Before we dive into what comes next, let’s take a moment to remember a reality oft forgotten on the internet. Life is complicated, understanding it requires nuance and an ability to hold multiple truths. For the sake of this particular exercise, we’ll ask that you allow for the possibility of two specific realities.
The first is this: Boston Celtics’ forward Gordon Hayward, a man who has proven himself to be an exceptional basketball player, sustained an extremely gruesome injury last year. Expecting him to play at anything like the level he showcased prior to his injury in the early stages of his return to the court was never fair. The physical and mental healing that Hayward needs to complete to regain his standing as an All-Star caliber player are ongoing.
Which brings us to our second truth: Hayward has been bad. He’s averaging just 11.0 points per game, on .422/.323/.840 shooting splits. Boston has been 5.5 points per 100 possessions worse in his minutes on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. Hayward is making progress, but he’s still dearly lacking in explosiveness, and wildly inconsistent as a shooter. He hasn’t even played well enough to claim a starting spot in the rotation.
That’s not the ideal outcome for the Celtics, who have a hair over $98 million committed to their recovering star over the course of this season and the following two. Hayward, who signed with Boston last off season, was meant to be the piece that pushed the Celtics into the realm of legitimate contention - a Swiss army knife of a wing, as capable of functioning as an offensive initiator, a spot up shooter, or a bully to smaller players in the mid-post.
His appeal came in his versatility and consistency. Hayward was the perfect fit for Boston’s roster, a rising tide with essentially no holes in his game. His integration with a team overflowing with talent was meant to be seamless.
But it hasn’t been. And that’s fine. Remember our first point.
Hayward deserves a full calendar year, at least, before we start adding judgement to our analysis. Paul George has suggested it took him as much time to feel entirely back to himself after sustaining an injury of similar intensity. It’s worth noting that now, in his fourth year since returning to action, George is a fringe MVP candidate having the best season of his career.
There’s no guarantee that Hayward’s recovery will play out in an identical fashion - the two are certainly different players - but George’s career arc suggests that Boston would be wise to remain patient. That makes Hayward’s limited on-court impact no less real in the present however, and here is where things begin to get tricky.
The Celtics have underperformed relative to expectations. The presumptive favorites to win the Eastern Conference, Boston currently sits fifth in the standings. There are plenty of reasons why. The whole team got off to a slow shooting start. Al Horford has been dealing with a knee injury that’s left him noticeably slowed at times. Terry Rozier has regressed in his reduced role as a reserve. Neither of the Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum duo has taken quite as big a step forward as Celtics’ optimists had hoped (though they’re both playing considerably better than early season narratives would have you believe).
But none of that is as important as Hayward’s struggles. There’s simply no world in which all the preseason hype and sixty-win predictions could come true without Hayward playing like an All-Star. Boston isn’t a contender without the best version of him. That doesn’t mean the rest of the team is excused for their role in the Celtics’ record to date.
Hayward isn’t responsible for Rozier’s inability to function as a playmaker, or Brown’s lost three-point stroke, or Tatum’s early-season obsession with shooting contested mid-rangers. Those things all impact Boston’s ceiling, but they don’t really matter unless the team’s trio of stars - Hayward, Horford, and Kyrie Irving - are firing on something close to all cylinders.
One of them is very clearly not. So now what? That best option is likely just to wait things out. Hayward has shown some signs of improvement, and Boston is still outscoring opponents when he plays, even if they’ve been substantially worse than when he sits. It stands to reason that Hayward will get closer to returning to his pre-injury form the further he gets from the moment he sustained it.
It’s not incredibly far-fetched to think that he may be a more consistently positive player by the time the playoffs roll around. That would make the Celtics a considerably more daunting postseason opponent. It would also make cleaning up all the other issues that have troubled them throughout the year a priority.
Regardless of the final destination of the journey that is Hayward’s current campaign, Boston and its supporters may want to buckle up. There are going to be more ups and downs. More frustrating losses. Such will be the case as long as Hayward is still recovering and rediscovering what made him so great.
It’s not his fault, and he need not bear the weight of it, but it’s a reality that needs to be acknowledged and factored into expectations for the Celtics moving forward.