A few days in 2017, Jae Crowder was fuming. He felt disrespected. He said he didn’t like it at all.
His anger was caused by his Celtics fanbase, who cheered with the intensity and fervor Crowder epitomizes during the pre-game introductions on January 3rd. But those cheers were not for Crowder or any other Celtic. They were for his future teammate, Gordon Hayward.
Twitter fury ensued and by the end of it, Crowder said he had no problem leaving Boston if he wasn’t wanted and the awkward Gordon Hayward rumors continued to crescendo. But as the smoke cleared from the offseason half a year later, Crowder and Hayward remained teammates, slated to share the floor in the starting lineup.
As Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge finish off the second phase of this Celtics rebuild, they are reaching a critical mass of versatility in an effort to redefine the idea of positions. The result is a world where Jae Crowder and Gordon Hayward can thrive off each other, rather than fight for daylight and affection.
“I think that Jae, even in his post-game statement made it pretty clear the next day that it wasn’t directed at Gordon,” Stevens said on the Vertical Podcast with Chris Mannix. “I think it was more that he’s a really prideful guy, he’s a really good player and if people are going to position both of those guys in the bucket of small forward, that’s not the way we looked at it.”
There has been heavy roster turnover this year, but now essentially half the roster consists of wings who can play major minutes. Stevens envisions all his wings – or frankly, all his players – to be able to fit in at least three positions in a variety of options. The goal is to shape shift to conquer every variety of team that exists in the NBA. While most of them are heading towards lineups that range from small to smaller, Stevens values his wings maintaining the upper hand by being big while matching the speed, athleticism, and skill.
“We think that those guys are both really good players that can play together and do so with other guys that may be in that ‘position of small forward,’” Stevens said. “I can see many lineups that we’ll play that will have Hayward-Crowder-Marcus Morris. Hayward-Crowder-Jaylen Brown. Hayward-Crowder- Tatum.
“There’s so many people we can mix and match with now from a versatility standpoint, what people would generally call those two, three, four spots. I’m really excited about it. Those guys will not only get along great because they both love the game, they both love to compete, but I think they’ll play really well together.”
They didn’t trade for Jimmy Butler or Paul George this summer, two targets widely viewed as a complementary move to signing Hayward to rapidly build a true title contender. The Hayward signing was the most logical move out of the three, going beyond the Stevens connection and the fact that the caveats were renouncing their free agents and then slightly downgrading from Avery Bradley to Marcus Morris. Hayward fits their program to perfection, being the prototype of the Stevens system.
“I think we felt like, as you’re looking at him, that he’s a great fit for how we play on both ends of the floor,” Stevens said of Hayward. “We want to continue to get more versatile. As you look across the league, the ability to guard teams when they go “small” – it’s not really small when you consider Lebron at the four or Durant at the four or those guys shifting down a position, they still have the same siuze as the guys at those spots. They’re just super skilled and super fast. So you have to be able to put your best foot forward and be as flexible as you can when you’re putting a team together.
“The nice part from Gordon’s standpoint is he can play as your primary ballhandler, but he can also play at the wing. He hasn’t slipped to the four a lot, but we’ve got some guys in his size range and strength range that will all play together, whatever position you call them.”
Hayward brings the kind of attributes thart attracted Boston to Al Horford last year. Horford’s impact on the team was drastic and consistent, unlocking career years out of Isaiah Thomas and Bradley while finally transforming Stevens’ offensive system from promising in theory to deadly in practice.
“Al can play a couple of different positions. He is a guy that can complement anybody and will get the best out of the man standing next to him.” Stevens said. “The best compliment you can give someone is that they make their teammates better and we think Gordon can have a similar impact.”
Hayward and Stevens have plenty of work to do to integrate him into the team and adapt the system to maximize his abilities. But that work is still to come for the most part.
“We’ve done that some, but I think these are more passing conversations right now,” Stevens said. “It’s a long year. When he gets here for good, we’ll sit down and have even more of those conversations. He’s a pro. He knows how to prepare himself. He’s done a good job of preparing himself over the course of the last few years. And certainly, with what limited things we’re able to do with guys in the offseason, he knows that he can call and ask any questions, whether it be training, whether it be strength conditioning, whether it be on the floor whatever the case may be.”