Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving ushering in new era of Boston Celtics basketball

BOSTON – Here’s something worth knowing about Brad Stevens: He expects to win. Always. In 2013, when Danny Ainge tapped the 36-year-old Stevens to lead a team he had just stripped down, a team that was one Brett Szabo appearance away from being M.L. Carr-ishly bad, he expected to win. In 2015, when Boston’s most accomplished player entering the season was David Lee, he expected to win. And so, in 2017, armed with more firepower than perhaps any team in the conference, Stevens – you guessed it – expects to win.

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“Our expectations haven’t changed, so there’s no balance,” Stevens said last week. “You do what you do, work every day to try to be the best you can be. We know what the goal is in Boston. That’s stated pretty clearly with the banners that hang above us. Ultimately that has nothing to do with how good we become tomorrow and the next day. We just focus on the process.”

These are interesting times in Celtics land. The core of last season’s 53-win, Eastern Conference finalist has been gutted; only four players remain. Kyrie Irving has supplanted Isaiah Thomas as the team’s franchise player, and Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are his running buddies. The bench has been revamped with a slimmed down Marcus Smart – entering a contract year – being counted on to give a spark to the second unit.

Yet Boston’s ability to equal last season’s success – and eventually exceed it – likely comes down to Irving and Hayward, and the ability of the Celtics two new alphas to coexist. Hayward’s early transition has been seamless, which is expected when a player reunites with a college coach with whom he achieved success. Hayward and Stevens, says Irving, already have an “unspoken language.”

“It’s been eight years, so things are different,” Hayward told The Vertical. “There is some familiarity when Brad is drawing up a play, he is really good at knowing when a guy is going to switch, when this guy is going to slip here. That part is still the same.”

Stevens has made no secret of his desire to coach Hayward again, and while Hayward developed into an All-Star in Utah, there are facets of Hayward’s game that Boston believes are still untapped. Post play, for one. Operating out of the low post was not a central part of Hayward’s game in Utah. In Boston, it will be.

“That’s something I have been working on,” Hayward said. “It’s something I can get better at. My size, taking advantage of when guys switch. Or just being a playmaker out of the post. In a lot of situations, guys have to help or over-help, and you can just pick apart a defense.”

Added Irving: “It’s fun. He can be on the ball or I can. Al can handle the ball as well. When you have guys who have the ability to play in different spots that are not defined as 1 through 5, it makes the offense and defense go a lot smoother.”

Irving got everything he wanted this summer. He got out of Cleveland – his reasons, which he has only vaguely articulated, may never be fully known – and landed on the next best team in the conference. He could have been traded to a poorly managed, rebuilding franchise and instead he got a well-managed one with championship expectations. Barring injuries, Irving should be playing deep into the playoffs for years to come.

On the court, Irving should thrive. Celtics officials have touted Irving as a better playmaker than he showed in Cleveland, and he will have to be less of a turnstile defensively than he was last season. But this is a great fit. For all the talk of Irving as a ball-stopper, remember: He’s replacing Thomas, who, when he had it going, had the freedom to attack the rim at will. And Boston gets enough playmaking from other positions – Horford and Hayward are above-average passers – to make up for any deficiency.

“He’s so good with the ball,” Hayward told The Vertical. “And he’s really good without it as well. We can feed off each other playing off when we don’t have the ball. If defenses are going to collapse on one of us, the other is going to be open.

Where Irving will have to prove himself is off the floor. The Celtics won’t name a captain, but this is Irving’s team now. The backlash LeBron James absorbed during tough times now will be directed at Irving. He will have to connect with the veterans while showing the leadership needed to help Boston’s young stars – Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – develop. He’ll be heaped with praise when he plays well but face the wrath of one of the NBA’s most intense fan bases when he doesn’t.

“As straightforward and transparent as you get, this is something that I really enjoy doing and that’s putting the basketball in the hoop at a very high level,” Irving said. “I’ve been dreaming about it since I was a kid. To commit yourself into being the best that you can be, to be able to share that with other individuals and go after a goal that we all collectively share and want to accomplish, there’s nothing like it.

“There’s nothing greater than being on a team and sacrificing the time. We give up a lot of that time and end up being with each other more than we are with our families and that’s a commitment you have to make to the game. I’ve made that commitment since I’ve come into the league. Now I’m able to share what that means to me and how we can accomplish a goal bigger than ourselves.”

3-POINTER

Could Charlotte be Dwight Howard’s last chance? (Getty Images)

The last stand of Dwight Howard
Imagine for a minute you woke up from a five-year coma, checked the NBA transaction log from this summer – because what else would you do after waking up from a coma? – and saw that Dwight Howard was traded for Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee and a second-round pick. You might assume that Howard had succumbed to the back problems that first flared up at the end of his run in Orlando. You would never guess that Howard would be obtainable for that coming off a pair of 70-plus-game seasons.

This is where Howard is now: Rock bottom, traded from a team going nowhere for spare parts. Charlotte was one of the few teams interested, and the Hornets are coached by Steve Clifford, who had a front-row seat to the Dwightmare in Orlando, where Clifford served as an assistant on then-coach Stan Van Gundy’s staff.

So, Steve, were you in favor of the decision to bring in Dwight?

“Totally,” Clifford told The Vertical. “I think that, one, we have a great relationship, and, two, I felt like he fit with our guys, with the way we do things. I also felt, I feel, that he has a lot of good basketball left.”

Perhaps. Howard is still a strong defensive rebounder, but the Hornets ranked in the top five in that category last season. He’s a solid interior defender, but Charlotte’s issues were keeping teams from killing them beyond the 3-point line. He is still an efficient post scorer, something the Hornets sorely lacked last season.

“The way we play, he has a lot of value,” Clifford said. “He is a very smart player. The way we play, with ball movement, with the five-man in screen and rolls a lot, very similar to the way he was in Orlando.”

Howard has said all the right things in Charlotte. He has emphasized his desire to be a key part of a winner and seems to recognize the importance of this stop on his roller-coaster career. At 31, Howard’s opportunities are dwindling.

“He has been through a lot,” Clifford said. “His personality is the same. He is a very fun-loving guy, witty, he likes to enjoy himself. That part hasn’t changed at all. In some ways though, I sense more of an edge, basketball-wise, that is. He has had such great success, but he is coming off a couple of tough years where things didn’t go as well as he would have liked. I think that has changed him.”

We’ll see. Clifford won’t target any numbers for Howard, preferring to wait and see how the chemistry develops between Howard and his new teammates. And while he said there were no physical limitations for Howard, Clifford has been frank with Howard about alerting the team to any nagging injury.

“We had this talk, and he does have to be honest with the training staff and with himself,” Clifford said. “If he gets tired, if he gets sore, he has to tell us. He had a significant back injury, and it has not been a problem the last two or three years. He has been rehabbing and taking care of it. Like all guys, he started playing in this league young and that takes a lot more out of your body.”

John Wall hopes the Wizards’ bench is better this year. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Wizards’ (hopefully) improved bench

John Wall has said it – he was frustrated. Game 7, Eastern Conference semifinals, and Boston’s bench outscored the Wizards 48-5. Later, Wall declared that the bench was the team’s “downfall” and urged the front office to reinforce the second unit.

Fast-forward a few months and the Wizards’ bench is different. Is it better? Wall thinks so. “I think we are,” Wall told The Vertical, rattling off a list of names he believes will help the second unit. “I think we improved in a bunch of ways.”

The jury is out on that. The Wizards are high on Jodie Meeks, a deadeye 3-point shooter who has lost most of the last two seasons to injury. A slimmed down Ian Mahinmi figures to be more effective and Washington has been quietly giddy about what they have seen from Mike Scott, who could play a stretch-four role off the bench.

“I used to hate playing against Mike Scott when he was in Atlanta,” Wall said. “He used to pick-and-pop, knock down shots on us. The way we play, the way I pass the ball and move it, I think he will help us out a lot.”

Ultimately, the Wizards’ best chance to improve could come through Otto Porter, the newly minted four-year, $106 million man. Team officials say Porter has been more vocal in this training camp and seems to be taking more ownership of the team.

“Getting his contract, it takes a lot more pressure off of him,” Wall said. “You can see he’s a lot more calm and cool now. He’s improved his game a whole lot. He’s more vocal, but more aggressive. Not just being a guy that slashes to the basket or shoots spot-up threes or scores in transition. He’s putting the ball on the floor and making floaters. He’s running pick-and-roll and making plays for other guys. That’s going to be a big help.”

A lineup shakeup in Cleveland

What was already shaping up to be a fascinating season in Cleveland got a little more interesting this week, when Tyronn Lue shook up the starting lineup, shifting Kevin Love to center and moving Tristan Thompson to the bench. Jae Crowder is expected to start alongside LeBron James, giving Cleveland the type of floor-spacing lineup that has become commonplace in the NBA.

On the surface, it makes sense. Crowder and James can defend two positions – not many teams feature overpowering power forwards anymore anyway – while balancing out a backcourt that doesn’t shoot the three particularly well with three forwards that shot at least 36 percent from long range. Thompson is just a year removed from a season spent primarily as a sixth man, and he has embraced the decision.

Who this could help the most is Derrick Rose. Rose is a brutal 3-point shooter – he hasn’t cracked 30 percent in a full season since his 2010-11 MVP year – but he can still get to the rim and in camp has vowed to flex his playmaking muscles more this season. If Rose, who will get the lion’s share of the point-guard minutes until Isaiah Thomas returns, can draw in defenses, Cleveland has the type of team around him that can make open shots.

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