It’s not getting any easier for Gordon Hayward. His “hot again, cold again” form is showing no sign of improving anytime soon. His display against the Bucks on Thursday night is perplexing as it is disappointing. It was both passive and poor, night and day compared to his game against Detroit just one night earlier.
Hayward is at his best when he’s probing the defense with the ball in his hands or making hard cuts to the hoop off-ball. He is not a spot-up shooter, nor is he a 3&D wing who should be expected to sit the corner and wait to be spoon fed opportunities. Hayward is a playmaker capable of finding his own shot or creating for others. He can orchestrate the offense in a plethora of ways while making the right play ninety percent of the time.
Shockingly, against the Bucks, he didn’t play a role that remotely accentuated his strengths. Instead, he found himself in the corners or being a second option for the ball handler coming off a pick. This isn’t the first time Hayward has been nullified and on recent evidence, it won’t be the last either. This may be by design or by Hayward’s perceived passiveness. Either way, something needs to change if Hayward is to produce his best basketball.
A common theme surrounding the Celtics roster is that there are too many touches to go around. This same theme plagued the team last year, too. Currently, there is Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum in the starting lineup who demand as many if not more touches than Hayward. With Kemba as the primary ball handler, the other three must operate off ball and get to work once the rock finds its way too them. While that’s fine for Tatum and Brown who can both operate as catch and shoot scorers or slashers, it doesn’t fit well with Hayward’s primary skill set and the poor fit is becoming increasingly obvious.
He really should have drove on both of the above plays, forcing the defense to react and making his decision accordingly. Instead he opts to shoot from deep with time left on the clock for a play to be run. On other nights, he is a steadying force on the roster, taking his time on plays such as these.
Perhaps it’s time for a change.
The Celtics bench lacks a scoring punch outside of Smart and Brad Wanamaker who can both be streaky. The rest of the second unit is made up of rookies along with Semi Ojeleye and Enes Kanter. Not exactly a bench that will strike fear into you, is it? While Brad Stevens does his best to stagger the starters minutes to ensure the second unit always contains a scoring outlet, the team’s offensive potency does drop off.
This change could be moving Hayward to the bench and having him run the second unit as a point-forward. Being the number one option on that second unit would force Hayward into playing more aggressively whilst allowing him to have the ball in his hands to make a bigger impact. This would place less emphasis on Wanamaker to run the point, allowing him to move off-ball into scoring positions whilst also providing Enes Kanter a better passer to facilitate his work on the low block.
Inevitably this change would see a bench player move into the starting lineup. The two obvious options are either Marcus Smart or Grant Williams. A case can be made for either of these two players; both bring a high IQ and defense to the starting unit, however, they both alter the look of starting unit in different ways.
Marcus Smart has been present in the starting lineup for his fair share of the teams slow starts this month, but his presence on the floor at the start of games should be a positive as it allows him to guard the other team’s best player from opening tip. His defensive ability is what defines him as a player but his growth as a shooter is seeing him command more touches than in previous years.
NBA Stats shows that Smart is actually commanding more touches than Hayward for this season, with Smart touching the ball 54.2 times per game compared to his 46.6 touches last year and Hayward is getting 53.5 touches per game. So moving Smart into the starting lineup does not solve the conundrum of “too many touches to go around,” which negates the impact of running Hayward off the bench.
This leads us to Grant Williams who is only getting 19.3 touches per game and wouldn’t take shots away from three primary scorers in that starting unit. Williams would enable there to be a clear hierarchy at the start of games, he and Theis would operate as facilitators for the team’s more offensively gifted guard and wings, setting pins and running the teams pick-and-roll offense.
Defensively it would provide the team with a willing body capable of handling the physicality down low, and it would also strengthen the second unit by having Hayward and Smart anchoring the team on that end of the floor to ensure no easy points are allowed against opposing teams when the starters sit.
Moving Hayward to the bench is an experiment which could or could not work, but there is a case to be made in how it helped turn Jaylen Brown’s season around last year. After struggling in the opening stages of the season, Brown was moved to a bench role which once he embraced it, he began to play some excellent stretches of basketball and ultimately found himself back among the starters. He finished the year as one of the only players able to walk out of that ill-fated Bucks series with his head held high.
As Brenden Nunes noted on the most recent episode of the CelticsBlog Podcast, there are ways to have Hayward run that point-forward and not come off the bench. But with the All-Star break approaching, the prototypical time frame for rotation experimentation is drawing to a close. Given the amount Brad Stevens likes to experiment with his lineup’s this could be a change to provide more balance across both units.
It remains to be seen if a change is to be made, or if Hayward can produce the type of performance he has flashed against teams like Detroit more consistently. But now is the time to have one last round of experiments, Hayward off the bench might be one of those.