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Gordon Hayward and the Paul George roadmap to recovery

To finish the final leg of his recovery race, Gordon Hayward and the Celtics may need to take cues from Paul George.

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Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

By early March, Gordon Hayward was tired.

But the Boston Celtics were cooking. After a well-fêted flight to California, they went 3-1 on a trip through the Western Conference. Hayward looked solid. He went super efficient from the field against Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. He hit a game-winner to take down the frisky Sacramento Kings.

Gordon Hayward looked physically fit, but he was mentally drained. An inconsistent season was eating away at him. And the binary narrative—Is he finally back? Yes or no?—was taking its toll.

“The most frustrating part is that I’m constantly being asked if I’m ‘back.’ Back to what? Because the situation is completely different now,” Hayward told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan.

“Even if I was fully healthy, there would be nights, production-wise, where the numbers just aren’t going to be there,” Hayward said. “Somebody gets hot or I’m not shooting well, and we go in a different direction, and that’s how it’s going to be. And that’s never happened to me before.

“When it does happen, it’s like, ‘oh, physically he’s not there yet.’ In my mind, I’m saying, ‘no, no, I’m fine. The opportunities just weren’t there.’”

It’s clear now, after two straight weeks of Brad Stevens’ and Wyc Grousbeck’s mea culpas, Terry Rozier’s all-too-candid thoughts, and a season of head-spinning quotes from Kyrie Irving, that Hayward wasn’t the only one struggling with inconsistency. The whole team was. Whether it was Irving’s existential wandering, a logjam of talent eating away at touches, or just a bad overall fit, the 2018-2019 Boston Celtics never found their rhythm, and it very likely slowed Hayward’s return to form.

Toxic team environments are kryptonite for grit, resilience, and consistency—all hallmarks of Brad Stevens’s Celtics until this season. And all three of those qualities are crucial for any player trying to get back into gear after suffering a brutal injury just after entering the prime of their career.

Now think about what this environment might’ve done to a player trying to show the Boston Celtics, their fans, and the entire NBA that he’s worth his $32 million.

“I try not to judge my performance based on if I’m shooting the ball well or not, but I think I’ve been aggressive in each of the games (on this trip),” Hayward told The Athletic that same first week in March.

Well, in order prove his worth to himself, his team, and the rest of the NBA, maybe Hayward should’ve been seeing more of the ball.

When Hayward did have big games this season, he was crazy efficient. Recall his 21 points on 9-for-9 shooting on the road against the Indiana Pacers in Round One. Think back to both of his electric performances against Karl Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

When Hayward took over, the Celtics looked good and they won basketball games.

Athletes like Hayward need to perform at their peak without thinking about their body movements and control—imagine the noxious properties of a fear of re-injury mixing with the pernicious qualities of a mentally weak team. It’s not much a logical leap to imagine the resulting elements slowing Hayward down.

It’s also not much of a jump to compare Hayward’s path to Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George. Hayward and George play the same position and both are lauded for their offensive versatility and defensive prowess. And in his second season in OKC, George broached both the Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year conversations.

Though George’s ceiling is higher, it’s instructive to look at a comparison of each player’s previous two seasons.

First, compare George’s 2017-2018 season with Hayward’s 2016-2017 season in Utah, the one that earned him a spot in the All-Star Game and later, the max contract with the Celtics. Both players were offensive focal points in the Western Conference, and the numbers are strikingly similar. Both averaged 21.9 points, although Hayward was slightly more efficient shooting the ball. Three point percentage, assists, rebounds, steals and minutes-played are all with in a few points of each other.

Paul George vs. Gordon Hayward Player Comparison

2017-18 27 OKC 79 36.6 7.3 17 0.43 3.1 7.7 0.401 0.521 4.3 5.2 0.822 5.7 3.3 2 0.5 2.7 2.9 21.9
2018-19 28 OKC 77 36.9 9.2 21 0.438 3.8 9.8 0.386 0.529 5.9 7 0.839 8.2 4.1 2.2 0.4 2.7 2.8 28
2016-17 26 UTA 73 34.5 7.5 15.8 0.471 2 5.1 0.398 0.536 5 5.9 0.844 5.4 3.5 1 0.3 1.9 1.6 21.9
2018-19 28 BOS 72 25.9 4.1 8.8 0.466 1.1 3.2 0.333 0.527 2.2 2.6 0.834 4.5 3.4 0.9 0.3 1.5 1.4 11.5

Now look at 2018-2019 for both players. George trended upward in all the categories that matter, while Hayward played fewer games, had many fewer starts, and shot way, way less. But Hayward’s efficiency was still high—his eFG% barely fell off after a year of no basketball, down just a percentage point this season to 52.7% from 53.6% in his All-Start season. Another observation from early March from the Athletic’s Jay King:

Quietly, the wing’s efficiency has been rising for months. His shooting percentages have climbed from 37.0 percent in December, to 46.5 percent in January, 51.3 percent in February and now 62.8 percent through the first five games of March.

Hayward’s accuracy from three-point range took a dip, but consider that he took more threes this season relative to his total field goal attempts than he did in his best season in Utah. Meanwhile, George’s usage rate climbed to 29.5% this past season, while Hayward’s sunk to 14.4%. When Hayward turned in his All-Star season in Utah, his usage was 27.2%.

Getting Hayward the ball next season isn’t the only offensive adjustment the Celtics should consider, but it should take on some relative importance. Hayward finished this past season showing renewed confidence getting to the rim, while showing a wide range of playmaking abilities all season long. Out of the pick-and-roll, his pocket passes were well timed and he hit skip and hook passes to corner shooters with ease.

Particularly against Indiana late in the season, Hayward found his groove. As Boston fought for home court, Hayward offered a taste of what more touches could look like. He went 9/9 from the field for 21 points. By the middle of the series, the Pacers had been hurt by Hayward drives enough that passes like this were easy money.

There’s no telling exactly what Hayward’s usage rate should be in order for him to continue to improve, but if we’re using George’s recovery as a benchmark, Boston needs to consider more touches for their All-Star forward. It’s not like Hayward’s shot fell apart in the aforementioned big games—to the contrary, it improved. Some of Hayward’s worst offensive nights were when he appeared to fade into the background, finding a corner and staying out of the way of the action.

I’m eating a pie full of crow for my far-too-early and incorrect take that Hayward didn’t need to be a scorer for the Celtics to succeed. At least for now, as Boston careens toward free agency, perhaps cues from George’s success can inform how the Celtics look to develop Hayward.

Even so, the traumatic nature of Hayward’s injury will still have ripple effects. The memories of that night in Cleveland, the loneliness of recovery, and the pure physical challenge of returning to form—even a year and a half removed, there may still be rough road ahead. George reflected openly on his own injury, after sharing some words of support with Hayward earlier this season.

“When I got hurt, the doctors told me it would be two to three years before I feel the way I feel now,” George said. “Despite them saying I would make a full recovery, sit the next season out, make a full recovery and I would be back to myself, but it won’t be two or three years before I notice everything coming back. So it’s a long marathon for him. But he will be all right.”

It may feel more like an ultramarathon after this season, but Hayward’s signs of renewed offensive aggressiveness against Indiana were encouraging. Maybe he’s more than halfway through this slog.

And perhaps, in order to bring him through the last stretch, Boston must commit to supporting their versatile, max-contract forward with more responsibility, more trust, and more consistency. If that happens, expect Hayward’s own internal drive to keep pace.

If the Celtics can’t rebuild a supportive team culture, Hayward may continue to stumble.

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