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What’s in store for NBA’s biggest trade sacred cow, Celtics point guard Terry Rozier?

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DETROIT – Terry Rozier, as the running joke goes, is the NBA’s most unattainable player.

Celtics president Danny Ainge reportedly wouldn’t trade Rozier for Serge Ibaka, according to the actual report which sparked the gag. Didn’t trade Rozier for Kyrie Irving. Hasn’t traded Rozier for Anthony Davis.

And why stop there?

“Me getting traded for LeBron,” Rozier said, “and then Danny hangs up the phone.”

That’s Rozier’s favorite version of the joke. He can laugh along with it.

More so, he appreciates the subtext – that Ainge really does value him deeply.

“He’s one of the guys that believes in me most in this league,” Rozier said. “And I think that’ll allow me to wake up every day, just knowing that I can breathe easily and just play my game and be me.”

It’s a good mindset, as the next 16 months will test Boston’s and Rozier’s loyalty and usefulness to each other.

Satisfied backing up stars Isaiah Thomas and now Irving at point guard, Rozier is an important part of the team with the Eastern Conference’s second-best record. He can help the Celtics win in the playoffs this season and in future seasons.

But how long will Rozier, who turns 24 Saturday and will be eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension this summer, remain content? He has declared he’ll become a starter in the NBA, but that almost certainly won’t happen in Boston as long as Irving is there.

“I know there’s a lot of teams I can start for right now,” Rozier said.

“It’ll be the right time soon enough. It’ll happen for me.”

Rozier has developed into one of the NBA’s top reserves. Victor Oladipo will win Most Improved Player, and Lou Williams will win Sixth Man of the Year. But Rozier should contend for spots on both ballots.

He already has 4.7 win shares this season – 3.3 more than last season. That’s tied for the fifth-largest increase from a previous career high. Here are the league leaders in win share increases from a previous career high – the previous high on the left, this season’s mark on the right, the increase in the middle:

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And Rozier’s 4.7 win shares rank sixth among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players:

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At 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Rozier is a dogged defender who really gets into his man. He primarily makes opponents uncomfortable on the perimeter, but he’s also comfortable mixing it up inside, where he defensively rebounds well for his position.

Rozier has also become a good 3-point shooter, making 39% of his 4.7 attempts per game. That shooting breakthrough has made all the difference in Rozier’s growth.

Can he take the next step and become a starting point guard somewhere?

“There’s an athleticism requirement at that position because of how dynamic those guys are,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Competiveness, skill and just an everyday mentality and mindset. And he’s got a lot of those things. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Athleticism? Rozier is fast, a high-flyer and definitely strong enough. Competitive? To a fault. Everyday mentality? “He never takes days off,” Stevens said.

Skill is the question mark.

Rozier isn’t much of a playmaker, a deficiency that would become an even bigger issue if he started. When playing with other top players, distributing matters more.

Rozier’s 5.2 assists per 100 possessions would rank last among starting point guards:

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(Jamal Murray, who starts for the Nuggets and also averages 5.2 assists per 100 possessions, plays with an elite passing center in Nikola Jokic.)

To be fair, Rozier’s assist numbers are negatively impacted by Marcus Smart. Rozier and Smart often share lead-guard duties off the bench, so each takes assist opportunities from the other. And Smart doesn’t space the floor well when off the ball, making it harder for Rozier when he has it.

But none of that excuses Rozier’s pedestrian passing. Steven often tells him to take more risks. Dribble more to engage defenses. Make higher-upside passes. Those aren’t dependable skills for Rozier yet – which is fine for a bench sparkplug. As a starter, it’d become a far bigger problem.

And then there’s blemish already hurting Rozier: He’s an awful finisher.

He too often gets out of control when he attacks the rim. He doesn’t have the touch on floaters. Though he can penetrate, it doesn’t bear much fruit.

Among 163 players with at least 200 attempts in the paint, Rozier ranks dead last in field goal percentage (43%)

Still, Rozier brings enough tools – athleticism, competitiveness, defense and outside shooting – to create the rough outline of a future starting point guard. Court vision can take a while to develop. (The poor finishing is more worrisome, though at least Rozier’s ability to get into the paint is encouraging.)

“Every indicator would be that he’d continue to get better and better,” Stevens said.

That makes upcoming decisions tricky.

Locked into a bargain $3,050,390 salary next season, Rozier will also be eligible this offseason for a contract extension that would start in 2019. He said he’d appreciate an extension, as it’d show Boston’s faith in him.

But would he resist an extension to keep open his options to become a starter elsewhere? Will the Celtics even offer an extension?

That might depend on Smart.

He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, and Boston projects to have about just $9 million to pay him below the luxury-tax line without making other moves. The Celtics might decide Smart and Rozier overlap too much and let Smart walk or keep him on his qualifying offer. Or Boston could re-sign Smart, which could make Rozier the unaffordable luxury.

In 2019, Kyrie Irving will be up for a new contract. In 2020, Jaylen Brown‘s new deal would kick in. In 2021, Jayson Tatum‘s new deal would kick in. Al Horford (2019) and Gordon Hayward (2020) also have player options on their max contracts.

Perhaps, that leads to keeping Rozier next season while he’s still on his cheap rookie-scale contract then maybe even another year on his qualifying offer. Then, if he bolts for a place he can start and get paid more, at least the Celtics will have gotten several years of valuable production from him.

Or, if it’s headed down that path, could Boston do the unthinkable and trade Rozier? He’d return value, which could trump keeping him for another year or two then losing him for nothing. At some point, would Rozier welcome a trade to a team seeking a starter?

“I know it’ll work out if it’s meant to be, so I don’t really think about that,” Rozier said. “I’m just trying to seize the opportunity and, like I said, control what I can control and work my butt off every day, whether I’m the starter or coming off the bench.”

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.

Paul George: “I feel great again,” says Clippers finally fully healthy

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Paul George symbolized the Clippers’ health all season long. George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then all season long it was still a lingering issue — until the suspension of play gave him time to heal.

“The whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff, warming the shoulder up,” George said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Just so much went into stuff I had to do before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again.”

It wasn’t just Paul George, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard managing his knee/thigh issue and an assortment of other injuries that didn’t give Doc Rivers the full arsenal at his disposal. That was until around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far.

The season being shut down may have halted that momentum, but it also gave a banged-up Los Angeles roster a chance to get healthy.

“For this team, man, I think our aspirations, again, this time off has given us what we needed,” George said. “We had some guys that was banged up, nagging injuries. The more time gave us more time for us to aid those injuries and to get back to 100.”

Health matters — which is why Montrez Harrell brought his own personal, portable sauna, a secret Reggie Jackson let out of the bag.

Health matters to Rivers, too, but what he wants more is that team chemistry back — and the Clippers have a long way to go on that end in Rivers’ eyes.

“This is not a normal way of starting back,” Rivers said of the mini-training camp all 22 teams at the NBA restart will get in Orlando. “Usually going into training camp, guys have been scrimmaging for three and four weeks, they’ve been playing, shooting on hoops. That’s not happening. This is a group, some of the guys have not touched a basketball or seen a gym until two weeks ago. We got a lot of work to do on both ends.”

The Clippers are not alone, every team is going to take time to find its rhythm again. Pick-and-roll combos need to get used to reading each other (and the defense) again at full speed, defensive rotations will be a step slow, and a few passes are going to head into the bench rather than the player in the corner.

When the Clippers get that rhythm back, with a healthy roster — finally — they again become a legitimate threat to win it all.

First, they just need to navigate the bubble. And maybe borrow Harrell’s sauna.