The Boston Celtics have come back to earth a bit after an extremely hot start to the year. Their record for the season to date stands at a sterling 11-4, but Boston has gone just 4-3 over the course of its past seven games.
A portion of the Celtics’ recent mediocrity is attributable to travel. Boston just completed a brutal road trip that included close losses to the Kings, Clippers, and Nuggets, games they lost by a combined eight points. That’s an impressive showing, despite the fact that it didn’t translate in the form of many victories. The Celtics pushed through heavy legs and weary minds to remain competitive throughout their west coast swing.
In that sense, their is hope for the immediate future, but Boston has encountered a more troubling challenge across the course of the last seven games, one that is more concerning than fatigue.
The Celtics offense has sputtered with Gordon Hayward sidelined with a broken hand. Boston scored 110.4 points per 100 possessions in its games prior to Hayward’s injury. The versatile wing offered an incredibly efficient blend of shooting, playmaking, and panache around the rim. He was averaging 18.9 points and 4.1 assists per game while posting .448/.433/.822 shooting splits before hitting the shelf.
The Celtics have managed just 107.1 points per 100 possessions in his absence. That may not seem like a massive difference, but it equates to sliding from a top-10 rate to the bottom third of the league. Hayward was the linchpin of Boston’s offense. His passing and ability to draw every opponent’s top wing defender made life easier for his teammates.
The Celtics’ best alternatives - Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart - have all struggled to maintain efficiency in attempting to collectively fill in the offensive void that Hayward has left as he recovers. Take a look at their respective usage rates and true shooting percentages prior to and after Hayward’s injury.
Tatum, Brown, and Smart have all realized spikes in usage. Tatum and Brown have experienced precipitous drops in true shooting percentage as a result of their increased work loads, a 6.1 percentage point drop for the former and a 7.7 dip for the latter. Those are huge decreases, but they’re not inexplicable.
Boston’s duo of young wings was thriving in somewhat secondary roles. Scoring efficiently is easier when the team you’re facing doesn’t have you atop its list of defensive priorities and your primary function as a creator comes attacking defenses in rotation rather than as a play initiator. Those realities have changed for Tatum and Brown - who must serve as offensive focal points with Hayward on the mend - and life has become more difficult accordingly.
Smart, for his part, has actually seen a slight increase in his scoring efficiency since taking on a more substantive role in the offense, but his 52.1% true shooting rate is just a slight improvement over his abysmal 51.3% mark when Hayward was healthy. Increased usage at such a level is a net negative for the Celtics.
Interestingly, Walker’s usage has actually decreased with Hayward unavailable. His efficiency, like that of Tatum and Brown’s, has taken a noticeable hit. Walker seemed like a possible salve for Boston’s Hayward-less ailments, but he too is now likely to miss time after sustaining a scary neck injury in Denver.
That means even more shots and time on ball for the Celtics’ less offensively-gifted options, which isn’t likely to boost the team’s overall ability to put the ball in the basket. There’s hope on the horizon though. Walker hasn’t even been officially ruled out for Boston’s Monday match up with the Sacramento Kings, and Hayward is expected to be back in the fold within a month or so. The Celtics have been plenty competitive without him.
Boston has proven they can get by on defense and effort while Hayward rehabs, and things will get easier with a more reasonable schedule. The Celtics will need him when the games matter most, however. Hayward is an incredibly important factor in whether or not Boston can hit its ceiling as a ball-swinging, drive-and-kick nightmare to defend.
The Celtics are good without Hayward, but they’re special with him. His absence has made that much clear.