The Boston Celtics went into the 2018-19 season as heavy favourites to take the Eastern Conference.
After starting the season 8-6, along with the Toronto Raptors hot 12-3 start, they were brought back down to earth fairly quick.
Their early season woes have raised a ton of questions but none are more prevalent than what to do with struggling forward Gordon Hayward. On Tuesday before the Celtics’ practice, Hayward was asked how he felt about coming off the bench. This was somewhat of a pressing topic going into the season but was diffused quickly when every player who was asked about it didn’t seem to care who started and who didn’t.
Hayward’s response on Tuesday shows that his feelings on the matter haven’t changed, “For me, I’m happy to be on the court, No. 1, more than anything. And, No. 2, whatever I can do to help us win.”
Would bringing Hayward off the bench actually solve the Celtics issues? I don’t believe so, but it has more to do with Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes than it does Gordon Hayward.
As of right now, the Celtics’ biggest problem is the first unit’s flow on offence. They are playing your turn-my turn when it comes to shot selection, forcing shots instead of letting the game come to them on that end of the floor. That will happen when you have five guys who can all be score-first players if they had to be and it is going to take more than 14 games to work things out.
But here is the issue if you take Hayward out of the starting lineup: if he were to come off the bench, head coach Brad Stevens would most likely slide Morris or Baynes into the starting five.
With Morris, you could argue that he’s been the Celtics’ most consistent offensive player. He’s been killing second units averaging 14.8 points per game on a ridiculous 50.4 percent from the field. If you move him into the starting five, he’s going to continue to get his shots up and that’s not what that first unit needs. His shots are of more value off the bench, especially when it means he isn’t taking shots away from Irving and Tatum.
With Baynes, the swap with Hayward could work out offensively but defensively, it doesn’t make much sense at all. Baynes and Horford are both great rim protectors and it would be a waste to use them both in the starting five. Sure, that starting five could be successful but it jumbles the second unit defensively forcing everyone to defend out of position.
Regardless of who would move into the first unit, it makes more sense offensively to keep Hayward where he is.
In his four best seasons in Utah, he was averaging 14.6 field goal attempts shooting 44.1 percent from the field, good for 19.2 points per game. Obviously, that’s the type of player the Celtics paid for and expected, but what if that’s not what they need from him anymore? With the offensive talent this team has and Tatum’s emergence last year, if Hayward could make more out of his 9.5 field goal attempts per game (only shooting 39.0 percent from the field) that would be more beneficial to their offensive struggles than to have him increase his volume of shots.
Their starting five has a plus-minus of minus-0.8 in 118 minutes played together – that’s not ideal, but it’s not drastically terrible either. There’s no need to move him to the second unit and have him force shots to try and get into a rhythm when you can just be patient and let him figure things out.
At the end of the day, in Stevens’ system, it doesn’t matter who starts and who doesn’t which has been clear, mostly using Irving-Brown-Tatum-Morris-Horford or Irving-Smart-Tatum-Morris-Horford to close games.
From a plus/minus perspective, those have been two of their best units, plus-18.2 in 19 minutes and plus-36.0 in 22 minutes respectively, so why stress about the starting lineup when you can focus on closing with the right unit?
Hayward hasn’t been the player he was in Utah or the player the Celtics are paying him to be, yet. But you have to give him some time – it’s 14 games into the season coming off of a brutal leg injury.
For now, removing him from the starting lineup brings Boston back to square one in getting their season back on track.
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