The opening-night clash between the Celtics and Sixers was supposed to be a battle of two Finals hopefuls. But neither team has met expectations, while the Bucks, Raptors, and Pacers have surged up the standings. The Celtics and Sixers aren’t solely focused on now, though. Boston is working Gordon Hayward back into its rotation after his devastating ankle injury on opening night last season, while Philadelphia is incorporating Markelle Fultz into its mix after his nightmare rookie year. Brad Stevens and Brett Brown must weigh short-term priorities against long-term goals; it’s a matter of winning games now versus developing their teams’ massive investments for long-term success. Finding the right balance is a challenge for both coaches.
Hayward and Fultz can still be high-impact players, but the production hasn’t been there during the 24.9 and 24.3 minutes per game, respectively, that they’re averaging this season. They face quite different issues. Hayward looks like a shell of his former self athletically. He was once explosive, but through eight games, he’s looked sluggish when changing directions and has lacked pop when jumping for blocks and dunks. An adjustment period was to be expected after a year-long absence, and he said last week that he still experiences ankle soreness after games. But Hayward is scoring inefficiently and not making up for it defensively. He does not resemble the do-it-all All-Star he was in Utah.
Fultz was a star prospect at Washington. But a mysterious shoulder injury (and an alleged battle with the yips) ruined his jump shot, and he went from the perfect partner for Ben Simmons to a dead weight. Fultz’s shot has improved marginally, but he’s still making only 30.8 percent of his 3s, 25.9 percent of his 2-point jumpers, and 66.7 percent of his free throws. Opponents defend him like he has the flu.
During an October 29 game, the Atlanta Hawks straight up ran away from Fultz when he would spot up to shoot, doubled any other Sixer who had the ball, or helped in the paint to smother Philly’s floor spacing. On Sunday, the Nets defended Fultz the way you’d defend Shaun Livingston behind the 3-point line; Fultz responded with an air ball. Teams will sag off him in the playoffs unless the ball is in his hands—or unless his shot magically improves, but that rarely, if ever, happens during the season.
Equally concerning for Philly is what Fultz’s growing pains have done to Simmons’s game. Last season’s Rookie of the Year averages 22.1 points and 11.6 assists per 100 possessions with Fultz off the floor, compared to only 15.2 points and 8.9 assists per 100 possessions when they’re both on. The Sixers score 105.9 points per 100 possessions when last year’s ferocious trio of Simmons, Joel Embiid, and JJ Redick play together without Fultz; they score only 95.6 when Fultz is in the game instead of Redick. Simmons and Fultz are both allergic to shooting; they were top picks, but right now they don’t play well together.
Hayward’s return has also negatively affected other Celtics. Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart have been hurt the most. Smart is playing nearly seven fewer minutes and attempting half as many shots, while Rozier is touching the ball about 10 fewer times per game and his minutes and shots have been trimmed. It often feels like Rozier is overcompensating by isolating then jacking shots that don’t fit within the natural flow of the offense. Nearly one-third of Rozier’s shot attempts have been deep 2s, one of the highest marks in the league at his position, per Cleaning the Glass.
Rozier hopes to earn a contract that approaches $20 million annually when he hits restricted free agency next summer, according to league sources. But it won’t be easy to rack up the stats he’ll need to prove his worth. It won’t be easy when Hayward has absorbed some of the playmaking chances that once went to him.
Putting the ball in Hayward’s hands is a no-brainer for Stevens; even if he’s athletically limited, he can still manipulate defenses with his dribble, and throw difficult passes, like the cross-court dart above to Kyrie Irving. But Point Gordon will cost Rozier crucial minutes and touches.
Jaylen Brown has also seen his role change. Though Brown is playing similar minutes, his usage has changed entirely. Brown told MassLive he improved his dribbling after working out this summer with Tracy McGrady, but he’s not handling the ball as much. Brown finished 1.7 possessions per game in the pick-and-roll in 2017-18, compared to 0.9 so far this season. “I think people will definitely see a difference, the amount of time I’ve put in my craft. It’s not going to show for one game, two games, but hopefully it’ll stand out over the course of the season,” said Brown, who added that he hopes to prove doubters wrong about his game. The third-year wing hasn’t done that at all yet, frankly. Much like Rozier, he lacks a rhythm and has at times forced the issue.
An individual gain for Hayward and Fultz is a loss for a teammate. There’s no indication of trouble brewing in Boston or Philadelphia, but, naturally, chemistry problems can arise when players become disgruntled by a lack of opportunity or shaky circumstances, no matter how well the team is doing. We often associate chemistry problems with teams with personalities like the Wizards or a bad team like the Cavaliers. But it can also pop up in winning locker rooms, as it did for the Cavs last season and the Big Three Celtics during their Ray Allen drama. Hayward hasn’t shown a lot this season to warrant receiving over 24 minutes per game when there’s so much other talent on the roster. If Fultz had been drafted ninth instead of first, he wouldn’t be starting, and he might not even be playing over T.J. McConnell, whom Brown loves for his ability to steady the offense and bring consistent, contagious energy. Nonetheless, Hayward and Fultz need to play and both coaches have been experimenting to make things work.
Brown has been tweaking his rotations a lot. At the start of the season, Fultz and Simmons played a load of minutes together, but over the past six games, they have shared the floor far less frequently. Fultz went from playing half of his minutes with Simmons over their first three games to only one-third over their last six. During this stretch, Fultz and Simmons have played no more than nine minutes together in a single game. They still both start games, but Brown altered his substitution patterns to effectively stagger them after that. Just like earlier in the season, Redick starts in the second half. But now, Fultz runs the show anytime Simmons is on the bench. “What I’m trying to do is have it all,” Brown said last week after the Sixers beat the Hawks. “You can play them a little bit together, then separate them. Give one the ball and then the other person the ball. I’ve said quite candidly that Markelle is a point guard. And Ben is the Rookie of the Year as a point guard. We mix and match a little bit, but it is a challenge.”
Brown’s decision to allow Fultz to be a point guard without Simmons on the floor has unlocked aspects of his game that were last seen during his brief appearance at Las Vegas summer league before his rookie season. Fultz is aggressive again. He’s attacking the basket, drawing more fouls, and creating quality looks for his teammates. The difference pops up in the numbers: He logs 19.9 points and eight assists per 100 possessions without Simmons on the floor, and only 12.1 and four when he is. You can see it with your own eyes:
Fultz looks more like Fultz when he’s not on the floor with Simmons. He still isn’t an effective shooter away from the rim, but he wasn’t the no. 1 pick for his shooting. While developing his jumper is the key to rediscovering his star potential, Fultz was a maestro at running the pick-and-roll in college, presenting a combination of size (6-foot-4) and agility that made him a tough cover. And over the past three games, Fultz has also been more competitive defensively, fighting through on-ball screens and blocking shots.
“I feel like he brought us back to life,” Simmons said after the Sixers beat the Clippers last week. “The way he was playing was amazing.” You wouldn’t have heard that earlier this season. But simply altering rotations has stirred Fultz.
There will be bumps along the way, moments of frustration that cause Brown to look down the bench and call for McConnell. The Sixers need to focus on winning games, though; they have two top-25 players in Embiid and Simmons, giving them a legitimate chance to reach an NBA Finals and become an even more appealing free-agent destination as a team with max cap space that needs just one more piece. Winning regular-season games to improve playoff seeding would help their cause considering their stellar home-court crowd. And the Sixers need Fultz to turn into something of greater, consistent value because they don’t have the depth that the Celtics do behind Hayward. If the Sixers are to make a June run this season, Fultz has to be a big part of it.
I’d like to see Brown be as creative with Simmons and Fultz on the floor together as he is in staggering their minutes. Simmons is a bouncy athlete; why not run the high pick-and-roll with Simmons screening for Fultz? Simmons can throw down lob dunks like Blake Griffin or hit an open man like Draymond Green. It’s not like Simmons hasn’t done it with both LSU and Philadelphia:
Maybe that’s the solution: Whenever Fultz is on the floor, he is the point guard, and when he plays with Simmons, the Aussie becomes an Animorph who transforms his role, making him an even more painful headache for opponents. Long term, one or both of them need to develop their shot for the partnership to work.
Conversely, the Celtics can survive even if Hayward remains an Evan Turner impersonator and doesn’t return to his previous All-Star form. Brown and Jayson Tatum could take on more of a scoring role. Al Horford could handle more facilitating. Rozier could touch the ball more. They have answers up and down the roster. But to have a chance against the Warriors, the Celtics need all their weapons. No matter how his performance affects other players now, the growing pains will be worth it if Hayward can reach near-full strength. Boston has no chance to beat a healthy Golden State squad (assuming it could get by Toronto) unless Hayward looks more like Hayward.
Hayward has had his moments, like this one with Irving setting a down screen for Hayward, who dribbles into a pull-up 3 thanks to Horford’s pick. If Hayward had been covered, Horford might be open on the roll, or Irving on the pop. It’s a difficult play to defend since all three players can dribble, shoot, pass, and score from all over the court. The past two games, Hayward has also looked better defensively—stronger, and in better position in man-to-man situations. No matter how he performs, it seems, for now, that his minutes will keep increasing.
“He’s in the increase-by-a-tick phase,” Stevens said last week. “It’s a long-term plan. It’s based on getting back to not only playing one game, but playing 82 games. He probably is pretty frustrated by it at times, but he does a good job not showing it.” Hayward’s teammates need to stay under control too. While minutes and touches can be lost, there are other ways to make a difference on the court, with hard-nosed defense, rebounding, and smart decision-making. When it comes to developing a basketball team, the extremes need to be weighed equally. Stevens and Brown are finding out how tough that balancing act can be. But so far, it hasn’t gone haywire.