In a game last month against the Washington Wizards, Gordon Hayward was ailing. The Charlotte Hornets forward has been hurt a lot over the years and the latest injury was a strained left shoulder.
Hayward left the game briefly, as he has on many occasions over the past few years, and was treated in the locker room. Hayward returned to the floor in the second half, in obvious pain but determined to play. Hayward finished the game, the Hornets lost, and they lost Hayward, too.
The shoulder was fractured. Hayward is out indefinitely as his miserable stretch with injuries continues. It all began on Opening Night 2017, when he suffered that ghastly fractured left leg at Cleveland while with the Celtics. Hayward never gained full health in Boston, and he ended his career here playing on a badly sprained ankle in the bubble.
He went to the Hornets on a sign-and-trade for a new beginning. He got a max contract from owner Michael Jordan and was told he would have a primary scoring role for a rising team. It hasn’t worked out. Hayward has been beset with injuries his entire two-plus years in Charlotte, missing both of the team’s play-in games because of injury.
He reported to camp this year in premium shape, ready to help a team that needed all the help it could get. The Hornets are without rising star Miles Bridges, who pleaded no-contest to domestic assault and his contract option was not exercised. The Hornets also have lost All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball for most of the season because of various injuries.
Coach Steve Clifford, who was rehired by Charlotte after a four-year absence, had never before coached Hayward but understands his journey and desire to obtain full health.
“We had a long talk about this,” Clifford said. “[Hayward] was ready to have a good year. He had a great summer. Our trainer told me this is the healthiest he’s been in Charlotte.”
Clifford said Hayward was getting to the practice facility at 6 a.m. for workouts, and then body rehabilitation, and then another workout.
“So when he started, he was in great shape and in a good place,” Clifford said. “He’s been unlucky. We’re 20 games in, and that’s the way we have to look at this. We’ve had more than our share of bad luck so far, and that could change. Like I told him, he put himself in a place to have a good year. He didn’t get to play the last 30 games last year and it was going to take him a little time to get back in rhythm. But even then he’s had some terrific games for us. But he’s just been hurt.”
In his first eight games, Hayward averaged 18.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and nearly 50 percent shooting. He was off to a strong start and then, the shoulder injury. Hayward’s wife, Robyn, accused the Hornets on a social media post of withholding information on the fractured shoulder and allowing Hayward to play until the pain became unbearable. The Hornets haven’t commented on those statements, only listing Hayward as week to week with the injury.
In this situation, the 61-year-old Clifford turns into an encourager and life coach for Hayward, who has to be discouraged at this point. He’s 32 and has never had a full opportunity to build off that lone All-Star appearance in 2017 with the Jazz, despite signing two maximum contracts.
“I think all you can do is message and obviously the other thing is to have true credibility, not just play coach,” Clifford said. “You guys have been around him. He’s easy to like. He’s easy to talk to. He knows I know a lot of people [from his past]. I’m close with Brad [Stevens]. I’m close with Quin [Snyder]. I had conversations with both about him, he knows that.
“You have to help people in different ways. Maybe getting older, I do know this self-reflection is an important part of being happy. I think being hard on yourself is a good trait to have, but you have to be careful about that.
“As they say in coaching, ‘Learn how to take the right amount of credit, the right amount of blame.’ And I think those are the things I do.”
Clifford said Hayward deserves the scrutiny and criticism because of his injury history. It’s part of being a highly paid professional athlete.
“If you want to be in the NBA, I think everything is fair,” Clifford said. “That’s one of the things I found out being in Brooklyn last year part time. I started reading some of the social media and it’s all fair and that’s why we have the jobs that we have. But unless you’re watching the film closely every night, you don’t know.”
Clifford added that some of the criticism is misguided. Players such as Hayward receive heavy judgment for things that they are not necessarily responsible for.
“I tell the players that all the time, the only people that can really help the players are the coaches,” Clifford said. “I put a whole lot of stuff in. I’m there every day and until I watch the film, I don’t know what happened. So all the other stuff is part of what we do, it allows us to have the jobs that we have, but players in this league sometimes get credit for stuff they don’t deserve and they get a lot of blame for stuff that’s out of their control. I think that’s all part of when things go badly, what you have to start to think about.”
A lot of ups and downs already
The NBA season is 25 percent complete and what we know is there are no great teams coming out of the Western Conference, at least yet. The Eastern Conference appears to be a three-team race between Boston, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, and teams such as Philadelphia and Brooklyn could be threats once they get healthy.
There are plenty of story lines, plenty of surprises, plenty of disappointments, and plenty of determinations that may prove correct come April.
▪ Indiana Pacers — At 12-9 going into the weekend, the Pacers are by far the most surprising team in the NBA. After trading Malcolm Brogdon, the Pacers appeared to be in total rebuilding mode. But Indiana held on to its young pieces, with point guard Tyrese Haliburton as the centerpiece and leader. The Pacers also added former Phoenix castoff Jalen Smith to go along with Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, and Bennedict Mathurin, one of the favorites for Rookie of the Year. The Pacers play hard under Rick Carlisle and the East is unpredictable after Boston and Milwaukee, leaving the Pacers with a legitimate chance to reach the play-in tournament.
▪ Utah Jazz — The Jazz went 3-8 after their 10-3 start but are still in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race after observers were convinced Danny Ainge and the Utah brass were going to be the No. 1 competitor in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. Instead, the Jazz have played inspired ball under new coach and former Celtics assistant Will Hardy. Lauri Markkanen, a former lottery pick who disappointed in his first two stops in Chicago and Cleveland, has finally reached his potential. Jordan Clarkson has flourished as a starter and players such as veteran Mike Conley, Minnesota acquisition Malik Beasley, and ex-Celtic Kelly Olynyk are providing support.
▪ New Orleans Pelicans — For years, New Orleans fans have been waiting on this team to get healthy and finally flourish, and that seems to be the case. Zion Williamson has missed five games with a foot injury but has returned with a vengeance to lead the team in scoring. CJ McCollum has been the stabilizing presence expected when he was acquired from the Trail Blazers. The Pelicans have drafted well over the past few years and players such as Herb Jones, Trey Murphy, and Jose Alvarado have earned major roles. New Orleans still needs better health — Brandon Ingram has been out with a toe injury — but it can earn a top-four playoff seed and home-court advantage in the first round.
▪ Minnesota Timberwolves — The combination of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t worked and now Towns is out for six weeks with a calf injury. The Timberwolves are where they always seem to be, good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to compete with the elite teams in the conference. They were just blown out at home by Golden State and were then routed at Washington. The Timberwolves have enough talent, but they can’t hit the 3-pointer. They went into the weekend 26th in the NBA in 3-point percentage, and they don’t score enough in the post to threaten teams because Gobert really isn’t a post presence.
▪ Los Angeles Lakers — The Lakers claimed that a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis would result in a resurgence. It hasn’t happened that way. While Los Angeles bounced back with six wins in eight games, it still went into the weekend under .500 and nowhere close to a contender. The problem is the Lakers can’t shoot. They have no players who are 3-point threats. James and Davis have their moments but are in the 30 percent range. Without the ability to stretch the floor with shooters, the Lakers are easier to defend. Without a reliable scorer behind Davis and James, they have been relying on an inconsistent bench to help.
▪ Golden State Warriors — This is not to say the Warriors won’t be there in June, but any defending champion that begins the season 0-8 on the road deserves the disappointment status. The Warriors aren’t defending, they are getting subpar years from Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole, and haven’t been the same chemistry-wise since Draymond Green punched Poole in practice. The Warriors have gotten themselves together a bit, but it will be an interesting game Dec. 10 when the Celtics come to Chase Center with revenge on their minds.
Jayson Tatum is the best player on the best team, so he gets the nod. After a considerably rough NBA Finals against the Warriors and primary defender Andrew Wiggins, Tatum has bounced back, averaging 31.6 points, with 12 games of 30 or more. Tatum has not only scored more, he’s been more efficient with his distribution and shot selection. He has taken the next step. Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Dallas’s Luka Doncic are in the mix.
Coach of the quarter
Joe Mazzulla, who had only been a head coach at the Division 2 college level, was suddenly handed the responsibility of leading the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics after Ime Udoka was suspended. Mazzulla was named Eastern Conference coach of the month for leading Boston to an 18-4 record. He also has thrown in his own wrinkles to give the Celtics a more versatile look than last season.
Carlisle has done wonders with the young Pacers and deserves kudos, and Mike Brown has turned the Kings into a playoff contender after 16 years in the draft lottery. They also deserve consideration.
What to watch
▪ Health has affected several teams, most notably the Clippers, who have missed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for a handful of games. The Clippers were projected as the primary competitors to the Suns and Warriors in the Western Conference but are still trying to figure out rotations and chemistry. They will be a team to watch in the coming weeks.
▪ So, who exactly is in the Wembanyama sweepstakes? It was supposed to be the Jazz, Pacers, and Spurs, but only the Spurs appear ready to tank the season. The Pistons, Magic, and Rockets are also in the running for the top pick, but they have been tanking for years. Is it worth another lost season for a 25 percent chance at No. 1?
▪ The Lakers have no interest in returning to the draft lottery because their first-round pick goes to the Pelicans as compensation for Davis. So the Pelicans, who already have an impressive young core, can add another lottery pick, if the Lakers continue to slide.
▪ The trade deadline will be interesting because players such as Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook could be available because they’re on expiring contracts. D’Angelo Russell, Kevin Love, Harrison Barnes, Will Barton, and Turner are also on expiring contracts. A player to watch in the trade market is Charlotte swingman Kelly Oubre, who has an expiring contract at a reasonable $12 million.
The Lakers are trying to devise ways to upgrade their roster, knowing the opportunity to make a run in the Western Conference is there because the top teams have been inconsistent. What the Lakers have done is beat teams they’re supposed to beat, led by Davis, who has been on a tear. They know an addition or two could give them a chance at a non-play-in playoff seed. The club wants to unload Westbrook, despite his improved play, and Kendrick Nunn, who has given the Lakers little since they signed him to a two-year deal in 2021. The Lakers would have to be creative in a Westbrook deal because he has an expiring contract of $47 million. That would require taking on two large contracts in return. A deal for Indiana’s Turner and Hield has been on the table, but the Pacers want two first-round picks to take back Westbrook. And the complexion of that deal could change with Indiana in playoff contention . . . The Bucks are now full after getting former All-Star forward Khris Middleton back from wrist surgery, after he also missed last year’s playoff run because of a knee injury. The Bucks are the Celtics’ primary competitors to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and won 15 of their first 20 games with a home-heavy schedule. Who is the better team? Fans will get to find out Christmas Day, when the teams meet for the first time this season, at TD Garden . . . Celtics forward Jaylen Brown held his second annual 7uice Foundation Gala on Thursday with most of the Celtics roster attending at the Museum of Fine Arts. Heat players Kyle Lowry, Victor Oladipo, and Jimmy Butler also attended. Celtics forward Blake Griffin, one of the event hosts, joked with the Heat players they could leave their game checks at the door as a contribution to the foundation. Brown honored civil rights activist and METCO creator Jean McGuire, 91, who has bonded with Brown over the past few months. McGuire was stabbed during an October walk at Franklin Park but has recovered. She made a spirited speech, to the delight of the audience.