old this year and clearly is past his prime in terms of athleticism and health, the Bulls are still adding a 12-time All-Star and 3-time NBA champion to their roster who just so happens to hail from Chicago. Maybe his high usage muddies up an already crowded backcourt, but his positive locker room presence and clear desire to help the city as a whole make him a really fun addition to a team that very well could have been staring a rebuilding project in the face had he not decided to play in the Windy City. There’s no telling how this all will play out, but at the very least Wade has kept Chicago both relevant and interesting. That, frankly, is more than Derrick Rose had done the last few years there.

– Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

1. Robin Lopez

Bulls fans are going to miss Joakim Noah, but Robin Lopez, who actually kind of looks like Noah if you really squint your eyes, could actually be considered an upgrade, at least compared to the version of Noah we saw last season. Lopez is a strong rim protector and one of the game’s best offensive rebounders, and his goofy little hook-shot actually is one of the more effective post moves in the game. Only Nikola Vucevic took and made more hooks than Lopez last season, and he’s showing no signs of retiring the move. Even better, Lopez is a fun guy to have around and should help rejuvenate a locker room that was a graveyard last season. Benny the Bull’s replacement in Chicago already is quivering in fear of the dreaded Mascot Hunter.

2. Nikola Mirotic

It’s easy to forget, but just two seasons ago Mirotic finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, so while he had a frustrating sophomore campaign it’s not as if the guy is completely without skill. The problem last season was that the league wised up to his patented pump-fake, and when defenders stopped biting it changed Mirotic’s ability to be effective offensively. One has to believe he worked on that over the offseason, and as the projected starter at the four in Chicago’s revamped lineup, he’s sure to get more than his fair share of open shots with Butler, Wade and Rondo collapsing defenses with their penetration. Rose tended to miss Mirotic on offense, and Pau Gasol’s defensive shortcomings tended to highlight Mirotic’s. Rondo and Lopez will change things drastically for Mirotic on both ends of the floor, which means he could very well be in for a huge 2016-2017 campaign.

3. Jerian Grant

Right now the former Notre Dame stud is just a backup to Rondo, but as a pick-and-roll specialist in a Fred Hoiberg offense he’s going to have every opportunity to be successful this season given the opportunity. For an offense that wants to get out and run, Grant will be much more effective than he was in New York’s Bermuda Triangle last year. He might not get All-Star votes right away, but Chicago’s a much better fit for the player who looks set to take over starting point guard duties the minute Rondo moves on from Chicago in a year or two. Plus, he’s Horace Grant’s nephew. That’s enough for Chicago to love the kid all by itself.

4. Jimmy Butler

He’s Chicago’s best all-around player and a two-time All-Star with loads of talent and charisma. While he’s not getting the leadership role he would have had in a world without Wade and Rondo, he is being given the opportunity to continue playing for a competitive playoff team, which appears to be more valuable to him given how hard he recruited the aforementioned veteran guards this past summer. Despite the influx of new backcourt talent, he still seems like a shoe-in for another All-Star selection, and at age 26 the best is yet to come.

5. Dwyane Wade

It’s not often teams are able to pry away sure-thing Hall-of-Famers in free agency, but that’s exactly what Chicago managed in stealing Wade away from Miami this offseason. The former NBA Finals MVP isn’t as valuable as he once was, but he showed in the 2016 postseason how much gas he really does still have left in the tank. Chicago may give him the Tim Duncan treatment this year in terms of regular season playing time and saving him for the postseason, but he’s going to have a huge impact on a team that could use some veteran leadership with both Gasol and Noah gone to greener pastures. There’s a very good chance that announcer Tommy Edwards announces Wade “from Chicago!” during the starting lineups, just like he use to do with Rose, and there’s also a very good chance that fans are going to eat that up like wedding appetizers. Wade should make this a fun season for Bulls fans, no matter the final record.

– Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

After trading Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks, the Bulls went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap to sign Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo. Including the non-guaranteed salaries of Spencer Dinwiddie and Cristiano Felicio, the Bulls are at $96.4 million in salary with 15 players. The team still has its $2.9 million Room Exception.

Looking ahead, the Bulls could have sizable spending power next summer, with a projected salary cap of $102 million. Provided Wade opts out of his $23.8 million option for 2017-18, and the team cuts Rondo’s $13.4 million (which is $3 million guaranteed), Chicago could have as much as $55 million in space next July. That assumes the team takes rookie-scale options on Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and Jerian Grant before November. Tony Snell is eligible for an extension by the end of October.  Nikola Mirotic is likely to be a restricted free agent next summer.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The offense is going to be better this year, particularly from the wing, where Wade and Butler could easily combine for 35-40 points per game. Too many people are writing off the value of star power in the NBA, and Chicago actually has quite a bit of it.

Also, while it is a different team, the Bulls were third in the NBA in rebounding last season, and that’s with Joakim Noah having missed significant time. With more minutes Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis could be strong rebounders, and Lopez should help buoy those numbers, too. Plus, Taj Gibson is still on the team, all of which means that Chicago should be just fine on the glass again this season.

– Joel Brigham

WEAKNESSES

Obviously the Bulls’ three best players can’t knock down three-pointers, with Rondo of all people sporting the highest deep-ball shooting percentage of the trio last season. Spacing could very well be a problem, though it’s not a foregone conclusion considering the Bulls do in fact have some respectable three-point shooters on the roster to spread things out. In fact, the Bulls were third in the NBA last season in team three-point shooting at .370.

Without Pau Gasol, low-post scoring is going to be a concern this year, too, and since the team was 22nd in team field goal percentage last year, there’s a very good chance that the offense won’t be as efficient as Hoiberg would like. The Bulls stalled on that end of the floor last year, and while the front office worked to remedy that this offseason, there’s no guarantee this won’t still be a disjointed group again this year, especially with so much roster turnover.

– Joel Brigham

THE BURNING QUESTION

How, exactly, will “The Three Alphas” share the ball in this offense?

If only there were an answer to this question. What we know is that not a single one of these guys is any good at shooting three-pointers, which has become sort of a necessary skill in today’s NBA. To put it into perspective, Butler has been playing pro ball for five years and needs to make another 150 three-pointers just to match what Stephen Curry made last season alone. We know what kind of success the deep ball brings to a team, and it just doesn’t look like any of the Bulls’ best players are going to have any success with it. The high-percentage midrange jumper is not only boring by today’s NBA standards, but it doesn’t make the most of points per possession either.

Chances are very good that defenses will box up on the Bulls and try to keep these guys from doing what they do best. To survive, Chicago’s going to need their three-point shooters to get open and make defenses pay for playing off the three-point line. If guys like Mirotic and McDermott can step up in big ways this year, the spacing concerns might not be as bad as we think.

By that same token, it could also be exactly as bad as we think.

– Joel Brigham

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ICYMI: Atlantic Division

To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.

Ariel Pacheco

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Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division. 

So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.

Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate

After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.

In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.

Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?

The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.

Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.

There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.

While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well. 

Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer

After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.

Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.

Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.

Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.

They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.

Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season. 

Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.

Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.

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NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward Realizing His Potential in Charlotte

No one envisioned Gordon Hayward joining the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. Not many people believed he could return to being an All-Star caliber player. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on Hayward’s resurgent season in Buzz City.

Chad Smith

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Many eyebrows were raised when Gordon Hayward decided to join the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. Most figured a return home to play for the Indiana Pacers was where the next chapter of his career would take place. But, when a potential deal with Indiana fell through, the Hornets became a reality. Maybe it was the lure of playing for Michael Jordan or just the opportunity for a fresh start where he could realize his full potential.

Either way, Hayward has proved himself to be the guy once again.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Hayward signed a four-year deal with Charlotte for $120 million. At the time, it seemed like a heavy price to pay for a player in his 30’s that has endured so many injuries so recently in his career. Hornets fans went through this in 2019 with Terry Rozier’s sign-and-trade deal from the Boston Celtics for $56.7 million. The move for Charlotte almost felt desperate, like some sort of gamble they were willing to take.

But this signing has been different. Even before their deal, Hayward underwent a minor surgical procedure on his left foot to alleviate some discomfort he dealt with last year; the team was aware and still wanted to move forward with the deal, which speaks volumes as to how they felt about him as a player and how he would recover.

While Rozier was younger and seemed to have a high ceiling, Hayward is an established wing that has been an All-Star and the face of a franchise before. And, as we enter the quarter-mark of the 2020-21 season, it appears as though the team’s gamble has paid off quite nicely. Hayward is looked resurgent, averaging career-high numbers across the board after his injury-plagued stint in Boston.

With the Celtics, Hayward averaged 13.9 points per game, shot 36 percent from behind the arc, and got to the free throw line just 2.7 times per game. So far this season he is averaging more than 24 points per game, which is a career-best. His free throw attempts have nearly doubled and he is knocking down 43 percent of his three-pointers.

Hayward’s minutes have also increased significantly this year. And, in addition to his high percentage shooting, his 21.07 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a career-best.

The roster crunch at certain positions was a concern heading into the season, but head coach James Borrego has built a solid rotation that has allowed his team to maximize their potential. The Hornets have the ability to play big or go with a smaller lineup should the need arise. In fact, one of the major benefits of having Hayward is the ability to play him at multiple positions; having played alongside Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum in Boston, Hayward is well versed in switching and matching up against both bigger and smaller opponents.

Charlotte’s defense has also been much better this year with Hayward on the floor. They rank in the top ten in terms of opponents scoring and top five in steals. Borrego has used various full-court press coverages, as well as an unusual zone defense in the half-court that eventually turns back into a man-to-man scheme.

Using different lineups, the Hornets have been able to utilize guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges who, in turn, have ignited their offense. If LaMelo Ball is not in the game, Charlotte can still play their two smaller guards, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, with Hayward often serving as the primary ball-handler. With him running the offense, it allows those two to do what they do best: shoot the ball.

As a team, the Hornets aren’t exactly elite offensively. They are strong in certain areas, but they also rank near the bottom of the league in scoring, field goals made, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. In order to win close games, there are times where they need Hayward to just take over — and he’s proven on multiple occasions that he is still more than capable of doing just that. Hayward has actually been on quite a roll lately, scoring the ball at an incredible clip. Two weeks ago he put up 34 points in a blowout of the New York Knicks. Later, he had another 34-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. He also scored 39 points, including the game-winning layup, against the Orlando Magic. His season-high came earlier in the month where he posted 44 points in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

The individual scoring by Hayward has been impressive, but it hasn’t hampered their offensive rhythm at all. In fact, the Hornets currently average 28.3 assists per game, which is the best in the league.

It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows in Buzz City. The success on the court hasn’t necessarily translated to winning. After 17 games, their 7-10 record has them sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference standings. And, looking at their upcoming schedule, there could be some more bumps in the road.

Charlotte’s next two games are against the aforementioned Pacers. Later, the Hornets will host the Milwaukee Bucks and then head south to face the Miami HEAT, who should have their key pieces back on the floor. After that, they will have to face the Philadelphia 76ers, who own the best record in the conference. Following that game is a matchup with the red-hot Utah Jazz, who have won nine games in a row. Withstanding that rough stretch will be pivotal for this team, as they have now lost four of their last five games. These Hornets are a young group, but Hayward’s experience and the return of fellow Indiana-native Cody Zeller should allow them to win some of those games. Their season just might depend on it.

The Hornets are a fun team to watch. The jaw-dropping passes from Ball and the ridiculous highlight dunks by Bridges are must-see television, but their leader is proving he is worth every penny. Sure, Hayward has the massive contract, but he also has earned the opportunity to be a franchise player once again.

He isn’t the same All-Star player that he was in Utah. This version of Hayward is even better.

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