Despite Gordon Hayward injury, Celtics should still be in the thick of things

Chris Mannix
The Vertical

BOSTON – After a brutal 24 hours, a stretch that saw the Celtics lose Gordon Hayward, their $128 million free-agent signee, to a gruesome ankle injury, a capacity crowd at the TD Garden on Wednesday was given something to cheer about. Moments after the introductions, Hayward appeared on the Jumbotron. From his hospital bed, Hayward thanked his supporters, declared that he would be fine and wished his teammates luck in the home opener against Milwaukee. The crowd roared its approval.

Information about Hayward’s future is scarce — he underwent surgery on Wednesday night, and while Boston declined to put a timetable on his return, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said that he would make a full recovery — but it’s likely he will miss the season. The severity of the injury (dislocated ankle, fractured tibia) makes it hard to envision a late-season comeback, even if the playoffs are six months away. For context, Paul George needed eight months to recover from his catastrophic leg injury in 2014—and even then his return was a six-game, shake-off-the-rust stint at the end of the Pacers’ season.

With some clarity on Hayward, Boston must now move forward. The team won’t crater; losing a 20-point-plus-per-game All-Star is brutal, but this team still has plenty of firepower. Kyrie Irving is an elite scorer, Al Horford is good for 14 to 15 points per night, and the Eastern Conference is too polluted with teams Bombing for (Marvin) Bagley for the Celtics to fall lower than the fourth or fifth seed.

“We got more than enough talent,” said swingman Jaylen Brown. “We got a great coach in Brad Stevens, so at that point, it’s just play basketball, play for each other, play the game the right way, and I think we’ll be fine.”

Fine – and perhaps better than expected. The Celtics dropped to 0-2 with a loss to the Bucks, but the top of the Eastern Conference is weaker than it has been in years. Cleveland has revamped its lineup and is crossing its fingers that Isaiah Thomas can return before the All-Star break. Washington has a formidable starting lineup, but its bench remains a weakness. Toronto cleared some established vets off the books last summer and is banking on younger players filling key roles. The Bucks are waiting for Jabari Parker to return.

Boston’s ability to battle for a top-four seed may come down to the development of its youngest players. Brown, 20, entered training camp with a mandate to become a lockdown defender; now, he must add a consistent offensive option to his game. Early, he looks up to the task: Through two games, Brown is averaging 21.5 points while connecting on 50 percent of his shots.

Jayson Tatum, 19, should be scoring inconsequential points on a rebuilding team or riding the bench for a winner. Instead, he’s a starter, asked to slide between forward slots and create offense on his own. Tatum has terrific footwork – Celtics coaches have compared it favorably to Paul Pierce’s – and he should develop into a solid scorer quickly. But his defense is shaky, and Stevens won’t play him if he is getting routinely beat on that end of the floor.

Boston’s chances of contending for the conference title ended when Hayward crumpled to the Quicken Loans Arena floor. With a little luck though – and a lot of player development – a deep playoff run might not be off the table.

Boston’s season didn’t end with Gordon Hayward’s injury. (AP)

On to your email …

I’m not a Spurs fan, but were you as shocked as I was when they decided to give an extension to LaMarcus Aldridge? After all he’s been through with that organization the last two years? He didn’t produce very well after Kawhi got hurt, which led to their sweep against the Warriors. Why do it now?

– Deven Parikh

Shocked? No. At 32, Aldridge is still an 18-point, eight-rebound player and tacking on two more guaranteed years – the third year is partially guaranteed – isn’t outrageous. Surprised? Maybe. Aldridge’s struggles fitting in with the Spurs were well known, as was the fact that San Antonio shopped him this past summer.

Ultimately, this feels like a smart move for both sides. The Spurs lock in an All-Star-level frontcourt player for two extra years, with the hope that a clear-the-air meeting with coach Gregg Popovich last summer results in more on-court success. For Aldridge, he gets to play for a winner and doesn’t have to roll the dice that a rapidly drying up free-agent market would have a big-dollar contract for him.

Besides: Haven’t the Spurs earned the benefit of every doubt at this point?

Should Joel Embiid really be mad about being on a minutes restriction? He’s broken down every season he has played in. What’s his problem?

– Michael Davis, Delaware

Players want to play, and I have no issue with Joel Embiid sounding off on the minutes restriction, which is believed to be in the 20-to-25-minute range, at least early on. (Embiid played 27 minutes in Philly’s season-opening loss to Washington on Wednesday night.)

But Philadelphia is being smart here. There’s a genuine excitement about the Sixers and they are loaded with young talent. But Embiid is coming off a knee surgery that took him longer to recover from than initially expected, and he played just 31 total games in his first three seasons. Philadelphia just made a $148 million investment in Embiid, and while everyone would like to make the playoffs this season, getting Embiid through an entire one healthy is a priority.

Besides, coach Brett Brown won’t limit his minutes forever. Once Embiid gets his legs under him, expect that number to grow quickly.

There are concerns about Dennis Schroder’s maturity. (AP)

How serious do you think (Hawks GM) Travis Schlenk is about trading Dennis Schroder? And what might those trades look like? Based on the Dwight Howard deal, where we got an extremely negative return, I believe Schlenk’s character concerns are so real that we could take back some type of short-term dump with a couple of picks just to get rid of his locker-room presence. Thoughts?

Here’s one thing I know about Travis Schlenk: He wants nothing to do with long-term contracts. Schlenk craves flexibility, and his early moves – trading Howard, making little effort to retain Paul Millsap – tell me he’s thinking well into the future.

Schroder is a little different though. There’s legitimate talent there, which can’t be dismissed. But more importantly, there is no real market for him. I ran Schroder’s name by a few team executives this week, and each recoiled. There’s a toxicity surrounding Schroder right now. A reputation as a selfish player has gained significant traction throughout the league. His arrest on battery charges last month – an incident the Hawks have deemed “unacceptable” – is an example teams cite of his immaturity.

Said a Western Conference executive: “I don’t need that kind of headache.”

Perhaps Atlanta could give Schroder away. But at 24, Schroder is a terrific talent. Maybe the Hawks can work with him and hope he matures. Really, they don’t have much of a choice.

Do you think the impact of Jimmy Butler will finally push Minnesota over the hump and to the playoffs?

– Trevor Spinelli

Short answer: Absolutely. The Butler deal was a terrific one for Minnesota. At 28, Butler is one of the NBA’s best two-way players, and he’s locked in for the next two seasons. He speaks fluent Thibodeau-ese, which will help the younger players still adjusting to coach Tom Thibodeau’s stern style. What the Timberwolves did last summer – adding Butler, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford – reminds me of what Utah did a year ago. The Jazz had a terrific young nucleus, which they fleshed out with veterans who filled specific needs.

Minnesota should be better defensively – they were 27th in defensive rating last season, an astonishing finish for a Thibodeau-coached team – and Butler gives the ’Wolves a reliable perimeter option late in games. Not only do I think Minnesota will make the playoffs, I think it will give one of the top-tier teams a major scare in the first round.

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