March 23rd. On Twitter, that’s the mythical potential return date for Gordon Hayward. It also happened to be GH's birthday. Oh, and Kyrie Irving's. At their introductory press conference, Hayward called it "destiny" that the two are now on the same team. There's magic in that date and some reasonable if not optimistic logic, too. That would be over five months after suffering his ankle injury in Cleveland and would give the All Star eleven games and roughly three weeks to get up to speed before the Celtics head into the post-season.
USA swimmer @smeathers5 (no muscle) coached by Celtic great @gordonhayward (no brace) lost a devastating race to Australian swimmer @stephen_mount today. No rematch is scheduled nor will be. #swimmersneedmuscles pic.twitter.com/lxTD4UqiIB— Danny Ainge (@danielrainge) January 9, 2018
For now, it’s a pipe dream. Despite some suggestive tweets from Danny Ainge, he’s thrown cold water on the idea of Hayward returning this season and the Celtics will certainly play it safe with their $128M investment in the 27-year-old. But what if? What if he’s medically cleared to return by late March? What if the Celtics bring in another vet at the trade deadline and yet another piece with the DPE? What if Cleveland continues their decline and a trip to the NBA Finals is a realistic destination for Boston?
As good as the Celtics have looked without Hayward, they’ll be a different team with him in the lineup, any lineup. Insert him in what could be Brad Stevens’ version of GSW’s Death Lineup of Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Hayward and they could be a killer fivesome on both sides of the ball.
It’s impossible to predict the synergy between stars, but Hayward is such a perfect fit next to Irving and Horford (and now, Brown, Tatum, and Smart). In a way, he comes to Boston as a prototypical Stevens’ player, the kind of foundational piece that Horford developed into and Irving has started to become. Max players have to not only be able to get buckets, but help other teammates, too. In Hayward, the Celtics have a player that can score at all three levels and has developed into a willing playmaker.
Last season, the Jazz were demonstrably better with Hayward on the floor. He had an on/off differential of 5.8 (109.5 vs. 103.7), best in Utah in 2016-2017. It’s a small sample size, but his preseason effect was noticeable, particularly on offense. In three games, Hayward boasted a 115.7 OffRtg. He didn’t exactly light the nets on fire with his shooting, but his versatility as a scorer and ability to be that third playmaker next to Irving and Horford is what will push the Celtics to the next level.
Irving/Horford On/Off Offensive Statistics
Over the last several games, Stevens has employed a similar substitution pattern with Horford and Irving: Kyrie logs longer minutes as a starter, Horford buoys the bench as small ball 5 at the start of the second and fourth quarters, and Kyrie closes. The Celtics have only played a fifth of their total minutes with both Irving and Horford on the bench. Staggering the two All-Stars assures Stevens that there’s always a go to player to keep the team afloat and at the midway point of the season, the Celtics have an average offense being held up with their league best defense.
Boston has tread water with a lot of different players stepping up offensively. Marcus Smart has continued his improvement as a power point guard. We’re beginning to see Jayson Tatum do more off the dribble as a creator. Marcus Morris has gone from running PnR’s with Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond in Detroit to being relied on to be a 6th man scorer for Stevens.
Enter Gordon Hayward.
The tip of the spear so far has been the Irving-Horford pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop, dribble hand off, Inverted Hungarian Opening, Fabian strategy, etc. They’re the two best playmakers on the team and the Celtics have needed them to generate offense for their young roster. Adding Hayward into the mix might not change how Boston typically jump starts their offense, but he certainly adds another needed wrinkle.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the two wings that have benefited the most in Hayward’s absence, have been efficient scorers shooting on kick outs and driving against close outs. Brown ranks in the 76th percentile for spot up shooters where as Tatum is a sparkling 86.6th percentile shooter with a eFG% of 60.7%. On drives, Brown has shown improvement with a tighter handle and more aggressiveness that hasn’t paid off at the free throw line (56.6%). Tatum, on the other hand, has been a revelation off the dribble, scoring 74.4% of the time.
However, Brown and Tatum’s early development hasn’t progressed far enough to where they’re making the next pass; both are averaging only 1.3 assists per game. This is where Hayward would be deadly as the third superstar of the Big Three. We saw glimpses of this in the preseason.
It’s one play in one game during the preseason, but it illustrates just what having Hayward will add. Kyrie and al unlock the Hornets’ D with their two-man game and Horford hits Hayward with a kick out. Gordon shrinks the defense further with his hard drive and hits Horford for the open 3.
What makes Hayward a deadly passer is his ability to work downhill off the dribble or using his size to methodically probe the paint with his back to the basket. In his final four seasons in Utah, he averaged over four assists a game, often times as a primary ball handler. Last season, the Celtics were second in the league in potential assists at 49.3 per game. This season, that number has dropped to 43.1 in some part due to less ball movement (324.8 passes last year vs. 300.7 passes this season). I think that will change with Hayward in the fold.
Hayward can also take advantages of mismatches. Whether he’s posting up smaller guards on the block or blowing by slower bigs, he’s just another more-than-capable body that can exploit and punish switching defenses.
And next to Irving and Horford respectively, he can fill in as a small ball 4 or as a primary ball handler big guard.
Hayward won’t solve all of Boston’s problems on the offensive end and he might even take away from some of the younger players’ development, but he’ll help string together so many of these near tic-tac-toes for the Celtics. Smart, Morris, and Terry Rozier shoot nearly 30 shots a game at under 40% shooting; in his last three seasons with the Jazz, Hayward hovered around 45%. No Celtic averages 5 free throw attempts per game; Gordon got to the line 6 times a game in Utah. While his return date is an uncertainty, his future effect is not.