Many Celtics fans have been pleased with the improvement of their supremely talented squad over the past couple weeks. After a mediocre start to the season that left them with a 10-10 record after 20 games, we saw the Celtics rattle off 8 wins in a row before dropping the second of a back to back on Saturday night to the Pistons.
While the win streak is over, it has still left much to be optimistic about and has enabled their fans to relax and understand that they actually are “figuring it out.”
A lot of things have improved with this team since that win streak started, the ball movement has been much better, shots were finally falling because of it. The team defense has gone back up to the level we have become accustomed to seeing out of a Brad Stevens coached team.
Gone is the team that was settling for contested mid-range shots and allowing easy drives to the hoop. Instead the extra pass is being made in order to get the next open basket and the ability to rotate and fill driving lanes has been stellar.
The Celtics seem to be back on track regarding their aspirations of being a contender to come out of the Eastern Conference this season.
But one lingering question remains regarding one of the players on this talented team.
Will Gordon Hayward return to the superstar player we thought he would be when he signed with Boston in the summer of 2017?
We all vividly remember the devastating injury that took place just minutes into the first game of last season. A gruesome scene that you would never wish upon even your most hated rival. Celtics fans have stood by their injured star in hopes he would return as healthy and productive as ever this season.
But after 25 games played this season the results have been less than stellar, with Hayward averaging 10.9 PPG along with 5.2 REB and 3.6 AST. Far from the All-Star player we saw in Utah during the 2016-17 season who averaged almost 22 PPG that season.
While he isn’t the only one that has struggled to fit into this Celtics’ offense, (Jayson Tatum also hasn’t taken the 2nd year leap many thought he would) you can tell something just isn’t all there yet.
A recent soundbite might give a little insight into where Hayward himself feels his progress in returning to that same All-Star caliber player is at.
(Via Boston Herald)
“As I get further into the season my ankle will get stronger and stronger, and then that will translate into confidence going to the rim, and challenging bigs and things like that,” said the Celtics forward. “I still think I’m not there yet on that front. I’ve made a lot of strides as far as my movement is concerned. But I’m still not fully confident as far as challenging bigs at the rim, going for alley-oops and stuff, and getting as high as I’m capable of.” – Gordon Hayward
While the statement itself is encouraging overall, it does bring some cause for concern. It leads you to believe that there is still a way to go before Hayward will be back to his former self, if ever.
With it being just about 2 months into the NBA season, it’s not a comforting feeling to hear a player say he still hasn’t felt like himself out there. It leads you to believe Hayward may either be behind schedule in his long-term recovery process, or possibly that this feeling of confidence to take the ball to the rack against NBA talent that he spoke of, just isn’t there anymore.
If we look back to another NBA superstar that had a devastating injury in the same realm of Hayward in Paul George, we can draw some comparisons.
In 2013-14 the last full season before his injury, Paul George averaged a 21.9 PPG, 6.8 REB and 3.5 AST. He was widely thought to be entering the pantheon of top 5 NBA talents amongst the likes of Lebron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden.
He missed all but the final 8 games of 2014-15 and in his first full season back in 2015-16 his scoring output did go up to 23.1 PPG, but it was clear that he was no longer in that same elite level that he had been pre-injury. He was more like a top 20 maybe top 15 talent. Still a great player, but just not the explosive highlight reel player we had come to expect.
If you apply that same logic to Hayward who was maybe a top 20 player before the injury, you can see how the hopes of him making the same sort of impact in Boston that he did in Utah might be wishful thinking at this point. It’s possible that Hayward’s new ceiling could end up being just a decent but average player in the league.
It would obviously be a shame if that were the case and I would be hesitant at this point to proclaim that Hayward will never be the same player. Time will tell us the answer to that question.
Truthfully, it’s unfair to state that his injury and George’s were exactly the same. They weren’t. George’s leg suffered a compound fracture, Hayward suffered a dislocated left ankle along with a fractured tibia.
Also, Hayward has had a much more complicated recovery with additional surgeries needed to remove screws in his ankle as recently as last May.
Given that fact, it may be true that Hayward is still a few months away from feeling and playing like his old self. But the quote above would make you wonder just how confident he even is, that things will ever be the same.
It’s something to consider especially since the Celtics have committed 4 years and $127 million into a player who at this point, has been more of a role player than an NBA superstar that would garner that type of contract.
In no way should any of this blame be put on Hayward. His injury was a freak accident that could have happened to anyone. You can tell it has taken and emotional toll on him and it has been inspiring to see him even be back on the NBA floor.
He has even shown glimpses of performing at that type of level again, with a recent 30 point, 9 rebound and 8 assist performance while coming off the bench against the Minnesota T-Wolves. It was encouraging to say the least, but is that the Hayward we should get used to seeing again? Or was that more of the anomaly than the norm?
With the Celtics in the midst of swirling trade talks that have them firmly in the discussion to land Anthony Davis as soon as this upcoming summer, the health and ability of Hayward to fully rebound may become a huge factor into the long-term thought process of Celtics GM Danny Ainge.
If Hayward does not become that same player once again, he certainly will be nearly impossible to trade with his current contract. It could make one Anthony Davis concerned about how talented this Celtics roster actually would be once they trade a plethora of young talent and assets to the Pelicans in return for him. A package that could include both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Would a core of Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and a now less than stellar Gordon Hayward be enough to win championships? With the surrounding talent they would still have it’s a possibility, but not very likely.
It certainly puts a lot of things into perspective for this Celtics team for right now and the future.
The bottom line is, the Celtics need Gordon Hayward to return to that same All-Star talent, not just for this season but to ensure a future that would have them competing for NBA championships year after year.
“Trader” Danny Ainge is no fool. If by this spring there isn’t serious inclinations that Hayward is on his way to returning to that once athletic playmaker we saw on the Utah Jazz, it could throw a serious wrench into the future plans of this Celtics team. A situation that could lead Ainge to make some tough decisions to ensure that his mighty collection of talent and assets doesn’t go to waste without NBA titles to show for them.