Five minutes into the NBA season and the NBA season was changed. It can happen that fast in sports. You think you have done everything right. You have fleeced a ridiculously naive owner into draft picks. You trade down for a scorer. You pull off a trade for someone who won the NBA Finals on a last second shot. You are ready to take the one giant step for Boston mankind. And then your prize max player breaks his ankle in such gruesome fashion it is a throwback to Paul George and Shaun Livingston’s horrific injuries. George returned to All-Star form. Livingston never did. And so the Gordon Hayward roller coaster begins.
Surgery but when? Cast on, but when? Cast off, but when? Rehab, but when? Non contact drills, but when? Cleared for contact, but when?
Clearly the Celtics title hopes are devastated. But then so are the NBA’s hopes for a two team slug fest race in the East. Now what?
It is a sentiment shared by Danny Ainge. To bring in Hayward and his salary the Celtics had to jettison Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk. To get Kyrie, they had to lose Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas. The team that had depth now is depending on Jaylen Brown who has shown terrific development on offense but his defense has a long way to go. See LeBron’s 4th quarter spin on Brown to know why the Celtics have a defensive hole at the 3.
Hayward’s injury isn’t the first to ever happen on opening night. A few years ago, Lakers rookie Julius Randle broke his leg but the difference is Randle was a rookie whose NBA career was a blank slate. In opposite fashion, Hayward earned his max deal by improving every single year. 5.4 points in year one. Then 11.8 points. Then 14.1 points. Then 16.2 points. Then 19.3 points. 19.7 points followed in 2015-16. Last year, 21.9 points. We know who Gordon Hayward is. There is no sugar coating how gut wrenching it is that the Celtics can’t count on him this season.
It brings to mind the truth about all sports. Injury luck must be on your side. Every NBA champion who had a long run did it because they had the best players who didn’t suffer a catastrophic injury on the way to the title. The Showtime Lakers. The Bird Celtics. The Isaiah Pistons. The Jordan Bulls. The Olajuwon Rockets. The Kobe-Shaq Lakers. The Duncan Spurs. The KG Celtics. The Kobe-Gasol Lakers. The LeBron Heat. The Curry Warriors. All of them had good health and didn’t have a star miss the season.
But here we are. What was supposed to be all about Kyrie coming back to Cleveland was suddenly muted. All that off-season Kyrie what is he so angry about narrative turned on a dime. He was irrelevant in the city he recently dissed. They didn’t even show the Kyrie tribute video which the Cavs players didn’t want shown anyway.
This is fact. Kyrie can’t win on his own. Yes, the Celtics are a gutty team that continues to play hard as long as Marcus Smart is wearing green, but they don’t have the small forward talent to be able to win playoff series in their team first identity. The Cavs closed the game on a run the Celtics couldn’t match because they had no answer defensively.
Fans in Utah who burned Gordon Hayward’s jersey when he announced he was leaving, probably said, that’s karma. Fans are going to be fans though. They don’t have empathy once you leave them.
But the rest who wanted to see the Celtics dethrone LeBron James, or at least try, have a knot in the pit of their stomach. Not this year C’s. Fair isn’t always what happens in sports. You have to be lucky.
LeBron James always is.
In the absence of Hayward, the NBA continues on. Games will be competitive. But like that Kyrie three too late to count, the Eastern Conference is still the Conference of Lebron. Only LeBron bolting Cleveland will change that fact.
photo via llananba