The new look Los Angeles Lakers have arrived. While the team sports a number of new players, none compares to LeBron James. King James arrives with what appears to be monumental pressure on his shoulders. Like another all-time great, Wilt Chamberlin, James will be wearing purple and gold as a veteran having already accomplished much in his career. James also comes to a Lakers team that has suffered through an abnormally long postseason drought, having not made the playoffs since the 2012-2013 season. Unlike other players his age, James is playing basketball at the highest levels and is positioned to lead the team back to renewed levels of success and visibility.
To kick off this new era of Lakers basketball, the Lakers bring back a core of young and talented players along with returning head coach Luke Walton. Walton and the young core will face new levels of attention and pressure as the presence of James immediately elevates the team’s profile and expectations. After James committed to the Lakers, the front office went out and added several veterans to round out the roster. In the short term, expectations are all over the place, from championship contention down to merely fighting for one of a playoff spot in the very competitive Western Conference. Where the team actually ends up will be determined by how quickly this new group of players can come together. Regardless of this season’s results, a new era has begun in Lakers land.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
You might have heard that the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James this offseason. The addition of James alone means the Lakers are a threat to make the postseason, even in the stacked Western Conference. The addition of veteran players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and the re-signing of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should also help the Lakers in the playoff hunt this season. However, I do wish the Lakers had used their cap flexibility on better shooters who could collectively space the court and don’t need the ball in their hands to be effective. Players like Wayne Ellington and Avery Bradley come to mind. Regardless, this season isn’t the main priority. The Lakers have LeBron under contract for at least three more seasons and will have cap space to add another star next offseason. Needless to say, things are looking up in L.A.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Jesse Blancarte
All things considered, a pretty dull and boring offseason in Los Angeles. Not a whole lot of note to report, honestly. All jokes aside, how much more is there to say about the league’s reinvigorated epicenter? In acquiring LeBron James and turning over a huge chunk of the roster, the Lakers have reminded the league that even after a strange dry spell, the purple and gold just operates on a different plane. All the big questions for LA headed into the year revolve around chemistry and roles – this is a unique situation for a LeBron team, both in terms of the relative ages of his top supporting cast and in terms of their skill sets. Whether he can mesh with noted non-shooters like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson remains to be seen, though the Lakers quietly do have certain lineups that could be dominant offensively (think Josh Hart-Brandon Ingram-LeBron-Kyle Kuzma-JaVale McGee, for instance). The bright lights are on and the league is watching.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
Have you guys heard that LeBron James is a Laker? All kidding aside, it is going to be a loud year in Hollywood. From the promising rookie seasons out of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma to the constant development of former number two overall pick Brandon Ingram, there was already excitement in the air. Bringing in The King and a ton of veterans on one-year deals who understand the league from back to front—that’s just a roster made up of a solid mixture. Knowing how first-year LeBron teams are, it’s going to be a roller coaster, but it should be fun and interesting once we get to the postseason.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Spencer Davies
Since Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over the Lakers’ front office, they’ve had three major wins. One, they added LeBron James. Two, they’ve expertly managed to get rid of their bad contracts so they’ll have long-term cap room. Three, they have promising young talent on rookie contracts. The Lakers should be a playoff team this season with all they added this summer, but I hesitate to call them a contender because they lack a number two and they need an upgrade at center. Still, the Lakers are back, and that’s all that matters.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Matt John
How can you not like what the Lakers did this summer? They nabbed the biggest fish in the pond in LeBron James, added proven veterans on short term deals and didn’t have to give up draft picks or youth to get out of the Luol Deng albatross of a contract; that is a solid offseason. The real question is, do the Lakers have enough to do anything meaningful in year one of LeBron? The answer is a big maybe. Keep in mind LeBron took a team with across the board less talent and got them to the Finals. That’s not necessarily happening in the West, but does LeBron have another miraculous season to get this roster to the second round, and if he is anywhere close to what he was last season? The answer is yes. It’s hard not to see the Lakers as a stock worth investing in, beyond what could be the most comical group of eccentric personalities in basketball – the Lakers got a lot better.
2nd Place – Pacific Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: LeBron James
Without question, James fits the bill here. At any given moment James is a threat to set up his teammates or score at will from nearly anywhere on the court. James has slowed down a bit as the years have gone by and is somewhat less apt to engage in high energy run and gun, fast break basketball. However, James is still capable of unleashing his athleticism when the situation or moment calls for it. His teams often feature lots of veteran players who adjust to a James-based system with specialized roles.
This new roster is filled with young players unaccustomed to winning at the pro level and an assortment of veterans on one-year deals. How minutes are distributed needs to shake out over time. Over his career, James has handled the primary ball handling, distribution and scoring load. As discussed below, things might change with this roster full of playmakers who are also used to having the ball in their hands. Should James move his game off the ball somewhat, his usage percentage may dip a bit, but his overall offensive impact will still be massive. Though, if instead James continues to dominate the ball as in years past, expect for him to continue to be the do-everything singular force on offense. One way or another, James is going to be the Lakers’ most important and effective offensive player this year and for years to come.
Top Defensive Player: Lonzo Ball
Quick shout out to James as the player with the highest defensive potential. However, in recent seasons James has decreased his defensive intensity in an effort to save energy for offense and that doesn’t figure to change this season. Beyond James, its not exactly clear who the top defender might be. If he steps up to the opportunity, second year guard Lonzo Ball is positioned to step into this role. With the possibility of playing off the ball more often (discussed below), Ball can further increase his overall effort and effectiveness with his individual defense. On defense, Ball has already shown a knack for reading passing lanes and even picking his opponent’s pocket in isolation situations. After apparently adding significant muscle in the offseason, Ball may have addressed the issue of size and strength that affected him at times last season. Should the Lakers employ a defense that emphasizes switching, Ball should have the strength and ability to defend multiple positions. Ball may not have the size or strength to impact the court like James can, but he has the tools to be a key defensive player and is better situated to make that his priority this season.
Top Playmaker: Rajon Rondo
Another mention for James, but Rajon Rondo gets the nod here. For years, any team featuring James ran most of their offensive action through him. The gravity and attention he draws opens up teammates for easy scoring opportunities consistently. However, this new Lakers team appears (operative word) to be designed to lessen James’s shot creation responsibility.
Enter Rondo. Compared to Ball, Rondo averages more assists per game, has a better assist to turnover ratio and a championship level pedigree. This assumes Rondo will win the starting point guard position as a more established veteran and won’t have chemistry issues. Compatibility with Rondo is not a guaranteed thing. Rondo comes to the Lakers having played a critical role in the New Orleans Pelican’s playoff success last season.
Ball may win the starting role at some point. In the meantime, there is an ongoing belief that as Ball improves his mechanics, he can become a reliable three-point threat. Off the ball, he can also be a valuable secondary creator who can pass or score off the dribble creator as well. Rondo and Ball are elite playmakers but Rondo is further along and more established at this point and serves as the top playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: LeBron James
James gets mentioned a lot in this preview and with good reason. It’s not yet clear what the pecking order is after James. Regardless, James has been to the Finals eight straight seasons and has been the deciding factor in countless clutch moments. James will draw the other team’s attention and can make almost any play. All eyes will be on James in any game that comes down to the wire.
The Unheralded Player: Josh Hart
Lakers fans already know this one should go to guard Josh Hart. Like Ball a year before, Hart stepped up to dominate in the Las Vegas NBA Summer League. Hart led this year’s summer league Lakers squad to the championship game while earning the Summer League MVP trophy. Hart is poised to contribute should he get the minutes. Only a rookie last year, Hart stepped his game up as the season went on and his playing time increased. Unfortunately for Hart, the roster currently has as many as 11 players expecting regular rotation minutes so Hart will need to be ready to step up again and show he can earn and keep those minutes.
Best New Addition: LeBron James
James again, hands down, for obvious reasons. The addition of James sparks a new era in the Lakers’ vaunted history that had become stagnant for the last few years. After James, Rondo serves as the team’s other best new addition.
– James Blancarte
Who We Like:
1. The Lakers’ front office – Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka
Through them, the Lakers finally got the free agent superstar savior they had been craving since the tail end of the Kobe Bryant’s career. Even more, the Lakers were also able to secure a three-year contract (with a 4th year player option) from James, showing a level of commitment not previously given in Cleveland in the last few years. With a long-term commitment from James, the team assembled a roster that is a mishmash of veterans on one-year deals alongside talented, developing young players. The franchise also convinced Luol Deng to agree to give back significant money ($7.5 million) as part of a buyout that allows Deng to re-sign elsewhere. Now the franchise is fully poised to swing for the fences next offseason and sign other top tier free agents in the loaded 2019 NBA free agent class.
2. Brandon Ingram
Ingram ended last season showing new elements in his offensive game. Ball was the team’s primary ball handler but struggled with injuries and missed major portions of the season. By necessity, the team put the ball into Ingram’s hands and asked him to become more of a creator as the season ended. How good Ingram can become is yet to be seen but his potential seemed to increase with more responsibility on offense. Now Ingram will likely have to adjust again. James, Rondo and Ball are likely to dominate the ball, leaving Ingram to wait for his touches as an isolation scorer, spot up shooter or secondary ball handler. However, should Ingram adapt and continue to grow on this new team, he could answer the question of who is the second-best player on the roster after James. On the flip side, should the Lakers find the opportunity to make a deal, Ingram is a desirable trade piece and could find himself as the centerpiece in a deal for a star player. Either way, Ingram brings plenty of value to the Lakers.
3. Michael Beasley
While the additions of Rondo and Stephenson have garnered more attention, the addition of Beasley is overlooked. He has bounced around the league the last few seasons while continuing to play surprisingly good basketball. Last season he played his most games (74 games) since the 2012-13 season. With New York, Beasley served as a reliable spark plug for the offense coming off the bench and was an effective isolation scorer. With Kristaps Porzingis going down for the season, Beasley stepped up and even started 30 games for a Knicks team that fell out of the national spotlight. With his career on the upswing, Beasley has the chance to once again serve as a bench scorer who can play expanded minutes in a pinch, especially if the Lakers are willing to experiment with him at center. While Beasley’s career has never matched expectations coming out of college, now is a great chance for him to play and perhaps shine in a useful role on a good team.
4. Luke Walton
Now going into his third season as a head coach, Walton faces the biggest challenge of his career. Like many coaches before him, Walton needs to gain the respect and confidence of James, who has seen a wide range of coaching styles throughout his career. Having won multiple championships and perfected his game, James is now seen as someone who dictates the direction his team takes as much as any player in the league. Walton will need to balance his ability to lead his team while sharing authority with James. Walton is well liked around the league and unlike the last few Lakers head coaches, he has not had to deal with as much outside scrutiny, which has allowed his young core to develop effectively under his tutelage. Walton will have to establish who does and does not make it into the rotation while balancing the continued development of the younger players while keeping James happy. No easy task. Walton has reportedly already spoken to Cavaliers Head Coach Tyronn Lue about his experience coaching James and, at this point, appears to be up the task and poised to take a huge leap in his coaching career.
– James Blancarte
Any team featuring LeBron James immediately has the ability to be competitive. With this roster, James has the opportunity to experiment with allowing other players to share on-ball shot creation responsibilities. As James continues his transition to the latter years of his career, this can serve as another means of longevity. In addition, it could serve to make the team more dynamic since the best teams in the league move the ball and have multiple creators unlike James’s team last Cavaliers team. This team also has multiple young players under contract who might develop into stars in the foreseeable future. Should the young players develop accordingly, the team has the ingredients to be successful now and into the future, and that’s before adding additional free agent talent next year. The future is bright in Los Angeles.
– James Blancarte
Pressure, volatility and defense. Playing with James produces the kind of pressure that many players are ill-equipped to handle. Look at restricted free agent Rodney Hood. He came to the Cavaliers expecting to play a key role in the playoffs, which could have bolstered his profile going into free agency. Instead, he could barely get off the bench and never acclimated to playing with James. Something similar could happen in Los Angeles, especially to the various youngsters on the squad.
As mentioned above, there are numerous new veterans hoping to play well and make their mark this season, including Stephenson, Beasley and center JaVale McGee. Stephenson and Beasley are both talented offensive players with questionable personality profiles. Whether they can coexist with James and his high standards is in question. In addition, both are inconsistent defenders. McGee overcame similar concerns and showed he can be successful in a limited role on a championship squad and might do the same should he crack this rotation. Finally, it’s not clear if the Lakers have the sufficient personnel to be a good defensive team. Should the team struggle on defense, this season could go sideways quickly.
– James Blancarte
The Burning Question
Will the Lakers be able to resist making a trade should the season not begin as expected?
Teams acquiring James’ talents require time to adjust to him. Unlike his latest stint in Cleveland and Miami before that, this James led team heavily relies on young, untested talent. Should James (turning 34 in December) not mesh well with the young prospects on the team, the franchise may feel pressure to not waste one of James’s few remaining years as a top shelf, elite talent. Any trade for top-tier veteran players would requiring sacrificing some combination of young talent, cap flexibility and draft assets. Despite the pressure, the Lakers will likely not sacrifice these assets and will instead hold firm and hope that the team will work things out on their way to a likely lower end playoff berth.
– James Blancarte
NBA All-Star Friday Recap
Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.
NBA All-Star Celebrity Game
The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.
The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.
Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.
Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.
— NBA (@NBA) February 16, 2019
What could have been with Jay Williams…
Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.
There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.
Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.
Other participants included:
From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)
From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)
MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars
If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.
Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.
Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.
As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).
Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’ collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.
Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.
Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.
Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!
NBA Daily: Can Tobias Harris Put the 76ers Over the Top?
Shane Rhodes breaks down whether the addition of Tobias Harris can push the 76ers into the NBA Finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers made perhaps the biggest move of trade season when they acquired Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. Harris, in the midst of a career year, was on the path to a lucrative contract come this summer. But, with an uncertain future in Los Angeles, Philadelphia capitalized and made their move to win now.
In doing so, the 76ers have put together, arguably, the most talented starting roster in the Eastern Conference. But what exactly does Harris bring to the team, and can he put them over the top of their competition in the East?
Harris has very much looked the part of an All-Star this season and has given Brett Brown and the 76ers coaching staff yet another weapon with which to attack defenses. The 26-year-old has posted career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (7.8) and assists (2.8) per game, field goal percentage (49.7) and three-point percentage (43.0) this season and should prove a significant upgrade over Wilson Chandler, who was sent to Los Angeles in the trade, on both offense and defense.
In a superior lineup, his Harris’ play should only improve as well.
His statistical values may dip with the move to Philadelphia, but, in a way, the team may look at that as a positive; with so many talents on the floor together, Brown, in theory, should be able to utilize Harris in order to reduce wear and tear on his other players — namely Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler — and keep them somewhat fresh for the postseason, if not at the expensive of some personal stats.
Harris is another player that can handle the ball and should lead to even more movement within the 76ers offense. He has shown over the years an ability to push the ball up the floor in transition and should relieve some of the pressure from Simmons in that area as well. In the event that he is the lone star on the floor, or should the ball movement stop, Harris able and willing to break out his do-it-himself kit; he may not dance a defender like Kyrie Irving, but he is more than capable of sizing up his man and either hitting a shot in their face or brute-forcing his way to the basket.
Harris is a more-than-capable shooter and, off the ball, should provide Simmons with another reliable perimeter outlet and open things up on the interior open things up inside for him and Embiid as well.
Defensively, Harris isn’t a wizard, but the effort and energy are there and should shine in the already competent 76ers defense. While it may not be ideal in all situations, Harris has the size to bang down low with some centers and the quickness to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter. Harris’ length — a near seven-foot wingspan — should also prove an asset, as he will allow the defense to switch on almost every possession. In the postseason, that could prove invaluable.
As good as this acquisition may look on paper, it isn’t without its cons or risks. Harris’ is another primary option on a team that already had three of them in Embiid, Simmons and Butler; could the presence of too many options bog things down a la the Boston Celtics earlier this season?
His contract situation, alongside the impending free agency of Butler, should give some pause as well.
The team has hedged its future on those two players and given up some good (and some great) assets to acquire them. Should Butler leave, Harris would provide the 76ers with the ultimate insurance policy but, should both players move on after the season it could set the team back years.
The 76ers have plenty of pre-existing issues to figure out as well, a losing record against their chief Eastern Conference competition — Milwaukee Bucks (0-1), Toronto Raptors (1-2) and Celtics (0-3) — most prominent among them.
But, with Harris in the fold, the 76ers seem to have all the pieces of the puzzle. If the players can put it all together, they could very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.
Gordon Hayward Clearing Hurdles, Finding Joy In Comeback From Injury
Spencer Davies sits down with Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward to discuss the first half of his season, returning from a devastating injury and the team blocking out the noise.
As his Boston Celtic teammates got some shots up to prepare for a morning practice in Cleveland, Gordon Hayward sat in a chair on the baseline watching.
Quicken Loans Arena held a particular place in his mind. Not because of a championship memory, nor for any individual accomplishment.
But because nearly five months after an emotional return and season debut, Hayward had come back to the scene where the course of his career shifted in an instant.
“It’s something that I was thinking about sitting in the hotel last night,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders before shootaround at The Q. “Like, last time I was here, my whole world changed. I’ll probably think about it, be a little anxious about it at the beginning when I first check in, but then when I get going it’ll be fine.”
If there was any trepidation, it was either short-lived or didn’t show. The 28-year-old looked as confident as ever, packing a powerful punch off the bench as a scorer and a distributor for a depleted Boston team. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“I didn’t even think about that until this morning,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Hayward’s return to Cleveland. “I thought about it in the preseason and then for whatever reason, I probably should’ve thought about it.
“I just think he has played enough now where he’s past that initial hurdle, right? So it’s probably not fun to walk out on the court the first time and shoot around and those type of things but ultimately, I think he probably moved past that really quickly. I thought he was great tonight, both ends of the court. I thought his offensive playmaking passing the ball was as good as his scoring.”
Hayward has scored 20 points or more on just three different occasions this year. It’s a far cry from the All-Star numbers he used to put up nightly. He understands, however, that perseverance is necessary as he slowly, but surely gets re-acclimated to playing.
“Physically, I’ve felt pretty good. I think I’m definitely moving way better than I was at the beginning of the season,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting more and more confident with each month, each week. There’s definitely still games where I just don’t feel like myself, but I think I’m trending in the right direction.”
When asked about those areas that don’t feel right yet Hayward pinpointed attacking the basket, specifically going at big men in the paint, taking contact and finishing.
Knowing that he can go up, get hit and be able to come down fine is a mental hurdle Hayward admittedly still has to clear—and the only way to get past that is repetition.
“You just have to do it, and do it more than one time,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “It’s like an experience-type thing. You’ve got to just do it and feel confident doing it, and until that happens, then you’ll just keep thinking about it.”
Once Hayward is driving and dunking on a regular basis without thinking about what happens next, he says he’ll officially be back. Until then, an appreciation of being able to play the game he loves again is the true big picture—especially after an injury that could’ve taken it all away from him.
“That’s been a mental thing as well is trying to find some joy in just the fact that I’m back out on the court,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Because some people don’t return from that and a blessing that we have the technology that we do these days that they were able to fix my ankle. So I guess just being patient with the whole thing, that’s been a challenge.”
CELTICS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Coming into the 2017-18 season, the excitement in Boston was palpable. Hayward signed a four-year maximum contract with the Celtics that summer. Shortly thereafter, Danny Ainge made a blockbuster deal to acquire Kyrie Irving, creating a dynamic duo to begin a new era of C’s basketball.
The Celtics started the campaign on the road against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers in October. Since the storyline of the night was Irving facing off against the franchise he had won a championship with on opening night, Hayward’s debut took a bit of a back seat…until the unthinkable happened.
Less than halfway into the first quarter, Irving saw a cutting Hayward with an open path to the rim and threw up a lob looking for an alley-oop finish. Cleveland’s Jae Crowder and LeBron James came to double before Boston’s pair could connect, leaving Hayward afloat in an awkward position.
Hayward came down almost horizontally, with only his left leg there to brace himself for the fall. Tragically, he dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia simultaneously in one of the most gruesome moments in the history of sports.
As he was consoled by trainers and wheeled away on a stretcher with an air cast, the whole arena was dead silent. Players from both teams were praying in disbelief of what they’d just witnessed. Just like that, Hayward’s season was over, and even perhaps his career.
Following multiple successful surgeries and going through rehabilitation programs over the course of a year, Hayward was able to make a miraculous return to the court on October 16, 2018. He’s been on the floor for 26 minutes per night, playing in 53 of 58 total games.
Just as Hayward has tirelessly ground away to get back to form, so have the Celtics. With a healthy Irving and returning Hayward, along with the group that unexpectedly went seven games into the conference finals last year, they were supposed to be the top dog in the East.
It’s no secret that the Celtics boast an abundance of young talent. Jaylen Brown has shown plenty of growth after a shaky start to the season. Terry Rozier is on track to get paid in the offseason by a team in need of a starting point guard. Jayson Tatum is Boston’s second-best scorer (16.5 points per game) and rebounder (6.3 boards per game) at just 20 years old.
That goes without mentioning rookie center Robert Williams. Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, while not quite as young, are two inexperienced NBA players who have overseas experience. The Celtics’ depth is a quality that is necessary for a deep run in the postseason.
“I think anytime they have an opportunity, they seem to make the most of it. That’s at every position,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders.
At the halfway mark headed into the All-Star break, Boston holds fifth place, locked in a battle with the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers for the three seed. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors each have 43 wins with over five games separating them from the trio of teams behind them.
Despite back-to-back blown leads and losses to both Los Angeles franchises at the TD Garden, the Celtics have won 12 of their last 15 contests.
“I think when we all play with energy and when we’re connected defensively – and offensively, for that matter, but especially on the defensive end – we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Then, when we are able to move the ball and put together games where we have 30-plus assists, that’s when we’re really tough (to beat).”
TUSSLING WITH THE MEDIA
It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, though. Early in the season, there were many things said by multiple players on the record, including some pointed words from Irving in more than one instance. These comments can be twisted and turned easily.
Add in an example: the day he told reporters, “Ask me July 1,” regarding his free agency plans, it turned into a big mess of speculation. What many people didn’t hear was Irving’s thoughts regarding the media’s spin on what was actually going on.
“This is like college recruitment for me all over again. I don’t know. This is just weird,” Irving said to the scrum of reporters in New York. “It’s a new position to be in answering all these questions, seeing all this stuff that I’m trying to avoid, and it’s just a distraction. It’s crazy how stories and things and storyline can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms. That’s just what it is….”
Hayward had plenty of his own thoughts on the matter.
“I mean, I think certainly all outside noise has an opportunity to put a wedge between people and between teammates,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I think especially in today’s age where there’s social media and information is right now, all-the-time, like everybody sees what everybody says. There’s guys that are paid to give their opinions on things and, if you read into all that stuff, can definitely put a wedge in between guys.
“More than anything, just talking to people,” Hayward said of the proper remedy. “If you have an issue with somebody, just tell ’em, talk to ’em. But I think for the most part if you block all that stuff out and really just focus on yourself as a group and what the coaching staff is saying and what your teammates are saying, it’s usually better.”
FATHERHOOD IS A BLESSING
We talked about the youth Boston has already, but Hayward isn’t in that same category anymore. While it’s not that he’s old, per se, he is a nine-year man in the NBA.
Hayward considers it “weird” that he’s the veteran now. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t mind that time has flown by because of the gift of fatherhood. The injury he sustained was absolutely devastating.
But it put things in perspective for him, and no matter what happens from here on out with his career, Hayward will always be grateful for the most important thing in his life—family.
“No doubt. I think no matter what happens on the court, my girls don’t care,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “They just care that dad’s home and they want to play hot lava and play picnic and all that stuff. Like having three healthy kids and a wife at home, those things are good.”
If Hayward’s recent play is an indication of what we’re going to see from him moving forward, he might just get the best of both worlds.