Boston Celtics: What happens if Hayward bombs, Part One

Boston Celtics Gordon Hayward (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Boston Celtics Gordon Hayward (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Boston Celtics need a greatly improved version of Gordon Hayward for the 2019-2020 NBA season. Is this something they can count on? And what would it mean for the Celtics if Hayward can’t pull things together?

There has been a lot of talk this offseason surrounding Boston Celtics’ forward Gordon Hayward. Many have suggested that the former All-Starbwill return to form for the 2019-20 NBA season. And reports have indicated that Hayward is doing everything in his power to ensure this happens, putting the hard work in at the Auerbach Center to get his game back on track.

Commenting on the progress Hayward has made since the end of last season, Celtics’ general manager Danny Ainge has said he is “very excited” for Hayward and that he expects him to have “a great season” in 2019-20. 

However, what if Hayward fails to live up to Ainge’s lofty expectations? What if Hayward never again plays the way he did for the Utah Jazz? If he can’t return to being the player the Celtics believed they were signing when they gave him the $128 million max contract he currently plays under? And what would this mean for the Celtics, Ainge, Stevens, the fanbase, and Hayward, himself?

Well, Boston Celtics fans, very fortunately for you, I’m going to break it down.

Only six minutes and ten seconds into the 2017-18 NBA season, Gordon Hayward suffered one of the most traumatic and memorable injuries in the history of professional basketball.

Videos on Youtube of the injury itself or people’s immediate, horrified reactions to the gruesome moment total well into the tens of millions.

Before the injury to Hayward, expectations for the then new-look Boston Celtics had been as high as the lob pass Kyrie Irving had thrown to the athletic forward for the ill-fated alley-oop attempt.

That was until Hayward came crashing down to the floor, bringing with him the Celtics’ championship aspirations for what has already amounted to two whole seasons.

Had Hayward avoided injury on the play, who knows what may have have happened these past two years? A NBA Finals appearance in 2018 would seem an almost certainty whereas it was an underwhelming, Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers advancing all the way to the finals that year. Recall also that it was against these very Cavaliers, and without Hayward, the Boston Celtics made it to game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.

And then this past season, due largely to injuries of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, the Toronto Raptors won the whole kit and caboodle. In an alternate universe, instead of Kawhi Leonard, could that have been Irving or even Hayward hoisting the NBA Finals MVP trophy for the Celts? Could it have been fans celebrating on Causeway Street instead of Jurassic Park?

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Boston Celtics fans will never know the answers to these questions. All one can do now is speculate. But there’s no question that Hayward’s injury has had a devastating impact on the Celtics’ hopes for success. Is this finally all behind us? Or will Hayward’s injury continue to haunt the team in 2019-20?

It’s possible Hayward will at last be fully recovered, and primed and ready to reclaim his former glory. To the chagrin of many national “pundits,” who seem to have already written off the C’s chances, a return to form for Hayward in 2019-20 would mean the Celtics have legitimate championship aspirations.

Yes, you read that correctly, Boston Celtics fans: legitimate… championship… aspirations.  

But if Hayward has not, and he isn’t able to significantly improve upon his lackluster performance from a year ago, the consequences will be dire, and they will be many.

So it’s laudable Hayward is working out hard in the gym right now to do everything he can to make certain this isn’t something Celtics fans have to worry about. However, the truth of the matter is, he’s been working out hard in the gym since his recovery process first began. Nothing new or noteworthy there.

It’s not as if up until this offseason, Hayward had been slacking off, skipping physical therapy sessions and team workouts/practices, you know.

The only real difference between last season and this upcoming season for Howard will be by the time next season rolls around, he will have had an additional five or six months to figure things out.

Only time will tell if Hayward can rediscover his game in this timeframe, or ever again…

In August of 2014, perennial NBA All-Star and one of the newest members of the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul George, suffered an injury eerily similar to Hayward’s during a team USA intra-squad scrimmage. No two injuries are ever the same, but George’s recovery from his has often been used as a point of comparison for Hayward, when trying to project the time it might take Hayward to get back to being himself.

George would miss almost the entirety of the 2014-15 NBA season, and play poorly in the few games he was able to suit it up for that year. Yet, he would perform in typically stellar fashion the following season, averaging 23.1 ponts, seven rebounds, and four on the year.

In total, it took George a year and few months to re-achieve his superstardom.

Disappointingly, Hayward has already surpassed George’s recovery timeline, having done so some time around the All-Star break this past season.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind Hayward’s recovery suffered a setback George’s hadn’t, which necessitated a second surgery. Therefore, it would make sense if for a full recovery, Hayward would need a while longer than George. Yet this adds another layer of uncertainty about Hayward’s recovery prospects.

But while Hayward’s 2018-19 season was indeed a hot, steaming disappointment, as surprising as this may seem, he did show some progress throughout the year. (Hayward’s abysmal performance in the second round of the playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks is sure to have left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths.)

Hayward’s improvement is most evident in examination of his shooting percentages. Whether he became healthier or simply more confident throughout the year, Hayward shot the ball far better during the last three months or so of the season than the first two and a half.

For about the first two and a half months, Hayward shot what for him was an utterly regrettable 40% overall from the field, and about 30% from the 3-point line.

To put those numbers into perspective, they very roughly match those of noted Boston Celtics’ “sharp-shooter” Marcus Smart’s career shooting percentages.

In contrast, during the last three months-ish of the season, Haywards’s shooting percentages experienced a dramatic rise, when he shot over 50% from the field, about 5 percentage points higher than his career average of 45% even. And he shot about 37% from beyond the arc, which matches his career percentage from deep.

On a team over-crowded with both scorers and ball-handlers, had this somewhat improved version of Hayward just needed more in the way of opportunities in order to assert himself? Were there indeed signs Hayward’s recovery had progressed further than a more cursory look might suggest?

What’s perhaps most difficult to understand about how Hayward’s season unfolded is there were flashes of greatness mixed in with the overall mediocrity. As I recall, these flashes seemed to occur when Hayward had more in the way of opportunity, when other players were injured, or “resting.”

This represents a very intriguing line of thinking for Boston Celtics fans whereas Hayward projects to have far more of an opportunity this coming season, given, most notably, the departure of Irving to the Brooklyn Nets.

One such performance of Hayward’s that came to mind was a February 13th, 112-109 victory against eastern conference foe the Philadelphia 76ers. Irving had not played in the game. In the closely contested matchup, Hayward scored 26 points on an impressive 8-11 shooting night, and he hit a go-ahead three-pointer with only 1:50 left on the clock…

So I decided I’d look into Hayward’s level of play after the point in the season in which he had found his shooting stroke (again, about two and half months into the season), and in games when Irving wasn’t in the Boston Celtics’ lineup.

Perhaps Hayward really had just needed more of a chance. His wife, Robyn, certainly thought this was all it would take, as evidenced by her having wrote on Instagram, “good things happen when my baby gets the ball and minutes… just like the good old days.”

(I chose to leave the hearts out from the original quote.)

In total, there were nine games in which Hayward played, but Irving did not, over the course of which Hayward averaged 27.3 minutes per contest, a slight increase from his usual court-time.

During this stretch of games, Hayward shot about 55% from the field, but only 30% from three. He averaged 15 PPG. There wasn’t a significant increase in his assist totals, as one might expect, whereas Hayward would have presumably handled the ball a lot more.

Considering these still mediocre statistics, it is apparent that even the relatively improved version of Hayward from a year ago had needed more than just “the ball and minutes.”

Not so much like the “good old days,” after-all, it would seem.

Something was still missing for Hayward in 2018-19, and unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as simple as opportunity.

In 2019-20 Hayward must play better, or the fallout will be an unmitigated disaster for everyone involved — from the top of the nosebleeds inside the TD Garden all the way down the line.

And while Hayward may still have Boston Celtics fans’ sympathy, he no longer has our patience. For the first time inside the garden, he’ll hear boos if he can’t perform.

dark. Next. Carsen Edwards is perfect bench spark-plug

In part two of this two-part series, I’ll focus on the specifics of the fallout should Hayward not find his way in 2019-20.

(As always, thank you for reading, and I’d love to read all about what you’re thinking in the comments section.)