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Los Angeles Clippers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The LA Clippers have refused to go the tanking route to rebuild after “Lob City.” They may have a roster that can win some games, but are they good enough to go anywhere? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Clippers in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Los Angeles Clippers go into the 2018-2019 season with optimism. The team dealt with injuries throughout last season, often resorting to players called up from the team’s G-League affiliate. Despite the constant roster turnover, the team still played competitive basketball and only had their playoff hopes dashed in the final days of the season. Now the team hopes that bringing back a fully healthy roster plus a few new additions could produce a return to the postseason.

To make it back to the playoffs, the Clippers will have to adjust to the loss of long-tenured center DeAndre Jordan, who finally completed his departure to Dallas this offseason. Also standing in the team’s way is the increasingly competitive Western Conference. Numerous teams have objectively improved this offseason and will also be vying for a postseason berth. Count their locker room rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, among the teams that could squeeze the Clippers out of a lower end playoff berth.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

And just like that, it was over. Just one summer after Chris Paul began the teardown of the once Lob City Clippers, DeAndre Jordan put the final nail in that coffin when he agreed to (finally) sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Coming on the heels of Blake Griffin’s trade to Detroit before February’s deadline, arguably the greatest era in Clippers history has come to an end. A full rebuild, if there’s even interest in such a thing, would likely have to wait a year – high-priced veterans like Tobias Harris, Marcin Gortat and Avery Bradley will be on the books until then, with Danilo Gallinari on for another year after that as well. This doesn’t seem to be a strong enough squad on paper to do much more than threaten for the bottom West playoff seeds, and even that might be asking a lot. There might come a time next offseason where the front office has to choose between a full rebuild around names like Jerome Robinson and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, both acquired in the 2018 draft, and something of a hybrid plan for contention minus a true star on the roster.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Los Angeles Clippers’ upcoming season will be an interesting experiment in assessing the value of star players. The Clippers have quality players at every position and exceptional depth on their bench, but no star players. The NBA is a star-driven league, so it may be the case that the Clippers will be facing an uphill battle on most nights. However, the Clippers are well-positioned to pivot midseason and prioritize the future rather than chasing the playoffs this season should they lose pace in the Western Conference. Los Angeles has several players on favorable contracts who could be desirable trade targets for contending teams looking for a little help. Give the front office credit for making bold moves that positioned the team to have the flexibility to compete now and be free agent players next offseason, at which time they hope to land a superstar like Kawhi Leonard.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

During the Lob City days, the Clippers had plenty of star power but were held down by their lack of depth. Now that they have moved on entirely, they have done a complete 180. A roster once devoid of depth is now swimming in it, while the star power in Clipperland went from magnificent to non-existent – all due respect to Tobias Harris. The Clippers probably won’t come close to attaining the same success they did years ago. Yet, it’s hard not to like the versatility they added. What may help the Clippers is that now that Lob City is done, there’s not as much pressure on them. Better yet, for the first time in years, the Clippers are likable again.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Matt John

For the first time in a long time, Lob City is no more. With the departure of DeAndre Jordan to Dallas, there is nobody left from that era of Clippers basketball. It’s full speed ahead and a brand new challenge for Doc Rivers, whose roster now boasts a large collection of youth to go with a few veterans to guide them throughout the season. Patrick Beverley is eager to get back from injury and has already said his piece on who the best team in town is. Along with Lou Williams and Avery Bradley, he’ll be mentoring rookie guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson. It’s also a year for Tobias Harris to ascend to the elite level. Unfortunately, the Western Conference will be too difficult to break into playoff contention.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

Ehh. The Clippers are such a hard team to buy into as anything more than a first-round playoff contender. Outside of Tobias Harris, who do the Clippers have in terms of star-level players? DeAndre Jordan’s exit will impact them defensively. Their draft was decent but lacked an impact player. There just isn’t anything that leads you to believe that the Clippers are gearing up for a serious run. They should be good enough to win 40-45 games, but what’s that mean in the West? The Clippers look more destined for the lottery than a serious post-season run. We’ll see how it ultimately plays out, but there just isn’t much to get excited about.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Tobias Harris

Should the Clippers make the playoffs, they will do so in large part based on their collective offensive versatility. Forward Tobias Harris is in position to lead the way on that end of the court. The Clippers acquired Harris from Detroit midway through last season in a trade that saw Blake Griffin depart from Los Angeles. Having already lost Chris Paul prior to last season, Griffin’s departure left the Clippers suddenly without star power. Lou Williams and Harris stepped up to fill the void. Harris essentially replaced Griffin and showed the ability to score down low when necessary, on the move and from the outside as an acceptable three-point shooter.

The Clippers are now the beneficiaries of the consistent year to year progression of Harris’s game. Harris doesn’t draw headlines the way Griffin did, but is an effective substitute who’s both younger and a more cost-effective lead option for the Clippers. Look for Harris to further settle into his lead role on the team and continue to build his game in his first full season with the team.

Top Defensive Player: Luc Mbah a Moute

Clippers fans are quite familiar with the nuances of Mbah a Moute’s game. Mbah a Moute played for the Clippers for two seasons before leaving last offseason to join Chris Paul in Houston. With Houston, Mbah a Moute showed the same defensive versatility and intelligence that made him a valuable contributor until he suffered a shoulder injury. The injury left Mbah a Moute unavailable at the start of the playoffs and unable to make the same contributions in a close playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.

Having just turned 32, Mbah a Moute returns to a deep Clippers squad that has a lot of talent on the offensive end and a few difference makers on the defensive end available to balance the team. Mbah a Moute has the size (6-foot-8), length, mobility and strength to cover on the perimeter and handle bigger players in the post when necessary. So long as injuries and age don’t significantly slow him down, Mbah a Moute is the Clippers’ top defensive option. Guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley are the other defensive specialists the Clippers will lean on this season.

Top Playmaker: Lou Williams

In the past, Lou Williams has generally played a more focused role — lead the second unit as a primary scoring option and secondary playmaker. As mentioned, last year’s Clippers squad was not exactly like most teams. The team spent the whole season overcoming injuries to other key players. With players missing left and right, Williams stepped up with one of his finest seasons. In 79 games (only 19 in the starting lineup), Williams averaged 22.6 points, 5.3 assists in 32.8 minutes per game, all career highs. In addition to his career-high assist numbers, Williams also shot and made career-high numbers from three-point range, making him especially potent on offense.

Williams took on a bigger role for the Clippers last season than he has for other teams in the past. He thrived despite often being the focal point of opposing teams’ defenses and, in doing so, earned himself his second NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. While the team has a glut of capable guards, Williams is coming off a career season and will again serve as a key playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Lou Williams

This title goes to Williams, who is one of the NBA’s best natural scorers. In the clutch, Williams can rely on his ability to break down his defender one-on-one, score from mid-range or effortlessly drop a floater near the basket. The attention Williams draws from opposing defenses can also be used to the team’s advantage with correct play calling. The Clippers have a bevy of options at guard, but none can put opposing teams on their heels like Williams. Also a quick shout out to Harris, whose shooting percentages are quite strong as defined by NBA.com’s clutch numbers, although Harris was involved in far fewer clutch games/minutes as Williams last season.

The Unheralded Player: Montrezl Harrell

This Clippers squad has a few players that have not received a lot of attention for their efforts and impact. With the Clippers having a limited number of national broadcasts this season, that may not change any time soon. Regardless, count Montrezl Harrell as a player that quickly made his impact felt last season when the team needed it the most. At 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, Harrell is quick and surprisingly light on his feet. Harrell measures up as a versatile power forward/center who can make a significant impact on any given night with his intensity, hustle and physicality.

Although he only started three games last season, Harrell was a key impact player for the Clippers despite his lack of shot blocking. In stretches where the team would go stale, Harrell’s intensity, offensive rebounding and knack for finding the ball not only helped to keep the team afloat but often made him the best player on the floor. This season the Clippers will likely start center Marcin Gortat (acquired in an offseason trade for Austin Rivers) with Harrell coming off the bench. However, keep an eye on his minutes as the team will likely rely on Harrell just as much, if not more than, Gortat at center. With the addition of Mike Scott and the return of Danilo Gallinari, Harrell is more likely to play the majority of his minutes at center.

Best New Addition: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

In the 2018 NBA Summer League, fans got their first glimpse of the next crop of the league’s top rookies. Among this year’s lottery picks, Wendell Carter, Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stood out with their play, which raised the question of whether they each should have been picked sooner. Gilgeous-Alexander had flashes of brilliance in Summer League, using hesitation dribbles and off-speed moves to keep defenders off balance while allowing him to get to the basket seemingly at will. Around the basket, he showed a deft touch and the ability to set up teammates through dump off passes or kick outs to shooters on the perimeter.

Gilgeous-Alexander projects to be a starting-quality lead guard with some star potential. While not the fastest or most explosive athlete, with his timing and length Gilgeous-Alexander could also grow into a strong defensive presence in the backcourt. The Clippers hope that both he and fellow rookie guard Jerome Robinson grow into the backcourt of the future.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Tyrone Wallace

Although these are the quiet days of the offseason, the Clippers did make a surprise move recently by matching an offer sheet on restricted free agent Tyrone Wallace. This was a surprise mostly due to the glut of guards the team already has going into next season. With the multitude of injuries that left the team bereft of talent, Wallace provided the Clippers with consistent production. Coming from the Clippers’ G-League affiliate team, Wallace used his length and creativity to score ball despite not having a particularly reliable jump shot. Wallace proved capable of playing heavy minutes later in the season while dealing with the restrictive rules surrounding travel and practice time that G-League call-ups have to deal with. With a new contract to stay in LA, Wallace will have to continue to develop his game and hope for another opportunity through trade or injuries to make an impact this upcoming season.

2. The defensive duo of Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley

Patrick Beverley came to the Clippers last season to help ameliorate the loss of Paul and to lead the way with his defensive intensity and leadership. Unfortunately, Beverley’s season quickly came to a close due to injuries. Likewise, Avery Bradley’s tenure with the Clippers hardly registered a blip as he was quickly shut down due to injury concerns. Now both players are apparently healthy. The duo may serve as the starting backcourt for the Clippers and could help to buoy a team that lacks a defensive anchor in the front court.

3. Boban Marjanovic

Hidden in the large haul the Clippers received for Blake Griffin is center Boban Marjanovic. Marjanovic has been and likely will continue to serve as a situational player capable of scoring in bursts. Unfortunately, when he hits the court, the risk is his slow speed and lack of mobility make him a huge target for opposing offenses. This risk-reward balance keeps Marjanovic from hitting the court on some nights. Regardless, Marjanovic continues to be a fan favorite based on his infectious personality and entertaining friendship with Harris. With Jordan gone, there are still opportunities for Marjanovic to make it on the court, especially if the Clippers are hunting for a few easy buckets against teams who don’t play a traditional center.

4. Jerry West and the Clippers’ front office

With the 2017-2018 season looming, the Clippers were at a crossroads. The team risked a huge backslide if Paul or Griffin, or worse both, would have left and signed elsewhere in free agency. As it works out, the team managed to turn Paul into numerous players and assets and did the same with Griffin a few months later. Instead of being locked far over the cap with a core that had peaked years earlier, the Clippers’ front office orchestrated a rebuild on the fly. The Clippers now have a potential backcourt of the future, numerous trade assets and the ability to sign one or two high profile free agents next offseason.

– James Blancarte

STRENGTHS

Depth, Versatility and Roster Flexibility

Should the injury bug strike again, the Clippers have the depth and versatility to not miss a beat. The Clippers also players on favorable contracts that contending teams may be interested at the trade deadline. The Clippers are well-positioned to compete now and make opportunistic trades mid-season should it become apparent that they are not able to maintain pace in the playoff race.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Star power and Defense.

The trades of Griffin and the offseason loss of Jordan leave the Clippers lacking in star power and national recognition. However, even without star power, the team does have the depth and offensive weapons to stay competitive. But the team’s defense may also be an Achilles heel. As mentioned, the team does have notable individual defenders but lacks a reliable shot blocking presence around the rim.

– James Blancarte

The Burning Question

Can the Clippers make the playoffs with this year’s roster or will they look to the future?

As mentioned, the team has talent across the roster to compete for the playoffs after coming close last season. However, injuries could slow down a team that can ill afford to fall behind the intense competition. In addition, the Clippers start their season with an extremely tough first few weeks, which could derail the season early on. If this is too much to overcome, the team might start looking to the future. Despite assurances from the front office that the team will compete at a high level, not making the playoffs will allow the Clippers to keep their top-14 protected first round pick next season. Plus, the team could find it opportune to trade away one of the team’s other guards to make way for the team’s rookie guards.

– James Blancarte

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NBA All-Star Friday Recap

Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.

Matt John

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NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.

The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.

Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.

Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.

What could have been with Jay Williams…

Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.

There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.

Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.

Other participants included:

From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)

From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)

MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars

If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.

Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.

Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.

As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).

Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’  collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.

Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.

Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.

Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!

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NBA Daily: Can Tobias Harris Put the 76ers Over the Top?

Shane Rhodes breaks down whether the addition of Tobias Harris can push the 76ers into the NBA Finals.

Shane Rhodes

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The Philadelphia 76ers made perhaps the biggest move of trade season when they acquired Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. Harris, in the midst of a career year, was on the path to a lucrative contract come this summer. But, with an uncertain future in Los Angeles, Philadelphia capitalized and made their move to win now.

In doing so, the 76ers have put together, arguably, the most talented starting roster in the Eastern Conference. But what exactly does Harris bring to the team, and can he put them over the top of their competition in the East?

Harris has very much looked the part of an All-Star this season and has given Brett Brown and the 76ers coaching staff yet another weapon with which to attack defenses. The 26-year-old has posted career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (7.8) and assists (2.8) per game, field goal percentage (49.7) and three-point percentage (43.0) this season and should prove a significant upgrade over Wilson Chandler, who was sent to Los Angeles in the trade, on both offense and defense.

In a superior lineup, his Harris’ play should only improve as well.

His statistical values may dip with the move to Philadelphia, but, in a way, the team may look at that as a positive; with so many talents on the floor together, Brown, in theory, should be able to utilize Harris in order to reduce wear and tear on his other players — namely Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler — and keep them somewhat fresh for the postseason, if not at the expensive of some personal stats.

Harris is another player that can handle the ball and should lead to even more movement within the 76ers offense. He has shown over the years an ability to push the ball up the floor in transition and should relieve some of the pressure from Simmons in that area as well. In the event that he is the lone star on the floor, or should the ball movement stop, Harris able and willing to break out his do-it-himself kit; he may not dance a defender like Kyrie Irving, but he is more than capable of sizing up his man and either hitting a shot in their face or brute-forcing his way to the basket.

Harris is a more-than-capable shooter and, off the ball, should provide Simmons with another reliable perimeter outlet and open things up on the interior open things up inside for him and Embiid as well.

Defensively, Harris isn’t a wizard, but the effort and energy are there and should shine in the already competent 76ers defense. While it may not be ideal in all situations, Harris has the size to bang down low with some centers and the quickness to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter. Harris’ length — a near seven-foot wingspan — should also prove an asset, as he will allow the defense to switch on almost every possession. In the postseason, that could prove invaluable.

As good as this acquisition may look on paper, it isn’t without its cons or risks. Harris’ is another primary option on a team that already had three of them in Embiid, Simmons and Butler; could the presence of too many options bog things down a la the Boston Celtics earlier this season?

His contract situation, alongside the impending free agency of Butler, should give some pause as well.

The team has hedged its future on those two players and given up some good (and some great) assets to acquire them. Should Butler leave, Harris would provide the 76ers with the ultimate insurance policy but, should both players move on after the season it could set the team back years.

The 76ers have plenty of pre-existing issues to figure out as well, a losing record against their chief Eastern Conference competition — Milwaukee Bucks (0-1), Toronto Raptors (1-2) and Celtics (0-3) — most prominent among them.

But, with Harris in the fold, the 76ers seem to have all the pieces of the puzzle. If the players can put it all together, they could very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.

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Gordon Hayward Clearing Hurdles, Finding Joy In Comeback From Injury

Spencer Davies sits down with Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward to discuss the first half of his season, returning from a devastating injury and the team blocking out the noise.

Spencer Davies

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As his Boston Celtic teammates got some shots up to prepare for a morning practice in Cleveland, Gordon Hayward sat in a chair on the baseline watching.

Quicken Loans Arena held a particular place in his mind. Not because of a championship memory, nor for any individual accomplishment.

But because nearly five months after an emotional return and season debut, Hayward had come back to the scene where the course of his career shifted in an instant.

“It’s something that I was thinking about sitting in the hotel last night,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders before shootaround at The Q. “Like, last time I was here, my whole world changed. I’ll probably think about it, be a little anxious about it at the beginning when I first check in, but then when I get going it’ll be fine.”

If there was any trepidation, it was either short-lived or didn’t show. The 28-year-old looked as confident as ever, packing a powerful punch off the bench as a scorer and a distributor for a depleted Boston team. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.

“I didn’t even think about that until this morning,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Hayward’s return to Cleveland. “I thought about it in the preseason and then for whatever reason, I probably should’ve thought about it.

“I just think he has played enough now where he’s past that initial hurdle, right? So it’s probably not fun to walk out on the court the first time and shoot around and those type of things but ultimately, I think he probably moved past that really quickly. I thought he was great tonight, both ends of the court. I thought his offensive playmaking passing the ball was as good as his scoring.”

Hayward has scored 20 points or more on just three different occasions this year. It’s a far cry from the All-Star numbers he used to put up nightly. He understands, however, that perseverance is necessary as he slowly, but surely gets re-acclimated to playing.

“Physically, I’ve felt pretty good. I think I’m definitely moving way better than I was at the beginning of the season,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting more and more confident with each month, each week. There’s definitely still games where I just don’t feel like myself, but I think I’m trending in the right direction.”

When asked about those areas that don’t feel right yet Hayward pinpointed attacking the basket, specifically going at big men in the paint, taking contact and finishing.

Knowing that he can go up, get hit and be able to come down fine is a mental hurdle Hayward admittedly still has to clear—and the only way to get past that is repetition.

“You just have to do it, and do it more than one time,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “It’s like an experience-type thing. You’ve got to just do it and feel confident doing it, and until that happens, then you’ll just keep thinking about it.”

Once Hayward is driving and dunking on a regular basis without thinking about what happens next, he says he’ll officially be back. Until then, an appreciation of being able to play the game he loves again is the true big picture—especially after an injury that could’ve taken it all away from him.

“That’s been a mental thing as well is trying to find some joy in just the fact that I’m back out on the court,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Because some people don’t return from that and a blessing that we have the technology that we do these days that they were able to fix my ankle. So I guess just being patient with the whole thing, that’s been a challenge.”

CELTICS A WORK IN PROGRESS

Coming into the 2017-18 season, the excitement in Boston was palpable. Hayward signed a four-year maximum contract with the Celtics that summer. Shortly thereafter, Danny Ainge made a blockbuster deal to acquire Kyrie Irving, creating a dynamic duo to begin a new era of C’s basketball.

The Celtics started the campaign on the road against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers in October. Since the storyline of the night was Irving facing off against the franchise he had won a championship with on opening night, Hayward’s debut took a bit of a back seat…until the unthinkable happened.

Less than halfway into the first quarter, Irving saw a cutting Hayward with an open path to the rim and threw up a lob looking for an alley-oop finish. Cleveland’s Jae Crowder and LeBron James came to double before Boston’s pair could connect, leaving Hayward afloat in an awkward position.

Hayward came down almost horizontally, with only his left leg there to brace himself for the fall. Tragically, he dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia simultaneously in one of the most gruesome moments in the history of sports.

As he was consoled by trainers and wheeled away on a stretcher with an air cast, the whole arena was dead silent. Players from both teams were praying in disbelief of what they’d just witnessed. Just like that, Hayward’s season was over, and even perhaps his career.

Following multiple successful surgeries and going through rehabilitation programs over the course of a year, Hayward was able to make a miraculous return to the court on October 16, 2018. He’s been on the floor for 26 minutes per night, playing in 53 of 58 total games.

Just as Hayward has tirelessly ground away to get back to form, so have the Celtics. With a healthy Irving and returning Hayward, along with the group that unexpectedly went seven games into the conference finals last year, they were supposed to be the top dog in the East.

It’s no secret that the Celtics boast an abundance of young talent. Jaylen Brown has shown plenty of growth after a shaky start to the season. Terry Rozier is on track to get paid in the offseason by a team in need of a starting point guard. Jayson Tatum is Boston’s second-best scorer (16.5 points per game) and rebounder (6.3 boards per game) at just 20 years old.

That goes without mentioning rookie center Robert Williams. Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, while not quite as young, are two inexperienced NBA players who have overseas experience. The Celtics’ depth is a quality that is necessary for a deep run in the postseason.

“I think anytime they have an opportunity, they seem to make the most of it. That’s at every position,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders.

At the halfway mark headed into the All-Star break, Boston holds fifth place, locked in a battle with the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers for the three seed. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors each have 43 wins with over five games separating them from the trio of teams behind them.

Despite back-to-back blown leads and losses to both Los Angeles franchises at the TD Garden, the Celtics have won 12 of their last 15 contests.

“I think when we all play with energy and when we’re connected defensively – and offensively, for that matter, but especially on the defensive end – we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Then, when we are able to move the ball and put together games where we have 30-plus assists, that’s when we’re really tough (to beat).”

TUSSLING WITH THE MEDIA

It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, though. Early in the season, there were many things said by multiple players on the record, including some pointed words from Irving in more than one instance. These comments can be twisted and turned easily.

Add in an example: the day he told reporters, “Ask me July 1,” regarding his free agency plans, it turned into a big mess of speculation. What many people didn’t hear was Irving’s thoughts regarding the media’s spin on what was actually going on.

“This is like college recruitment for me all over again. I don’t know. This is just weird,” Irving said to the scrum of reporters in New York. “It’s a new position to be in answering all these questions, seeing all this stuff that I’m trying to avoid, and it’s just a distraction. It’s crazy how stories and things and storyline can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms. That’s just what it is….”

Hayward had plenty of his own thoughts on the matter.

“I mean, I think certainly all outside noise has an opportunity to put a wedge between people and between teammates,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I think especially in today’s age where there’s social media and information is right now, all-the-time, like everybody sees what everybody says. There’s guys that are paid to give their opinions on things and, if you read into all that stuff, can definitely put a wedge in between guys.

“More than anything, just talking to people,” Hayward said of the proper remedy. “If you have an issue with somebody, just tell ’em, talk to ’em. But I think for the most part if you block all that stuff out and really just focus on yourself as a group and what the coaching staff is saying and what your teammates are saying, it’s usually better.”

FATHERHOOD IS A BLESSING

We talked about the youth Boston has already, but Hayward isn’t in that same category anymore. While it’s not that he’s old, per se, he is a nine-year man in the NBA.

Hayward considers it “weird” that he’s the veteran now. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t mind that time has flown by because of the gift of fatherhood. The injury he sustained was absolutely devastating.

But it put things in perspective for him, and no matter what happens from here on out with his career, Hayward will always be grateful for the most important thing in his life—family.

“No doubt. I think no matter what happens on the court, my girls don’t care,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “They just care that dad’s home and they want to play hot lava and play picnic and all that stuff. Like having three healthy kids and a wife at home, those things are good.”

If Hayward’s recent play is an indication of what we’re going to see from him moving forward, he might just get the best of both worlds.

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