Gordon Hayward’s return to action has hurt the Boston Celtics offense as they try to fit him in, but the former All-Star has shown glimpses of the player he can be.
“The Boston Celtics were one game away from the NBA finals, and now they’re adding two all-stars.”
The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t always work out logically: games are never won on paper, which is one of the reasons that the NBA captivates millions of people every year. On paper, the Celtics are undoubtedly a contender and very possibly the only team with a real shot at dethroning the greatest team in NBA history.
However, they haven’t even looked like the best team in their respective division to start the season. Much of the flak for this poor start has been attributed to the player that was supposed to play a critical role in dethroning the Golden State Warriors: Gordon Hayward.
Former all-star has started the reason averaging 10.2 points per game to go along with 5.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists. Certainly not the numbers Hayward has been putting up in the past, yet the box score stats aren’t indicative of his play on the court and truth of the matter is, box score stats are never going to be indicative of how anyone on the Celtics plays.
That illustrates the type of team the Celtics are: arguably their two most valuable players, Marcus Smart and Al Horford, don’t have to show up on the stat sheet to win crucial games. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, “Marcus Smart shot 3-10 from the field for 8 points and had a … +18 Box Plus-Minus.”
The issue is Gordon Hayward hasn’t been showing up on the stat sheet, nor having a positive impact on the team.
Obviously, it would be doing a disservice to Hayward to nitpick at his game, three weeks into the regular season after having been out for a year. Like Paul George and Shaun Livingston, both of which suffered severe injuries as well, it is going to take a while for Hayward to regain his athleticism and overall confidence in his game.
Coach Stevens is doing his best at trying to gel both Hayward and Irving back into this team while winning games at the same time. This team isn’t the melodic instrument of energy coupled with execution that it was last year and the primary reason behind that is prioritizing Hayward’s return.
The first issue with Hayward has been his lack of burst. In the past we’ve seen Hayward have the ability to zip by defenders with no problem, and either finish at the rim or pull up for a sweet jumper. This season we’ve seen him blow past players, but fail to create enough separation to finish at the rim.
A play like the one below, where Drummond is able to catch up to Hayward and swat his shot away is an issue that is a temporary one.
Hayward has talked about dealing with some ankle soreness, which is certainly expected. He is slowly regaining his step, meaning that continuing repetitions and driving in-game will only aid in him recovering his acceleration and burst so that he will be able to zip by players with ease like he used to.
The second issue with Hayward has been his impact on his teammates. Inadvertently, Hayward getting these minutes has consequently taken away significant playing time from Terry Rozier. Rozier, a player who was a critical part of the Celtics’ deep playoff run from last season.
With recent reports of Rozier being unhappy with his current role on the team, it is hard not to attribute much of that to Hayward’s increasing role as a ball handler on the team. While Rozier’s minutes have only dropped slightly – 25.9 minutes per game to 22.7 minutes per game – it is his usage rate that has taken a bigger hit.
Last year during their deep playoff run, Rozier was averaging 16.5 points per game at a 20.7 percent usage rate. Compare that with this season where his usage rate is down to 16.5 percent, and he’s averaging only 7.5 points per game. Being in a contract year, it is understandable why Terry Rozier has some issues with his diminishing role. However, Brad Stevens is thinking long-term, and Hayward has proven to be a much better playmaker on the ball and lethal scorer.
In the plays above, you can see the ease in which Hayward is able to find an open teammate. He has the ability to attract two defenders, keeping them honest with his jump shot, while possessing the passing ability to find the open man.
With Kyrie Irving missing the game in Utah to attend his grandfather’s funeral, Hayward took even more of a lead role handling the ball and the results were very positive. Hayward’s outside shooting struggles continued, but he dished out 7 assists to just one turnover and looked extremely comfortable running the offense and getting his teammates involved. He also shot a season-high six free throws, able to get downhill with the ball in his hands.
While Hayward hasn’t been as active as many expected at first, the fascinating thing is that he still is one of the best playmakers on the ball on the Celtics roster: even while being rusty with his first minutes back on the court.
This play epitomizes Hayward’s playmaking ability. The pass he is able to make in the play above is rare for an NBA player of any size, let alone a 6-foot-7 forward. You only see players like Lebron James, James Harden, and Chris Paul making passes like this on a consistent basis, and Hayward is just settling into this offense.
It is frustrating for fans to see their $30 million star-forward struggling along with the team so far this season. However, Hayward’s issues are fixable as well as the teams.
A new player needs time settling into an offense, especially an offense that feature a plethora of scoring threats. Additionally, Hayward was used to being the primary ball-handler and scorer during his days in Utah. Coach Stevens doesn’t need Hayward to carry the burden of an entire offense as he did in the past. However, Gordon Hayward does have to be more efficient with his scoring and help restore some continuity in an offense that is lacking.
Here are flashes so far this season of what Gordon Hayward can add to an already dynamic team. Hayward is an absolute stud when he is at his best, affecting both ends of the court tremendously. Here are the types of play to expect more of from Hayward as we progress further into the season:
Hayward’s early season struggles have reverberated around the team, as everyone is finding out how they fit into the new look Celtics. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have also looked lost on the wing at times, learning to play next to an All-Star they haven’t developed chemistry with yet.
In the long run, however, Hayward’s ability to handle the ball and make plays for his teammates adds a dimension the Boston offense lacked last season and when he gets right, will open up the offense for Kyrie Irving to be the killer scoring the ball he needs to be.