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Indiana Pacers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Indiana Pacers.

Basketball Insiders

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The Indiana Pacers were a middle-of-the-road team in the Eastern Conference last season that changed coaches and about a third of its lineup. Larry Bird wanted an on-court product that runs more, plays smaller and scores more often, and acquiring Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young this offseason should help that. Hiring Nate McMillan as Frank Vogel’s replacement, however, is a little more of a head-scratcher.

Either way, the consensus is that Indiana made a bevy of strong moves this offseason and could very easily make some vertical movement in a wide-open Eastern Conference this year.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Indiana Pacers.

FIVE GUYS THINK

I like that the Pacers went out and added impact veterans in Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson. I don’t like that they let go of Frank Vogel – a top notch defensive coach – to implement a more up-tempo offense. I don’t disagree with wanting to increase the tempo, but if that was the goal, I don’t understand why they replaced Vogel with Nate McMillan. McMillan runs a methodical, generally slow offense like Vogel. Unless McMillan is completely committed to picking up the pace on offense, this hire simply doesn’t make much sense. Nevertheless, the Pacers added impact players to complement Paul George, who played out of his mind last season. The Pacers should be a top-level team in the wide open Eastern Conference this upcoming season.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

There are half a million puff pieces out there praising the work Indiana’s front office did this summer in overhauling the roster, and there’s a very good reason for that. They really did get markedly better, and they really did walk away from just about every single one of their offseason transactions better than when they started. They already had an elite two-way player on the roster in Paul George, but they actually upgraded in loads of places by adding Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson. Myles Turner was one of the league’s top rookies last year, and his improvement should help this team along too. Cleveland is still king in this division and this conference, but Indiana now is in the conversation for second-best. The Eastern Conference Finals are definitely in play for these guys.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Joel Brigham

I really liked the Pacers’ offseason and I honestly believe they could emerge as one of the top-three teams in the Eastern Conference. Paul George was a monster last season and he should be even better this year now that his confidence is back to 100 percent and the supporting cast around him has improved. I had the chance to interview Jeff Teague in early July and Myles Turner in early August, and I think both of those guys are poised for huge seasons. Teague is loving the change of scenery since he’s back home, surrounded by weapons and no longer looking over his shoulder at Dennis Schroder. Turner is coming off of a great finish to his rookie campaign and I think he could emerge as one of the better young big men in the league during this upcoming season (he’s certainly saying all of the right things). The East is wide open after the Cavaliers; I think Toronto, Boston and Indiana can occupy that second tier right below the defending champs if all goes as planned for each of those teams.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Alex Kennedy

Fed up with the Pacers’ plodding and visually unappealing offensive style, team president Larry Bird shifted gears this summer in an attempt to spark an immediate turnaround. Bird relieved Frank Vogel of head coaching duties shortly after the season and then made a series of moves aimed at bringing more offensive firepower to Indiana. The additions of veterans Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young – three proven double-digit scorers – provides more offense next to All-Star Paul George in the lineup and will alleviate some of his burden on a nightly basis. But the Pacers sacrificed defense for more scoring, so the question is whether the club can create a defensive identity? If they can, another trip to the playoffs awaits. If the Pacers can’t, they’ll be more fun to watch, but probably sitting home watching the playoffs come April.

3rd Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

After the Pacers were able to sign Al Jefferson to what seems to be a great value contract, I was fairly certain that they had cemented themselves as the second-best team in the conference – at least on paper. Paul George is quietly coming off of what could be argued as his finest season yet and the Pacers upgraded their point guard position tremendously by adding Jeff Teague. Myles Turner came in ready to contribute from day one and, without singularly listing each player on their roster, I think the Pacers can go 10 deep. The wildcard in the equation is Nate McMillan. I have a lot of respect for McMillan and the work he did with the Portland Trail Blazers and was told by a source, years ago, that Carmelo Anthony supported him as the successor to Mike D’Antoni in New York. Obviously, that never panned out, but it’s good to see McMillan back as a head coach. I think he will have success with pulling all the potential out of these Pacers and having them ready to play from the beginning. They are a fair mix of veterans and players whose best days are ahead of them, so I think I may be higher on them than most. I think they will have a legitimate shot of pushing for the conference’s second seed.

2nd Place — Central Division
– Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul George

After missing all but six games in 2014-2015 following a leg injury that has to be one of the top five stomach-turning things any modern NBA fan has ever witnessed watching a basketball game (somewhere in between Shaun Livingston’s blown knee and Joakim Noah’s jumpshot), George came back last season with a vengeance. Not only did he post career-highs in points per game, games played, free throws attempted and three-pointers, but he also spent a good portion of the season in talks for MVP consideration. He didn’t have much of a shot at actually winning it with everything Stephen Curry accomplished, but his versatility, athleticism and all-around devastation placed him squarely back among the league’s elite. Not only is he the best offensive player on this team, he’s also one of the best offensive players in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Paul George

He’s one of the best defensive players in the league too, for that matter. The only time in the last four seasons that George hasn’t made either the All-Defensive First or Second Teams was the year he had the broken leg. Additionally, his nearly two steals per game last season showed he quickly returned to being one of the league’s elite perimeter defenders. He’s got long arms, huge hands and quick feet that help him recover from almost any offensive move. On and off the ball, he’s elite, and he’ll anchor this Indy defense yet again this season.

Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague

It’s been a couple of years since Teague was named an Eastern Conference All-Star, but he has shown in the past that when he is let off the chain he can put the ball in the basket in a handful of truly devastating ways. He’s an upgrade over George Hill in that he’s faster and craftier in carving out his own shot, which could work wonders for the Pacers’ offense. Assuming Nate McMillan lets Teague play his type of game and doesn’t try to slow him down, he could be the second option on offense Indiana hoped they were getting in Monta Ellis last season. Teague keeps defenses honest and is a much better fit at point guard this season than George Hill has been. Hill was no slouch, but Teague should be an upgrade.

Top Clutch Player: Paul George

This is one of those teams with a clear alpha dog, and that means when the game is on the line, George will be the one with the ball is hands. He’s creative enough offensively to make magic happen in crunch time, and he already has had more than his fair share of game winners. Others may touch the ball in a tight game’s waning moments, but it will be shocking if George isn’t the one actually taking the big shots.

The Unheralded Player: C.J. Miles

While Miles isn’t necessarily an irreplaceable guy in terms of his talent, he is a guy who really holds the locker room together and is a ton of fun for the rest of the team to play with. He averaged just shy of 12 PPG last year, which is more or less par for the course over Miles’ last six NBA seasons. He also is capable of starting for the Pacers, having done so in 24 contests last season. He has an occasional big game, but his impact on the locker room is immense. He’ll help make all the new guys feel at home and smooth things over in a locker room that features a lot of new faces.

Top New Addition: Thaddeus Young

While the Pacers added plenty of talented players this summer, none came at a better price than Young, who only cost Indiana the 20th overall selection in what amounted to a pretty weak draft. Caris LeVert could be a perfectly good player for Brooklyn before everything’s all said and done, but Young already has established himself as a hard-nosed, versatile forward with playoff experience. There’s a 100 percent chance that Young will provide more this season than anybody selected at pick No. 20 would have, so while Teague could easily be considered the “best new addition,” in terms of what the Pacers gave up, Young was by far the better value.

– Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Myles Turner

In some ways, the Pacers’ success this upcoming season will be determined by how effective Myles Turner can be, which of course is asking a lot of him. Still, in his rookie season Turner proved to have the ability to both protect the rim and shoot from all over the floor. His 3.3 blocks per game led the NBA in the first round of this past spring’s playoffs. As soon as the calendar rolled over to 2016 last season, Turner pushed himself into the starting lineup after averaging 18 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game during a huge six-game stretch in January – including one game where he scored 31 points and pulled in eight rebounds. His skillset is perfect for a team that wants to play smaller and faster, and if he takes a big leap forward this season, so too will the Pacers.

  1. Al Jefferson

As the only Pacers player other than Turner over 6’10, Jefferson injects some size into the lineup as a projected member of the Indiana bench. He doesn’t in any way fit the profile of a player that works in an uptempo offense, but his low post scoring can still be an asset as an anchor to the reserve unit, and his $10-million-per-year contract makes him a steal even as he approaches the back nine of his career. He’ll be a strong veteran presence in the locker room and a nice safety blanket for the second unit.

  1. Aaron Brooks

Essentially the “Lite” version of Jeff Teague, Brooks is a budget backup that should help Indiana’s bench unit continue humming along even when the starting point guard is getting a breather. Brooks is quick and loves to push the pace, which fits well with what Larry Bird would like to see happen with this group, but he also can create and score well despite his diminutive nature. He’s a perfect backup for Teague and perennially one of the league’s more underappreciated players.

  1. Thaddeus Young

The likely starter at the four, Young is the sort of guy who can score like a swingman but defend a number of positions, including some of the bigger, stronger fours. They’ve wanted a stretchier player at that position for a couple of years now, and Young will fit the bill. He was only one of three players in the NBA to average at least 15 points, nine rebounds and 1.5 steals last year, and those are qualities the Pacers absolutely are going to appreciate in him throughout the 2016-2017 campaign.

  1. Paul George

In the first round of last year’s playoffs, George led his team in points, rebounds and assists. Things weren’t all that different in the regular season where he led all Pacers players in points, steals, minutes and almost topped the rebound category, as well. He does everything well, and he’s coming off a gold medal where he surely learned a lot about winning at an elite level. He’s a top-ten player in the entire league. How could anybody not love him?

– Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

The Pacers are still under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, with as much as $4.3 million in remaining room. That’s enough to restructure and extend Paul George’s contract, should he be interested when eligible (as of Sep. 25). Indiana has 16 guaranteed players, so someone has to go before the start of the season. The Dallas Mavericks paid the Pacers $3.2 million to take on the $1.2 million contract of Jeremy Evans, who could be the odd-man out. Even if Evans is cut, that doesn’t open up roster space for camp invites Julyan Stone, Alex Poythress or Nick Zeisloft.

Next summer, the Pacers could have roughly $27 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale option on Myles Turner before the end of October (an easy decision). It also presumes the team decline’s Lavoy Allen’s team option, and that that both Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles opt out of their contracts. Indiana’s spending power in 2017 might shrink by about $4 million, should George restructures his deal this season.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Under Frank Vogel, one of the team’s biggest strengths was defense as they finished last year eighth in the league in opponents points per game, sixth in opponents field goal percentage and third in opponents three-point field goal percentage. While there certainly is a real possibility that Indiana takes a hit with so much turnover both on the court and on the sidelines, players like Paul George and Myles Turner should keep them somewhere toward the front of the Eastern Conference in terms of defensive efficiency.

– Joel Brigham

WEAKNESSES

Consistent scoring has been a problem for the Pacers for years, and while it’s nice to think that the addition of Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young will solve that problem, many thought the same thing about Monta Ellis a year ago. How good Indiana is offensively depends entirely on how quickly McMillan can get his players to push the ball. If he can’t do that, it could be another year in the bottom half of the league in terms of points scored and scoring efficiency.

– Joel Brigham

THE BURNING QUESTION

Was Nate McMillan the right coaching hire for a team that wants to speed up the offense?

When the Pacers decided to let Frank Vogel walk, the search for a new coach was supposed to end with putting someone in charge that would play smaller and push the pace. There were, of course, plenty of options in hiring someone like that, but the team instead stayed in-house and hired Vogel’s lead assistant, Nate McMillian. Oddly, as a head coach McMillan has only ever finished inside the top 20 teams in the league in terms of pace a single time, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for a major change in offensive philosophy this year.

The team downgraded a bit defensively with their personnel changes this offseason, so for the team to be at its best they’re absolutely going to have to play fast and lively. The players Bird has brought in are meant to get out and run, so despite McMillan’s reputation he’s going to have to figure out how to pick up the pace in a very literal sense. He almost certainly swore up and down in his interview with Bird this past summer that he could do it, but we’ll have to wait and see if that’s actually true.

– 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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