The 2018-19 season made clear that getting back to the court wasn’t the same for Gordon Hayward as making some semblance of a return to the player he once was before his horrific ankle injury. He needed a full year to rehab his body and another to rediscover his game and the Celtics acquiesced to further the individual, sometimes at the expense of a team already in chaos.
Hayward was never likely to return to All-Star form. Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Celtics made sure he didn’t need to. Boston had come to belong to Jayson Tatum, with Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown next in line. In the first season completely absent of any lingering issues, Hayward simply needed to find a way to fit alongside the unofficial Big Three.
“He’s going to shock the world this year,” Enes Kanter said of his former teammate in Utah before the season started. “I trust him and I believe he’s going to do some amazing things, on and off the court.”
Brad Stevens was quick to lend a helping hand, making Hayward the full-time starter after doing so just 18 times last season. It was a genius move that relieved the pressure of commanding the second unit with the ability for Hayward to play off his more talented teammates.
The start to the season couldn’t have looked better. Boston won six straight after losing the opener. Hayward was averaging north of 20 points a night, including 39 against the Cavaliers in the arena that altered his career forever. He was explosive and free flowing, finding his niche as a multi-faceted point forward.
Then came the injury bug once again, this time down in San Antonio. Hayward fractured his left hand against the Spurs, suddenly halting the vibes of a feel-good comeback season. He would miss 13 straight before a brief three-game return came on the heels of a shorter three-game absence.
Hayward’s latest return would last a lot longer. He’d miss only three games the rest of the way in the regular season — excluding a meaningless final game against Washington.
Once the NBA moved down to Disney, Hayward was expected to eventually leave the bubble to be present for the birth of his fourth child. Until that moment came, he did his best to leave on a high note, especially in the seeding games, averaging 18.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.
The playoffs offered Hayward the opportunities that led him to the Celtics as a free agent in 2017 as Boston hoped to make a lengthy playoff run. However, it didn’t last long for Hayward after he stepped on the foot of Daniel Theis late in Game 1 against Philly, rolling the other ankle and leaving him out indefinitely.
By the time he came back to the court, Boston had managed to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but found itself down 0-2 to the Miami Heat.
Hayward’s ability to break down a defense with a drive-and-kick game was viewed as a much-needed salve against Miami’s zone effort that had flummoxed the Celtics’ offense to that point.
For someone coming off an injury that kept him out over a month, Hayward was not one to ease back into action, crossing the 30-minute threshold in three of the next four games. Ultimately, his presence wasn’t enough to fend off a hellacious Heat effort that eliminated Boston in six games.
“He really wanted to help our team,” Danny Ainge said in an interview after the season with 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich. “But you could tell that he was not the player that he had been most of the year. He had a terrific season.”
Even as he’s put together a tremendous career resurgence, it’s grown difficult for some to move past Hayward’s $32.7 million salary. There’s a knowledge of the circumstances under which that sizable figure was agreed upon, yet there are those who still can’t stomach a team’s fourth-leading scorer earning more than Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. They want superstar money to go to superstar players.
Such were valid feelings two seasons ago when Hayward couldn’t find his way. Less so this past year when his production subtly placed him in very special company.
Hayward was one of just 13 players to average north of 17 points, six rebounds and four assists per game during the regular season. That list includes eleven 2020 All-Stars and an All-Star caliber big man in Karl-Anthony Towns. Hayward was one of five among them to shoot above 50.0 percent from the field. The other four were big men.
He was Boston’s fourth-leading scorer, yes, but on the only team with three 20-point scorers. His net rating was second among Celtic starters behind only Jayson Tatum. For whatever it’s worth, Hayward also purposely missed the birth of his first son to give the Celtics their best shot at a championship.
His Celtics career has been plagued by injuries. The 2019-20 season was no different with 20 missed games during the regular season and another 12 in the playoffs. But the majority of Hayward’s time missed has been more about the worst of luck that puts the wrong body part in the wrong place at the wrong time than a body betraying itself.
There will come a time for Boston to truly show how much they value Hayward when he hits free agency, which will likely come in 2021 given the $34.1 million player option available to Hayward for next season.
There was a time when that pending day seemed like an obvious point for Boston to cut ties on a pairing trending in the wrong direction. Now? Hayward is finally fitting in, one of the league’s better spot-up shooters — 42.5 percent on 2.9 3-point catch-and-shoot per game — who runs Stevens’ offense and fits into Boston’s switchable defense.
He has come to provide a complimentary piece no other team can boast, and the Celtics title hopes are better because of it.