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The key three: how Gordon Hayward will unlock the Celtics’ offense

Gordon Hayward will unlock another dimension of the Celtics offense.

Boston Celtics Introduce Kyrie Irving Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Before the Celtics acquired Kyrie Irving in a late-summer blockbuster trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Gordon Hayward was the clear prize of the offseason for Boston. He had been a primary target for Danny Ainge and the rest of the team’s brass for a few years, and finally, after an eventful game of will-he-or-won’t-he, Hayward decided to sign with the Cs.

It was a big moment for the franchise and still is. Irving’s arrival, with all of its drama and posturing, overshadowed Hayward’s decision, and it was obvious during the introductory press conference the Celtics held for their two new All-Stars.

There’s reason beyond recency bias for the hubbub. Irving is arguably the better player of the two and is certainly a flashier name. Still, one could argue that, while Irving is the new face of the franchise, Hayward is its most important player.

At 6’8” and 226 pounds, Hayward has the type of size, length and athleticism of some of the most versatile players in the game. Between his ability to score and handle the ball, Hayward will unlock a number of options for Brad Stevens offensively.

Boston’s offense might look a lot different this year with Hayward in tow. Other than Evan Turner, Stevens has never had a wing player that can bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense, and the potential for a couple of different pick-and-roll combinations instantly spring to mind.

The potency a Hayward and Al Horford pick and roll could have is enough to make Stevens drool. Last year Hayward finished in the 87th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy, and he could be even better in the coming years. Running the pick and roll with Horford as opposed to guys like Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors will open up a new set of options for Hayward. He can hit Horford rolling to the rim, kick it back out to him spotting up behind the three-point line or even pass off to Horford, re-position himself, and spot up for a jumper of his own.

He’ll also have more opportunities to drive to the basket with Horford setting screens for him, especially when Horford pops out for a jumper. In Utah, defenses didn’t have to worry about Hayward kicking the ball back over his shoulder to Gobert or Favors because they weren’t a threat to shoot the ball from medium to long range. In turn, that allowed teams to send both defenders at Hayward.

Here’s an example from a couple of years back. Hayward brings the ball up the floor and initiates the pick and roll with Favors, who pops but draws zero attention from the Blazers defense. Damian Lillard chases Hayward over the top, paying no mind to Favors while Chris Kaman (!) cuts off Hayward’s lane to the basket. Hayward ultimately makes the jumper, but plays like these should become a lot easier with Horford as his partner.

Opposing teams won’t have the option to keep their big man dropped below the free throw line without giving up an open jump shot. They’ll have to pick their poison between Hayward and Horford and live with the results.

Hayward will most likely work with Irving in the pick and roll as well. The Cavaliers loved running a 1-3 pick and roll with Irving and LeBron James, where Irving acted as the screener and James handled the ball.

Irving shot 48.2% on spot-up threes last season, and while not all of those came out of the pick and roll, it’s a promising sign that he’ll be able to effectively pop on these plays to either free up Hayward’s lane to the basket or to knock down a catch-and-shoot triple.

And in the event that the pick and roll stalls out, Hayward has proven that he can find the open man to keep the play alive, just like he does here when he ends up getting doubled off the screen because Gobert is standing in no-mans land. Hayward uses his size and vision to locate Joe Ingles and hits him for the open three.

It will be interesting to see how Hayward responds to playing in a high-tempo offense, too. The Jazz played at the slowest pace in the NBA last year, as Quinn Snyder prefers to walk the ball up the floor and use the shot clock to find an open look.

The Celtics were 12th in the league in pace last year, according to NBA.com, and Hayward’s ability to get it and go should help Boston pick up the pace a little bit more if Stevens wants to.

The possibilities are endless offensively with Hayward in the fold now, and Stevens will work a number of tweaks into his system that will serve his protégé well.

Opponents are going to have a tough time defending the Celtics this year, and it starts with Hayward.