So many things went wrong last year for the Celtics that it was hard to keep track. Between the chemistry issues, confusion with roles, and general inconsistencies across the board, it is easy to overlook the fact that Gordon Hayward’s return to form took a lot longer than expected. In fact, after he missed a full season and struggled for much of the next one, Hayward has largely been forgotten by most.
Irving and Horford are gone, Kemba Walker and the rookies are in, and most expect Tatum and Brown to take the next step forward. But what about Hayward? Where does he fit in? According to one Celtics coach, he very much has a role to play (as told to Keith Smith).
Celtics coach on Hayward: “Look, the kids are the key. We need Jayson (Tatum) and Jaylen (Brown) to be our dogs. They need to be [great]. We know Kemba (Walker) is gonna be great. Our bigs are all skilled in different ways. But, Gordon is going to be the dude who unlocks everything. He’s so skilled in all facets of the game. I saw him before we left to come here and he was kicking everyone’s [butt] in the gym. He wants to prove he’s still that dude.”
To me, that’s the key with Hayward. He doesn’t have to be the main event to utilize his talents. The focus can be on Kemba and “the kids” but Hayward can pick up some of that high-level glue guy role vacated by Al Horford.
A Celtics exec added that “Brad (Stevens) has some cool wrinkles on how Hayward will be used this year on both ends of the floor.” I would expect that to mean Gordon utilizing his playmaking abilities that made him an All-Star in Utah. They are going to need someone like that if they are going to push Tatum and Brown into leading roles.
I don’t want to re-hash last year any more than I have to, but at a macro level Hayward was a bit like the stock market. Lots of ups-and-downs on a day-to-day basis, but generally (and slowly) trending upward through the year. By the last month he was looking like a very solid and helpful rotation player (despite the team’s varied issues). Even in the playoffs he was very solid in the Pacers series but not so much in the Bucks series.
With a full year removed from his 2nd surgery on that leg he’s reportedly looking good in workouts. With a full off-season focused on getting back in the groove, there’s hope that he’ll look a lot more like Old G next year. Call it wishful thinking, but it beats writing him off and forgetting what he could mean to this team.
I have a humble request for the beat reporters. Please don’t ask him if he feels like “he’s back” after every good game he has. When he’s back it will be evident when he’s consistently performing in the good-to-great range. That may not always show up in the stat lines because there are still plenty of mouths to feed on this roster. But you’ll know.
Good Gordon will be spotted when he’s driving into the lane with aggressiveness, drawing fouls, and kicking out to open shooters. There are many elements to his jack-of-all-trades game that could get unlocked with roles more clearly defined.
I have no way of confirming this, but my theory is that Hayward might have been one of the most negatively impacted by players on last year’s team improvising or breaking off from the game plan. He knows where he’s supposed to be in Brad’s system (which has various check downs and variable options) but when teammates are doing their own thing, he’s left without a clearly defined role in the play. With Kemba Walker running the show and roles more clearly defined, you might see Hayward enter into more of his comfort zone.
As next season begins, Gordon will be 2 years removed from his injury with a full off-season to prepare for the year. There’s reason to believe that he’ll be a good deal better and more consistent that he was last season. I don’t know if he’ll ever reach the levels that he did in Utah, but this team won’t need him to be the focus that those teams did anyway.
Hayward has an opportunity to make people remember him again and that could mean all the difference in the world to the Celtics.