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Six years ago, Josh Richardson was sure he’d become a doctor. Now, he’s a burgeoning NBA star

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DETROIT – Josh Richardson is living an NBA fairytale.

He was a middling recruit out of high school, spent four seasons at Tennessee then got picked in the second round. Just three years later, he’s a budding star with a life-changing contract.

It’s probably uncoincidental his rise came in Miami. The Heat are renowned for their environment, where underappreciated hard-working players get in great shape and develop their skills. In Miami, Hassan Whiteside became the first player in NBA history to go from a minimum salary one year to a max salary the next. In Miami, undrafted Tyler Johnson earned a contract so large, he threw up when he first heard about it. In Miami, Udonis Haslem has had one of the longest careers ever for an undrafted player.

“We just want to invest everything we have with our guys – all of our experiences, all of our time, all of our love, all of our tough love – to be able to develop and put guys in the program and help them become whoever they’ve dreamed about becoming,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And if that sounds crazy to people on the outside, we love those kinds of dreams.”

But this wasn’t Richardson’s dream. Not even close.

He was set on becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Growing up, Richardson attended forums and seminars on medicine. He learned more about the field, even sat in on a surgery and met kids who shared his interest. His determination to become a doctor intensified.

He earned a basketball scholarship to Tennessee, but he focused on his pre-med classes.

“I was kind of there to get my undergrad paid for, so I could keep it moving,” Richardson said.

Richardson lived with Jordan McRae, the Volunteers’ star player. McRae frequently went to bed early to wake up early and work out. Richardson stayed up later doing homework, fighting off sleepiness, then went to class early in the morning.

Richardson doesn’t remember precisely what sparked it. He figures he was probably joking around when he shouldn’t have been. But Richardson still recalls then-Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin “freaked out on me” in front of everyone during practice Richardson’s junior year.

“You could be so good!” Richardson remembered Martin saying. “You don’t take anything serious!”

That stuck with Richardson. After talking to people close to him, he switched into easier classes to allow more time for basketball. He trained with McRae and improved significantly. Richardson gradually became a viable NBA prospect.

But when the Heat drafted him No. 40 in 2015, Richardson still looked like a limited 3-and-D player – if everything worked out.

Now, Richardson serves as Miami’s offensive focal point, defends the opponent’s best wing and plays 35 minutes per game. His all-around positives are hard to come by and reflected in his per-game averages – 21.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.0 steals.

Richardson could contend for Most Improved Player. He has accepted more offensive responsibility, cut down on long 2s in favor of more efficient shots and maintained his impressive defense amid a greater workload.

The biggest flaw in his case: He was already pretty good.

Few realized it, though. When Goran Dragic was named an All-Star last season, Richardson was actually the Heat’s best player.

But Richardson’s underrated status last year will help him with voters. So will his big boost in scoring average, which tends to have an outsized influence on this award. Richardson’s points-per-game increase from his previous career high (12.9 to 21.4) is one of the NBA’s highest:

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The Heat obviously believed in Richardson, but did they envision him becoming this good?

“We never want to put a ceiling on anybody,” Spoelstra said. “When he first came in, no, I didn’t necessarily see him as this.”

The next question: How much has Miami’s valuation of Richardson changed since even this season began?

With the Timberwolves focused on the Heat in Jimmy Butler trade talks, Josh Richardson moved to the forefront of discussions. Minnesota wanted him. Miami didn’t want to give him up. Eventually, the Heat offered him to the Timberwolves, and Richardson even thought a deal would be completed. But the trade fell through.

Now, there are questions whether Miami would still deal Richardson for Butler.

Richardson is four years younger than Butler. Richardson is just starting a four-year contract extension worth nearly $42 million, extremely team-friendly terms. Butler will become an unrestricted free agent next summer and will seek a five-year max contract projected to be worth $190 million over five years, a scary cost for someone with his mileage. Butler is better, but Richardson is closing the gap in his breakout season.

Butler remains in Minnesota and on the trade block, leaving plenty of uncertainty for the Heat. Richardson says he sometimes checks on trade rumors, but he tries to remain focused on his job, which isn’t in the front office.

“I’ve always kind of stayed in my lane,” Richardson.

Still? The former pre-med student who was content as a college-basketball defensive specialist and is now thriving in the NBA beyond imagination?

“I still know my limits a lot of the time,” Richardson said. “But I don’t really put limits on it on the court anymore.”

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.

Report: Lakers trying to open max salary slot with Anthony Davis trade

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The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis, but they aren’t done tweaking the details of the deal yet. Depending on when Davis’ trade gets completed, Los Angeles will open up myriad financial options for their free agency extravaganza this summer. Now it appears the Lakers might be trying to get a third team involved to help them grab max cap space.

We’ve explained the cap ramifications as the deal stood with the New Orleans Pelicans already. On one end, Los Angeles could wait until July 30. After renouncing some free agents, this would leave L.A. with $32 million in cap space. If they complete the deal on July 6, and if Davis waives his $4 million trade kicker, they end up with somewhere between $24 — $28 million.

Now it appears the Lakers will go for the full max slot space.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to ship out some of its younger players — turning the Davis trade with New Orleans into a 3-team deal — to satisfy some CBA rules that allow them to get to that mark. The Lakers have made Mo Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and Isaac Bonga available.

Via Twitter:

Los Angeles is also reportedly looking to grab some second round picks, which allow for cheap contracts that they can use to fill out its roster while going over the salary cap.

This is a bold endeavor.

No doubt the front office in L.A. looked at the trade the Toronto Raptors made for Kawhi Leonard this past season feel as though adding more stars to its roster cannot possibly hurt. The only problem is that the Raptors already had a team good team unit in place when they traded for Leonard. Los Angeles won’t have any players of note when they head into this season, even if they are able to sign a third star to go with LeBron James and Davis.

It’s really going to be difficult to see how Davis, James, and a third star will carry this team if there is a steep drop-off between the bench rotation. Even considering veteran minimum signings — which always happen for championship-contending teams — this team needs more role players.

This is an extremely Los Angeles thing to do, and this thing just keeps getting more complicated the farther we get into the NBA offseason. It’s not even July yet, and it’s already wild in the Association.

Report: Al Horford not returning to Boston, will sign elsewhere this summer

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Boston’s disastrous season — and off-season — just keeps getting worse. Anthony Davis is a Laker, Kyrie Irving is out the door and now this.

Al Horford opted out of the $30.1 million the Celtics owed him this summer, but that was expected. A lot of people around the league also assumed he would begin negotiating with Boston to return for a longer contract, worth more money overall but a little less per year, that would give him some security.

He is going to get that security elsewhere, reports Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

The buzz from around the league is this is more about Boston not wanting to pay him and do a retooling of their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than it is Horford wanting out. Either way, it puts an outstanding player on the market.

Horford is 33 years old and teams may be concerned about the final year of a four-year contract, but he is kind of glue big man who can do everything well that could fit a lot of places and lift teams up to the next level. Horford can play in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good defender and role player, and just seems to have no holes in his game. That versatility makes him incredibly valuable.

Horford is going to get paid this summer — not max money, but close enough to it to make him happy — and some team is going to get a lot better when they do it.