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Minnesota Timberwolves 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Minnesota Timberwolves have an abundance talent, and its share of problems, too. Will talent prevail? Or will chaos have too great of an influence on the roster? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Minnesota Timberwolves in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Timberwolves enter this season with a lot to look forward to, coming off a weirdly successful 2017-18 season. Its franchise player, Karl-Anthony Towns should continue to mature and develop. Jimmy Butler is still in tow as the team’s most dependable star on both sides of the court. Andrew Wiggins has yet to realize his full potential, but still possesses incredible upside. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s assumed desire to reconstruct his 2010-11 Bulls team is mildly entertaining – so much so that some in the media have taken to calling the team the Timberbulls – but what’s really interesting is that the 2017-18 Wolves team were a subpar defensive unit despite being coached by a defensive guru. What’s even more surprising is that the team was successful with that style of play. So much so that it entered its February 24th contest against the Rockets in fourth place in the loaded Western Conference – a game in which Butler was injured, forcing him to miss the next 17 games and do serious damage to its playoff standings. Still, the Wolves talent wouldn’t allow them to implode entirely. The team ended the season with 47-wins and the eighth seed in the playoffs.

But problems exist for the Timberwolves. Can the team overcome the hostility between Butler, Towns and Wiggins? Can Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones continue to lead the team from the point guard position? Will Andrew Wiggins lock in defensively and become the star he was projected to be? And will Thibodeau be able to develop a deeper rotation or will be continue overwhelming his stars with tremendous workloads in the 2018-19 season?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Minnesota Timberwolves have so much talent and so many issues, unfortunately. The biggest issue, of course, is the internal discord between Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. If Tom Thibodeau can get his star players on the same page, this team could be one of the better Western Conference teams this season. If things fall apart early on, things could get ugly. I want to be optimistic and project that the key players on the roster will put the team first and focus on making a deep postseason run. However, I get the sense that this ongoing situation has gone too far and cannot be fully resolved at this point. I hope I am wrong, but only time will tell.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

As Tom Thibodeau continues his attempt to recreate his old Bulls roster and guys from the current group bicker somewhat publicly, it’s been a weird summer in Minnesota. This group clearly has the talent to be a playoff team in the West, and maybe even a top-four seed if everything breaks right and they get some internal development. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that despite that, this locker room feels primed for an implosion that sees them fall well short of the level their talent suggests they should attain. Butler’s renewed health along with the development of Karl-Anthony Towns will be two of the biggest factors, but so will the relationship between stars who have rumored to not exactly see eye to eye. Butler’s impending free agency in 2019 also looms large here.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

Whatever optimism there was headed into last fall has gradually faded away a short year later. The Timberwolves are an enigma. They have a stud All-Star big man in Karl-Anthony Towns, a no-nonsense All-Star swingman in Jimmy Butler and steady veteran starters like Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. Entering the first year of his five-year maximum contract extension signed in October 2017, Andrew Wiggins has to bring forth better production than he did last season. Chances are after a run with Butler for a full season, he might have a better feel for that role. However, with the Northwest Division in high competition, Minnesota could find itself on the short end of the stick.

4th Place – Northwest Division

– Spencer Davies

It might be time to declare that we jumped the gun on the Timberwolves. For the past few years, they’ve been hyped as the team of the future. Once they added Jimmy Butler, it seemed like their potential would finally be tapped. They may have made the playoffs last season, but the red flags definitely manifested themselves. Nobody appears to be happy. Butler appears ready to skip town. Thibs appears to not have learned his lesson from Chicago. The Timberwolves should be back in the hunt this year, but they are in a very competitive division within an even more competitive conference. If the discord is legit, it’s hard seeing them returning to the postseason.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Matt John

We’ll see… that’s the only way you can honestly look at this Timberwolves team. On paper they should emerge as an elite team in the NBA. They have two bona fide All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and if Andrew Wiggins can find that next gear they should have three. The problem is the noise about the young guys and Butler is very real, and while Tom Thibodeau is a solid head coach, we’re seeing that the coach in charge of everything model isn’t working, so we’ll see. Too much is being made of the TimberBulls thing because adding quality veterans that the coach knows and trusts is a common thing, regardless of where they played. The real question for the Wolves is can their Big Three play like a Big Three and not three high level guys trying to do their own thing? The Wolves could be special, they have some special players, but as we’ve seen elsewhere, having good guys doesn’t always equate to success. Especially when egos and contrasting needs and wants factor in.

5th Place – Northwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns

The Wolves have a number of strong offensive players, but none with as many gifts as Towns. Towns fits the unicorn mold as a seven-footer who can shoot from deep, punish opponents in the post, pass the ball and run the court. Towns is a mismatch for opponents nearly every night. He posted a PER of 24.9 last season, with 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. While his scoring dipped four points per game last season, he saw increased efficiency in his already strong three-point and free throw shooting. Further, Towns decreased his turnovers per game from 2.7 to 1.9.

The Timberwolves would love to lock Towns up long term, which they can do soon if they agree to a contract extension prior to October 15. Towns is eligible for a five year max extension worth between $158 and $190 million. Will Towns sign the extension this late in the offseason? Will he and the Wolves agree on a shorter contract, which puts pressure on the team to get creative? Or might he wait until next offseason to make a decision? Only time will tell.

Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler

The Minnesota Timberwolves are among the few NBA franchises whose best defender is also the team’s leader and best player. Fortunately for the Wolves, the 2018 All-NBA defender is a maniacal worker who is incredibly dedicated to his conditioning and his craft. The Wolves are also fortunate that Butler’s defensive workload doesn’t affect his ability to contribute offensively. In fact, Butler led the Wolves in scoring last season with 22.2 points per game. He also tallied a personal best in steals per game (2.0) while regularly guarding the opposing team’s best guard or wing.

But last season was the first since his rookie year that Butler failed to play in at least 65 games. Butler proved that his knee was healthy following a February 2018 meniscus tear, but is the grind of carrying such a heavy workload on both sides of the court beginning to result in unsustainable fatigue? And will last season’s missed games prove to be the rule now and into the future or the exception to it?

Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague

By default, a team with as much infighting as the Wolves must have an effective playmaker to spread the floor and distribute the ball. Fortunately for the Wolves, Teague is a veteran who is used to sharing the ball with multiple starts. Remember, Teague was the starting point guard for the Atlanta Hawks teams, which featured Al Horford, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson – all of whom were legitimate scoring threats in the early 2010s.

Teague might not be a vocal leader like Chris Paul, but he is capable facilitator. He averaged 14.2 points and 7.0 assists per game last year while captaining the Wolves offense. And despite the team’s internal struggles, he fed his three main offensive weapons the rock, with Butler, Towns and Wiggins averaging 22.2, 21.3 and 17.7 points per game, respectively. If Teague can continue to play as reliably as he did last season, the point guard position looks to be in good hands for now.

Top Clutch Player: Andrew Wiggins

While this may seem slightly counterintuitive – after all, the word on Wiggins is that he has developed less through this point of his career than many had hoped – Wiggins actually has the stats to back it up. Believe it or not, Wiggins is the only member of the Timberwolves to hit a buzzer beater last season. But he didn’t win only one game with his heroics. He hit two buzzer beaters in 2017-18: a three-pointer on October 22 against the Thunder and an 18-footer on January 24 against Phoenix. Does this mean he has Mamba blood coursing through his veins? Not exactly. But it does mean that when asked to come through in the clutch, he can do so with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Taj Gibson

The majority of the Wolves roster is easily classifiable as a star, former star, role player or rookie. And then there is Taj Gibson. Team President Thibodeau overpaid the veteran with a two-year, $28 million dollar deal beause Head Coach Thibodeau values Gibson’s on-court contributions. And it’s not Gibson’s fault he was offered a lucrative contract. Besides, he registered an above average PER of 15.4 last season. He put up 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, which represent the second best scoring and rebounding outputs of his career. And he even set a single-season team record, shooting 57-percent from the field.

But it’s important to remember that Gibson’s biggest contributions are harder to measure. Yes, he can score when needed. In fact, he scored 16 or more points in 23 games. But he was also the Wolves best post defender, and possibly their most versatile one, too. He covered an array of all-star-quality talent from James Harden to Nikola Jokic. Gibson is a good shot-contester. He was actually the twenty-second bes shot contester in the league last season. He also works his tail off and is a good locker room presence for a team that needs a positive influence. Most importantly, he impacts the game without being featured in the offense. But can Gibson impact remain as strong as he enters his tenth season? If he can, look for Gibson to log heavy minutes and make nightly contributions.

Best New Addition: Josh Okogie

Josh Okogie played two seasons at Georgia Tech, where he developed nicely. The 6’4” guard has elite athleticism that will likely carry him early in his career while he acclimates to the NBA game. He is a leaper who can run the court effectively on both offense and defense. He has numerous highlight-worthy chase-down blocks, for which he was aided by his freakish 7’0” wingspan. His energy and motor will be a valuable asset for a team that is lacking in both youth and depth.

Okogie’s peers think highly of his athleticism, too. He was rated the second most athletic rookie by the 2018 rookie class in their recent survey with NBA.com, which also named him second-runner-up in the best defender category. Okogie would be wise to make nice with Jimmy Butler and study his off-the-court procedures given their similar skill sets. Nothing is guaranteed – especially from a rookie – but Okogie should be a foundational building block if he’s willing to put in the requisite work.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. Keita Bates-Diop

Nabbing an impact player in the second round of the draft is always a cause for celebration. While doubts exist around most second-rounders, most of them are centered on a 2017 stress fracture in his left leg. But the 2018 rookie class seems to be fairly confident in Bates-Diop’s abilities. Through the above-mentioned survey, they named Bates-Diop as the biggest steal of the draft after watching him average 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in summer league action.

Bates-Diop has a relatively polished two-way game. The2017 Big Ten Player of the Year has a good touch. He is 6’8” wing with a 7’3” wingspan, which should allow him to develop into a versatile rim protector who can switch onto almost anyone on the court. The Timberwolves are thin up front and can benefit greatly from Bates-Diop, especially if he can mature quickly and improve his willingness to engage defensively on the low block

2. Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones stat line doesn’t come off as terribly impressive. Through 82 games in 2017-18, Jones averaged only 5.1 points and 2.8 assists per game., and was a mediocre three-point shooter at .349 from deep. But upon closer inspection, the Timberwolves’ fourth-year guard looks like he could be a keeper.

The team played better with Jones on the court in his 17.9 minutes per game than it did while he was on the bench. With Jones, the Timberwolves were 5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents, and only .4 points per possession better while he was on the bench. Further, the team’s four starters plus Jones in place of Teague was actually 23.6 points better per 100 possessions than opponents. – albeit in only 261 minutes action. Much of this success stems from the fact that Jones had a low usage rate, and Towns, Butler and Wiggins took more shot attempts with Jones stewarding the team instead of Teague. Further, Jones turned the ball over at a low rate and contributed positively to the team’s defensive efforts. But those are difficult stats to ignore.

Jones opportunities should grow dramatically in the near future, too. The Wolves unofficially parted ways with guard Jamal Crawford after his contract expired following this past season. Crawford accounted for 20.7 minutes per game of the team’s available playing time for guards. It is unlikely that all of those minutes go to Jones, but the NBA is a production-oriented league. If Jones continues to produce, he will earn more playing time and, therefore, more opportunity to prove himself.

3. Andrew Wiggins

Wiggins is an interesting case. He hasn’t lived up to the sky-high expectations he’s been shouldering since entering the league as the next sure thing. But he did average 17.7 points per game last season as the team’s third option, not too shabby for an disappointment, And considering he is only 23, he still has substantial upside.

Wiggins regressed last season, partially due to the presence of Jimmy Butler and the fact that they play similar roles on offense. Butler is the more efficient of the two, but Wiggins natural talent might be greater. If he can figure out how to remain engaged for longer periods of time, his efficiency should improve. Further, if he embraces the challenge of becoming a lockdown defender – a challenge he is perfectly capable of succeeding at – he will receive additional accolades for being a true two-way player, much like Butler himself. And the Wolves will certainly need that level of production from its only committed star this season and beyond.

4. Derrick Rose

Despite the injuries and the dramatic fall from grace, Derrick Rose is still a big name in the basketball world. He is incredibly polarizing: loved by many, hated by others. Regardless of what you think of him, Rose can still contribute, albeit in a lesser capacity than he once did.

Rose should not be inserted into the starting lineup, nor should he be relied on to play too many minutes on a regular basis. But last we saw, he can still accelerate and finish around the rim better than most NBA players. He actually averaged 21.5 points per 36 minutes in the team’s five-game playoff series against the Houston Rockets in 2018. He can enter the game and prop up an otherwise stagnant offense for a short period of time. Assuming realistic expectations are in place, Rose can be an effective piece of a competing team – so long as he remains healthy.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

Superstars are traditionally viewed as foundational pieces for NBA teams. In the modern NBA, a team needs more than one superstar to be competitive. The way teams rank players is subjective, but its generally thought to be better to have more widely-considered great players than not. Sports Illustrated recently published its top 100 player rankings, and the Timberwolves’s Butler, Towns and Wiggins all ranked in the top 100 at 10, 19 and 74, respectively. They all complement each other nicely. They are all athletic and versatile. At 7’0”, 6’8” and 6’8”, they boast a good amount of size and length. Sure, Butler and Wiggins are a bit redundant. But if they can get on the same page, they are the closest thing to a present-day Michael and Scottie.

On paper, the team should be competitive with most teams in the league. They kept most of their talented players and added in two serviceable rookies. The roster should have no problem propelling the Wolves back into the playoffs, but unfortunately the games are not decided on paper.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

The Minnesota Timberwolves are top heavy. We’ve established that the team is built around its three core stars. Towns and Wiggins are both young. Butler is 29, which means he is likely in the middle of his prime. Beyond those three there is very little youth on the roster, discounting the addition of the two rookies. Their point guards are Jeff Teague (30 years old), Tyus Jones (22) and Derrick Rose (29). Its forwards include Gibson (33), Anthony Tolliver (33) and Luol Deng (33). And its only serviceable backup center is Gorgui Dieng (28), an athletic, but limited, player. The Wolves do not have a backup shooting guard other than rookie Josh Okogie.

Coach Thibodeau’s strategy of relying on his starters will be tested this season. Hopefully it holds up for at least one more year. If not, the Wolves will need to rethink its philosophy on the fly.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can Minnesota keep its core together?

The Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in a precarious situation. On the one hand, the Wolves just completed its first winning season since 2004-05, ultimately posting its best season in years. And two of its franchise players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are only 22 and 23 years old, respectively. The Wolves should theoretically be in great shape to continue improving this season.

On the other hand, the team enters the 2018-19 season with drama surrounding its core. The Wolves’ most productive player – Jimmy Butler – has taken offense to the casual approach of its other two superstars. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Butler is all but fed up with the nonchalant attitude of his younger teammates, especially Karl-Anthony Towns. Further, Sean Deveney of The Sporting News reported last season that Butler had problems with Wiggins, his work ethic and his approach on the defensive end of the floor.

Unfortunately for the Wolves, Wiggins is the only one of the three to be signed to a long-term deal at $146.5 million dollars. Towns hasn’t yet accepted the contract extension offered to him in July. The opportunity to extend Towns evaporates as of 6 pm EST on October 15. Further, Butler becomes a free agent following the 2018-19 season. Unfortunately, Minnesota gave up a lot of value to pry Butler from Chicago last summer, and yet it seems as though the Wolves’ relationship with Butler might be irreparable – especially considering his rumored desire to pair up with Kyrie Irving.

Minnesota can go in one of two very different directions: it can re-sign Towns – and try to sign Butler – and continue to build around its existing core, or it can lose one or both of its soon-to-be free agent stars. This season and next offseason carry massive implications for the franchise. The three stars do not have to become friends with one another, but they need to co-exist on the court for the Wolves to be successful.

– Drew Maresca

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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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