While rest of NBA goes West, Gordon Hayward heads East to try and dethrone LeBron, Cavs

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If you’re a basketball fan, you have to love that Houston decided to go right at Golden State, Game of Thrones style. They add Chris Paul and are trying to load up for an assault to take the throne, not backing down from a team that could go down as legendary. San Antonio is still right there and wants a healthy shot at the Warriors. Minnesota added Jimmy Butler and more to step into “we got next” mode — and also be much better now. The Nuggets just improved dramatically with the addition of Paul Millsap, too. The Western Conference is stacked.

While the rest of the NBA zigged West, Gordon Hayward zagged East.

Hayward is going to be a Boston Celtic — and Boston just became a very legitimate threat to make the Finals next season. And for a lot of seasons after that.

While much of the NBA decided to go at Golden State, Hayward joined up to go at LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

It wasn’t an easy call for Hayward, leaving the only NBA city he’s ever called home, and a city and fan base he genuinely loved.

However, the lure of a good path to the Finals, his former coach, and the history of Boston proved too much.

It also is the bold, smart, long-term basketball play. Hayward set himself up well for the future (and it’s not just the max money contract he will get) — winning in a major market sets up the endorsements, shoe and otherwise, that can really drive income.

Celtics fans were dreaming of grand slam scenarios that were never likely, but the target all along was to get an All-Star level NBA wing entering his prime and put him on a team that already won 53 games last season. A team that already had an All-Star level center (Al Horford) and an All-NBA point guard (Isaiah Thomas) — and they add an elite player to that without giving up many assets (not ones that really impact the win column much).

Danny Ainge pulled that off, and he deserves kudos. Boston is set up beautifully for the future.

Boston is poised now to seriously challenge Cleveland in the East in 2018 — their motion offense gave the Cavs defense problems last playoffs (even with Thomas injured), and Hayward fits in perfectly with that. Hayward averaged 21.9 points per game last season, shot 39.8 percent from three, grabbed 5.4 rebounds, plus is a quality playmaker for himself and others. He can play the three or some small-ball four (he played the four about 30 percent of the time last season). Boston just got a lot better, filling in a position of need.

Cleveland also seems poised to crumble, maybe not next season but certainly beyond 2018 — maybe LeBron leaves, but even if he stays this team is older, slower and capped out. They don’t even have a GM right now setting up an overall vision. Also, LeBron can’t keep playing like this forever, right? (Who knows, conventional wisdom and timelines do not apply to him.) Boston’s roster already has win now guys plus two likely top top-10 picks the next two years to keep adding quality players (Brooklyn’s unprotected pick in 2018; and the Lakers 2018 first rounder if it falls 2-5, otherwise the better of the Sixers or Kings pick in 2019). Jaylen Brown is just getting started, as is Jayson Tatum. The Celtics can keep guys will need to ultimately move guys such as Avery Bradly and/or Marcus Smart, but they can do so for other players that fit. The picks could be traded. Boston has options — and that’s not an accident. That was always the plan. Boston was never only aiming for 2018, they were more focused on 2019, 2020 and the years beyond that. Ainge was working to build something sustainable.

This is a punch to the gut of Utah — sometimes in life you do everything right and it still doesn’t work out. The organization has drafted well, has arguably the best player development program in the NBA and built up guys such as Rudy Gobert, they have a smart and well-liked coach, the fans have embraced the players, and the team was on the rise. They even added Ricky Rubio and re-signed Joe Ingles to show how serious they were. Utah also could offer more money than any other team and an extra guaranteed year. (The only mistake, in retrospect, was not offering more money and years on Hayward’s last deal, which would not have been up yet, but that wasn’t the main issue here.) All that and the emotional lure of the only NBA city he has ever played in was not enough.

Utah still has a good team, but one without a shot-creating alpha, and it will be difficult to lure one to Utah. They need to step back, think about the next step, and go from there.

For Boston, this is the not the end goal, but they just got a lot closer to it — and closer to banner No. 18.

For Hayward, going East when the rest of the NBA went West was smart, bold, and set him up for the future.

Now just comes the task of living up to the hype.

Wembanyama scores 37 Scoot Henderson 28, both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France — knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft, showed why he’s ranked so high. He  finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in that draft,  had 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans and scouts to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and showed off an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.