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After yet another trade, Buddy Hield is shooting to find his place with a contender

The trade deadline brought another change of scenery for Buddy Hield, the third midseason move of his career. And yet his switch to Philadelphia offered a different twist from the first two blockbusters that uprooted the Bahamian sharpshooter. Halfway through his rookie campaign in New Orleans, Hield landed in Sacramento, remember, when the Kings said goodbye to DeMarcus Cousins before 2017 All-Star Weekend even concluded. Hield left the Pelicans as a footnote to a headline, the young lottery pick who satisfied a team’s asking price for an All-Star return. Then after six dutiful seasons in Sacramento, Hield’s salary helped the Kings match the incoming number for Domantas Sabonis, when Sacramento shocked much of the league by dealing Tyrese Haliburton to the Pacers.

In February, Hield finally marked a main attraction as he headed to the 76ers, a necessary floor spacer to fortify what Philadelphia still hopes can be a title contender once reigning MVP Joel Embiid returns from a meniscus injury. “You want to go to a team that wants you. You don’t want to go to a team where you're a piece and it’s like, ‘We’re gonna try this out,’” Hield told Yahoo Sports. “Other teams are trapping Embiid, so having a 3-point shooter to keep guys honest, I know the reason why I was traded here.”

“I even think as Tyrese [Maxey] continues to have more chances and more opportunities,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said, “if he’s got space, he can burn through some of that space on the way to the rim.”

For that, Philadelphia was targeting an archetype of dynamic shooters, including Bojan Bogdanović (who ended up with the Knicks), according to league sources, and Hield wasn’t exactly surprised when he woke to a call Thursday morning of the deadline informing him the Sixers were his latest destination. Hield hopped on a plane, found his way to the practice court and has been launching ever since, drilling 42.2% of 8.2 long-range attempts per game, relishing the greater stakes he’s now being afforded with Philly’s ultimate barometer. “It’s a whole different mindset. They’re in a win-now mode, championship mode,” Hield said.

Philadelphia 76ers' Buddy Hield plays during an NBA basketball game, Friday, March 1, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Buddy Hield is shooting 42.2% from 3-point range for Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

He had far less clarity two years prior, when Hield boarded a charter from Northern California to Indianapolis alongside Haliburton and Tristan Thompson, bound for cornfields and the unknowns of a rebuild. Haliburton, the lanky ball-handler with that quirky shot, was still sitting with the distress and shock of his own first trade, his nose buried in his phone as his thumb scrolled through the doom. But amid all that change, Hield was certain what was waiting on the tarmac for his younger teammate. “I had to listen to Tristan and Buddy telling me how bad the Kings messed up the whole time,” Haliburton said. “I was like, ‘Can you guys just shut up?’”

“The way he was playing, his upside was a lot,” Hield recalled. “I said, ‘Man, this business is tricky. You never know what can happen. I always tell him, ‘Yo, they say they won't trade you, but they will trade you.’ I said, ‘Look, Indiana is an opportunity to start your own brand, be yourself,” Hield continued. “Be Tyrese and make a name for yourself.”

Haliburton, of course, has slung the no-look passes and splashed the deepest of triples that have made him known in households across America. Hield and Haliburton had hoped to reach the playoffs for the first time, together, Hield stretching opponents’ feeble attempts to guard Haliburton’s mastercraft with the ball. But the NBA economics he once taught at cruising altitude brought a slow end to his Pacers tenure, which Hield explained first felt like a crash landing.

This 2023-24 season marks the final stint of a four-year, $94 million contract Hield inked with Sacramento. When talks between his representation and the Pacers’ front office on an extension didn’t garner much momentum this fall, his agent requested Indiana trade Hield before his eighth season even began.

“If a team doesn’t want to re-sign you, we asked them early and you know how it is. It’s the game,” Hield told Yahoo Sports. “They say they want to sign you and then after it doesn’t happen, the conversations don’t really keep going on the phone, and it’s like talking to a wall, and nobody’s responding back. But after that, you’re under contract, and you have to, like, honor your contract. So it’s one of those deals where you just gotta come in every day and be professional. But I know that the whole vibe was so different.”

Having started 73 games in 2022-23, Hield opened the first 12 contests of this campaign coming off the bench. Then he opened the next 16 with the first unit, as Indiana blitzed its way to the championship bout of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament. He ended up back as a reserve not long after, drifting in and out of Rick Carlisle’s starting group all season, while the Pacers juggled different combinations around Haliburton — when the young All-Star has been healthy — and the backcourt developments of Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard. The Pacers have pulled a number of levers and lineups attempting to mitigate Indiana’s defense trailing so far behind its offense.

“I think the most challenging part was the indecision, the indecision. Just like with games. We had a lot of guards and we didn’t ever know who was … what decision Rick was gonna make. Who’s starting, who’s not,” Hield said. “And how they feel about you. I know there was a feeling where they weren’t feeling too hot about me. I know there were a lot of decisions, like, who was going to be on the court, who’s not going on the court? I just know it was at the point of the season where it was like, all right, I need to get out of here.”

Hield’s name was largely absent from the league’s rumor mill as the deadline approached, yet the 31-year-old prepared for his next trade. He has been no stranger to the noise that precedes each transaction cycle, his name seemingly linked to the Lakers ever since his former agent, Rob Pelinka, assumed control of Los Angeles’ basketball operations. He was nearly traded to the Lakers for Kyle Kuzma in 2021. This departure from Indiana, though, was one he was expecting would come to fruition.

“Don’t get me wrong, I loved playing with that team, that team was fun to be around. All the young guys, it was just a joy to be around,” Hield said. “But a decision had to be made, I think on both sides, [general manager] Chad [Buchanon] made a decision that’s best for them and best for me.”

The Sixers will enter this summer with more cap space than any team with true contending aspirations, the proud feather in this front office’s cap dating back to Philadelphia’s early season negotiations that sent James Harden to Los Angeles. The Sixers have lofty aspirations of adding a legitimate third star alongside Embiid and Maxey, but there could be plenty of coin leftover for an all-world marksman like Hield. Let alone any scenario in which Philadelphia marches further into the playoffs than it ever has in this, dare we say, post-Process era.

March, for now, brings the pressing task of keeping Philadelphia above the seventh seed, out of the play-in picture, while Embiid works his way back to center tip. A loss to Brooklyn on Tuesday, with Maxey out with a concussion, didn’t help matters. But Hield bobbed happily through Philadelphia’s pregame locker room, AirPods in his ears, fixed on making his way to the players’ chapel. He ended each segment of his on-court warmup by throwing a self-pass into an alley-oop along the baseline, a reminder for himself as much as for any early showing fan or reporter who might be watching, skying his Kobes colored with the aqua and gold of his national flag. “I’m never around the rim,” Hield said with a smile. “So when I get a chance, I still gotta show I can get up there.”

Maybe Philadelphia, with the role and the path to a payday, is right where he’s supposed to be.

“It really worked out,” Hield said. “I know that the void they were missing was shooting. We just need to figure out how to play together and weather the storm until Joel gets back.”