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Unfulfilled Promise: The tragic drama of Gordon Hayward’s Celtics tenure

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After three drama-filled seasons, Hayward’s time in Boston has come to an end

Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Three years ago, today, on November 22, 2017, the Boston Celtics saw a 16-game winning streak snapped, as they fell to the Heat by a score of 104-98 in Miami.

That 16-game run was the Celtics first taste of success without Gordon Hayward. That’s something they’ll need to find again, as Hayward has agreed to sign with the Charlotte Hornets. That agreement ends Hayward’s tumultuous and tragic time in Boston.

In many ways, Hayward’s Celtics era never really got started. Five minutes and fifteen seconds into opening night of the 2017-18 season, everything changed for Hayward and Boston. He went up for an alley-oop, got hit in mid-air and broke his leg upon an awkward fall.

We didn’t know it then, in the moment, but that injury set a course through choppy waters for the next three seasons.

Utah Jazz Vs. Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Hayward era didn’t even really begin that night in Cleveland. That era began in the summer of 2013 when Brad Stevens was hired to coach the Celtics. There were immediate links between the young head coach out of Butler and his former star protégé. When Hayward was a free agent in the summer of 2014 there were rumors of Boston’s interest, but they didn’t have the cap space to make a serious run at Hayward.

Hayward would instead sign an offer sheet with, ironically, the Hornets. The Utah Jazz matched, but the stage was set. Instead of locking Hayward up for four or five years, the Jazz only had him for three years, followed by a player option for 2017-18 that Hayward would surely decline for unrestricted free agency.

That Hornets offer sheet set in motion three years of planning, scheming, wheeling and dealing for Boston. Every move was designed around creating, and maintaining, enough cap space to sign Hayward in the summer of 2017.

Perhaps we should have seen the drama coming with Hayward right from the start. Despite years of rumors linking Hayward to the Celtics and Stevens, his signing was no lock. As an unrestricted free agent for the first time, Hayward of course talked contract with Utah, but also took a visit to the Miami Heat. Miami laid out an All-Star presentation. Banners, Pat Riley and his rings, the whole kit and kaboodle.

When Hayward, and his wife Robyn, arrived in Boston, they were picked up by Brad Stevens in the family car. Outside of a trip to Fenway Park with Isaiah Thomas as lead recruiter, there was little fanfare. The pitch was simple: play for your former coach and compete for championships with the Celtics. Only the first part of that plan ever came to fruition, at least on Hayward’s end.

After Hayward left Boston, he gave Utah the final meeting. Then some of the silliest, most-unnecessary drama followed.

Late in the morning of July 4th, 2017, Chris Haynes, then of ESPN, tweeted that Hayward and the Celtics had agreed to terms on a contract. With minutes, Haynes’ ESPN teammate, Adrian Wojnarowski, tweeted that those reports were premature. Woj stated that Hayward’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, made clear no agreement was in place. Furthermore, Hayward would announce his decision on his own personal website later in the day. experienced a traffic surge that it will never see again as the basketball world repeatedly pressed refresh. The deluge caused the site to crash, and caused Hayward to change plans. He would now share his decision via The Player’s Tribune. A new site locked and loaded into our browsers and Twitter notifications on for Hayward, The Player’s Tribune and all major NBA news breakers, we waited.

The holiday wasted away as we frantically loaded and re-loaded pages and Twitter feeds. Five hours after the original report, Hayward’s “Thank you, Utah” article loaded and he was a Celtic.

Yet, Hayward’s introductory press conference was delayed for well over a month, as Boston almost became embroiled in another drama. The Celtics completed a trade for Kyrie Irving, after much back-and-forth due to the health of Isaiah Thomas, in late-August.

Once again, with the delayed introduction, maybe we should have seen the drama coming.

Yet, on that podium, on September 1st, 2017, it was hard to not be excited. Boston had Al Horford, exciting young players in second-year wing Jaylen Brown and rookie wing Jayson Tatum, and now they had the two All-Stars in Hayward and Irving. Sadly, Irving’s premonition of “It’s about to get crazy G” came true in ways no one ever expected.

You know how they say the President of the United States ages about 15 years during his time in office? It’s hard not to look back at the pictures of Irving and Hayward on that day and not be shocked at how young both of them look.

Boston Celtics Introduce New Players Kyrie Irving And Gordon Hayward Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

So much excitement. So much happiness. If only they knew how haggard they would look as their time in Boston came to an end, first for Irving in 2019 and then Hayward in 2020.

Irving never chose Boston. He said all the right things, but he never picked to come to the Celtics. Hayward did. Even if Irving left, which seemed a shocking idea at the time, Hayward would still be there. He was poised to be the next Paul Pierce, leading the Celtics to greatness at the forward position. Instead, it played out like once major free agent addition Xavier McDaniel’s time did two decades earlier: short and unfulfilling.

Opening night of 2017 was like Christmas morning for Celtics fans. Only, instead of spending months using that new gaming system, it was as if your dad pulled the plug after five minutes and said “You can play with it again next year”.

Hayward got hurt, Boston lost that game in Cleveland. The next night’s home opener began with a message from Hayward to the fans that he was sorry he wouldn’t be there, but couldn’t wait to play in Boston. Much like opening night, the Celtics fought hard, but dropped that game too.

It would be over a month before the Celtics lost again.

Tatum proved to be better and more capable of filling Hayward’s shoes than anyone ever could have thought possible during his rookie season. Irving and Horford played like All-Stars, Brown was growing into something special as a second-year player, Marcus Smart was doing Marcus Smart things and a deep bench of vets was led by Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes.

Even when Irving went down in mid-March due to a knee issue, the Celtics didn’t stop winning. That ragtag group went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Only a poor shooting night kept Boston from beating LeBron James and the Cavaliers and advancing to the NBA Finals.

2018 NBA Playoffs: Cleveland Cavaliers vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

All throughout that run, we breathlessly awaited updates on Hayward. Could he get back in time for the playoffs? Would he even be allowed to play? We watched videos of Hayward using his repaired left leg/foot to pick up marbles. We watched him run on the underwater treadmill and hoped he was being careful on the wet deck next to the pool. The Celtics teased us with snippets of Hayward running on the court, sparking rounds of conversations like “Does his gait look weird? No! He looks normal. Looks good even! Maybe he’ll be back soon.” And then finally videos of Hayward shooting, which led to “Is he jumping on that one shot? He is! He’s jumping a little bit!”

In the end, caution won out and Hayward didn’t return for those 2018 playoffs. In fact, he had a setback that necessitated a second surgery on his left leg. That cost him valuable offseason time, and was yet another time we maybe should have seen the drama coming.

But by the tip-off of the 2018-19 season, excitement was bubbling over. Hayward and Irving were back. Tatum and Brown were emerging as future All-Stars. Boston’s depth was overwhelming. Dreams of 70 wins and Banner 18 were dancing in Celtics fans’ heads. Oh how wrong we were.

Hayward would play in 72 games that season, but it never felt quite right. He was a starter early on, but was clearly rusty. Almost immediately whispers started that Stevens was showing Hayward preferential treatment. That he was forcing Hayward into the opening lineup. By late-November, Hayward was coming off the bench. In a lessened role, and still unsure of trusting his leg, it looked as if Boston was saddled with an albatross of a max contract.

There were flashes. Two games of 30 and 35 points in wins over Minnesota Timberwolves. The best one was when Hayward scored 30 points in Boston’s thrashing of the Warriors in Oakland, following the now-infamous “fixed everything” 2019 plane ride. Hayward also played well in the Celtics first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers. But they were always just flashes. He never found that consistent form.

Following Boston falling to the Milwaukee Bucks, it was clear Irving wasn’t long for Boston. Horford and Morris followed him out of town. Danny Ainge reacted swiftly and surprisingly and signed Kemba Walker to replace Irving. As the roster came together, it was clear the Celtics would rely on Hayward to play a big role moving forward.

Right from the jump, Hayward was a different player in 2019-20 than he had shown previously during his Boston tenure. He trusted his leg and played fearlessly. Over the season’s first eight games, Hayward averaged 18.9 points and helped lead the Celtics to a 7-1 record.

Unfortunately, in that eighth game, the injury bug struck again. Hayward got caught up in a screen from the San Antonio Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge and fractured his left hand. Unlike his previous injuries, Hayward would bounce back quicker than expected, returning after just a month. It was shortly thereafter that Hayward would miss a week with leg soreness, but he battled through and played in 52 of Boston’s shortened 72-game season.

As the season was ramping back up for the restart in the Disney bubble, we learned Hayward’s leg soreness was an almost constant thing. On occasion, it would get so bad that it would cause him to miss game time. In Hayward’s words: “It is what it is. I just have to manage it and probably will for the rest of my career.”

We also learned that Hayward would leave the Celtics during the restarted season to be with his family for the birth of his son. This was likely to happen at some point during the playoffs. While no rational person was against Hayward leaving, it never really came down to it.

Late in the Celtics Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, Hayward badly rolled his right ankle. Once again, Boston would soldier on without him. They swept Philadelphia and then went on to upset the Toronto Raptors in seven games.

During this period, Hayward and his family decided he’d return to the bubble when he was closer to playing. He’d sacrifice being there for the birth of his son to try and help the Celtics win a championship. Hayward did return to spark a Game 3 victory over the Miami Heat in the East Finals, but it wasn’t enough as Boston fell 4-2 in the series.

Following the bubble wrapping up in mid-October, it was a period of unease for the NBA. When would the next season start? How would the offseason work? In Boston the question was: What will Gordon Hayward do? Would he opt in or opt out for 2020-21?

As he did with his decision to join Boston in 2017, Hayward dragged his option decision out as long as he possibly could. The deadline was pushed back from before the 2020 NBA Draft until after it, and then Hayward took it almost right down to the wire. Ultimately, he chose to opt out of 34.2 million for 2020-21 and to become a free agent.

At first, it wasn’t a lock that Hayward was headed anywhere but Boston. And if he was, his hometown Pacers seemed to be tops on his list. Then the Hornets parachuted in with a massive offer of $120 million over four years. And, six years after trying to go there in the first place, Hayward is headed off to Charlotte.

Even with that decision made, the ever-present drama swirling around Hayward and the Celtics isn’t complete. As of this writing, Boston is trying to convince Charlotte to execute Hayward’s signing as a sign-and-trade transaction, so that Boston can recoup an asset in the form of a giant trade exception.

Gordon Hayward was linked to the Celtics as soon as Boston signed Brad Stevens. For years, Boston fans dreamed of him wearing green. Just as soon as he did, everything went sideways for Hayward and the Celtics. It’s no one’s fault really. No one could have predicted it would all come crashing down just five minutes into Hayward’s Celtics debut.

Hayward’s tale is less a tragic drama and more that of a black comedy. With the benefit of time, we’ll be able to look back at each of these morose milestones of Hayward’s time in Boston and we’ll shake our heads and laugh at the absurdity. Each time things seemed great they took a turn, and often a ridiculous turn at that.

Just like they did three years ago, Boston can win without Gordon Hayward. They’ve proven it time and time again. Now, without the lingering promise of Hayward returning, the Celtics can finally move on and put the drama of the past three seasons behind them.