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Forward thinking: the importance of Gordon Hayward

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Gordon Hayward is Boston’s most versatile player. The latest roster shakeup is the perfect opportunity for him to return to All-Star form.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Sacramento Kings Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The idea of positionless basketball does not absolve the Celtics of needing to fill certain roles. There might not be many traditional fours in the league, but you won’t be splitting hairs over what defines a position when Giannis Antetokounmpo barrels down the lane or when Al Horford calmly directs traffic on the elbow. The challenge of guarding some of the East’s front court forwards comes with another layer: maintaining some balance on offense. If the Celtics bring in their biggest bodies to match up on defense, how does that affect the spacing on offense? There isn’t a clear answer.

Looking at past lineups

Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis played a total of four possessions together last year, per Cleaning the Glass. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; even with expanded range, the spacing with these two on the floor isn’t great. Ultimately, we don’t know how these lineups work because they never get used, and that’s probably for the better. If that’s the case, who did they turn to? Here are some numbers I dug up:

The Celtics played 705 possessions with Marcus Morris at power forward and Theis at center, with Gordon Hayward at small forward for 356 of those possessions. This shows a pretty clear preference to me that the Celtics will sacrifice size far more willingly than spacing, which could make things awkward for this year’s rotation of rim-running centers (Robert Williams, Vincent Poirier, Tacko Fall (potentially) and work-in-progress forwards (Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams).

It might also suggest that Boston was starved for options last year, and had no choice but to mix and match their forwards and hope for the best. Brad Stevens had to get creative after moving Hayward to the bench, and Morris was a natural fit to replace him. Morris played 12 total possessions at small forward last season compared to 4,220 at power forward, which slightly contradicts the idea that Boston’s roster was flush with versatility. Hayward, on the other hand, played 2,746 possessions as a small forward, 528 at shooting guard, and 510 at power forward. So you know what I’m thinking? Hayward’s defense is a pretty big deal next season.

Utilizing Hayward at the 4

I still can’t figure out what Boston’s starting lineup should be, but there are two players that I think need to be in there for this roster to work. The first is Kemba Walker for obvious reasons. The second is Hayward, which makes me nervous because it’ll be a while until I get to see if he can become Utah Hayward again. There are obviously other players worthy of starting spots, and Tatum is the only guy I can safely assume will get one, but Hayward and Walker are the two that are absolutely necessary in finding a five-man lineup that’s reliable. Remember when we had those? Full lineups we could trust?

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Hayward’s playmaking is second to his defense in my mind, but there’s a positive trend here to show that Stevens can make the most of him as a facilitator. In 2016-17, his last season with the Jazz, Hayward totaled 252 assists in 73 games played, logging 2,516 minutes. Hayward played 72 games last year, in which he played 1,863 minutes, and still tallied 244 assists on the year. This doesn’t meet the standards of his best passing seasons, but it’s very close to where he was at when he left Utah.

More importantly, I think the Celtics defense is extremely dependent on how Hayward fares, especially against other power forwards. The Al Horford/Joel Embiid combo is intimidating, as is any combination of Marc Gasol/Serge Ibaka/Pascal Siakam. The Pistons snuck into the playoffs last year with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin as their most prominent players and the Magic (3-0 vs Boston last year) will be back in the mix with an army of forwards. Using Hayward to defend a mix of guards and forwards will a balancing act, as last year’s numbers would indicate.

Hayward’s best offensive numbers came as a shooting guard, where he played 13% of his minutes. The Celtics were scoring 124 points per 100 possessions (+12.7 rating), which puts Hayward in the 98th percentile of shooting guards in a moderate sample size. Boston’s effective field goal percentage (55.6%), turnover rate (11.6%), and free throw rate (25.9%) made them an exceptional team (90th percentile and above in each category) with Hayward as a shooting guard. Boston’s defense was much worse with Hayward at the two, which is hardly concerning given how good the offense was. Still the Celtics gave up 111 points per 100 possessions, a 54.1 eFG%, a 20.5 FT rate, and forced turnovers on 12.9% of all possessions, all of which are below average ratings. Again, giving up 111 points isn’t a huge deal if you’re scoring 124, but let’s not pretend that 111 isn’t far too many, especially for a defensive-minded team.

Everything flipped when Hayward played at the four, which accounted for 14% of his minutes last season. The Celtics scored 111 points per 100 possessions on 50.3 eFG%, with a free throw rate of 20.8 (anything around 20 is pretty average). On defense, Boston gave up 106.8 points and forced 16.8 turnovers per 100 possessions (94th percentile).

And at small forward, which accounts for 73% of Hayward’s minutes, all of these numbers leveled out somewhere in the middle (except for securing offensive rebounds, which the Celtics were bad at no matter what).

Conclusions

Even without stats in front of me, I’d say Hayward is one of Boston’s most flexible defenders. But, going through Cleaning the Glass’ data on positional stats uncovers some interesting trends-like how nobody else on the Celtics had their workload spread out like Hayward’s-most everyone adhered to one main position while playing 10% of their minutes or less in a secondary role. I’d expect this to be true going into next season as well, as none of the new players are known as multi-positional all-stars, although I could see Grant Williams drifting between the three, four, and even the small-ball five.

We might not know the depth chart at center yet, but here’s the thing: we know we have centers. Several, in fact. What we really don’t know is who to pair them with, with very few “true” power forwards on the team, if any. There are plenty of front court players I like on the team, but it’s hard to find a duo that makes sense against an Embiid/Horford-type match up. As I said before, I don’t see the Celtics giving up spacing in favor of adding size. Hayward’s going to have to body up on some big dudes, which evidently takes a toll on his offense. It’ll be interesting to see how Boston molds their lineups around Hayward, or if they even build around him at all. I think Hayward as a secondary playmaker would bring the best out of Kemba in a pick-and-pop game, and his spacing allows the Celtics to play their rim runners without stifling the offense. Ultimately, we won’t have answers to a lot of our lineup-related questions until preseason starts.