The Celtics need big contributions from Gordon Hayward this season. That probably means having him come off the bench to steady a young second unit.
During his first eight years in Utah, Gordon Hayward slowly climbed the peak of NBA stardom. From the scrawny kid from Butler University, to bench dynamo, to the face of the Utah Jazz’ franchise following the departure of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, to 2016-17 All-Star.
In the 2017-18 offseason, he signed with the Boston Celtics on a four-year, $166 million contract. He became this sought-after commodity thanks to a deceiving presence. He was a con-man in ball-screens; a burglar cutting to the rim; and a daredevil in the lane. And, if anything, all signs pointed to Hayward continuing on the track to stardom, the complementary star on a loaded Celtics team.
But by 2018-19, Hayward’s skill set was largely negated by missed time and recovery from gruesome leg and ankle injury.
There was a variety of other igniters for the Celtics’ meltdown — including but not limited to Kyrie Irving’s destructive personality and Jayson Tatum’s archaic shooting profile — but Hayward’s downfall was chief among them. Over the season, he averaged 11.5 points, the lowest scoring total since his rookie year.
Taking Hayward’s statistics at face value, however, undersell his steady improvement. Each month, Hayward improved in notable categories — points, true shooting percentage, assist percentage. By April, Gordon Hayward averaged18.4 points on a 77 true shooting percentage. Sure, the last month of regular season basketball is never a reliable litmus test, but it’s worth noting Hayward’s sharpening form. Further, he looked better in the first round of the playoffs, averaging a team-high 20 points in the sweep of the Pacers.
While the improvement can be attributed to his mental and physical recovery, the catalyst was Hayward moving to the bench. Before, Hayward played power forward in the so-called “death lineup,” which had a 92.5 offensive rating and a 95.0 defensive rating.
In 54 of the remaining 57 games, Hayward came off the bench, where he primarily played small forward. During that time, he scored more and improved his efficiency, but most importantly, Hayward showcased his passing prowess.
He became the secondary distributor, a role similar to the one he played on the Utah Jazz. He improved his assist percentage from 17.1 to 19.3, closer to the 20.6 he posted through four years as a starter for Utah. Though he started off-ball in Boston’s spread and space offense — specifically the “chest series” — most actions had him flow into ball-screens and DHO’s.
In the pick and roll, Hayward used the tricks up his sleeve — a shifty in-and-out move and a slow-and-go hesitation — to create passing angles. Sometimes, he deftly completed pocket-passes. Other times, he leveraged the threat of his pull-up game to toss a lob.
On the receiving end of most of Hayward’s passes was Al Horford, now a member of the 76ers. Horford was ultra-versatile in the pick-and-roll. He not only rolled and popped, but also handled short-roll passing. Those skills helped Hayward escape trouble in the form of aggressive drops, hard hedges, double or triple-teams. In place of Horford are Enes Kanter, Daniel Theis, Vincent Poirier, and Robert Williams III. Without diving into the specifics, none of those players will replace Horford in any facet, let alone the pick-and-roll.
Absent Horford, the Celtics need to maximize Hayward’s passing ability. They need to put him in the right situation. Yes, he should come off the bench, but this matters when he is surrounded by the correct personnel: spot-up specialists.
Hayward has a symbiotic relationship with spot-up shooters. Most analysts laud elite shooters for their “relocation” ability and rightfully so — shooters read the moving parts (including the ball-handler, potential cutters or non-cutters, and help-side and on-ball defense). But rarely are passers beneficiaries of the term. Enter Gordon Hayward, elite relocation finder.
As a backup, Hayward has a defined role as a secondary creator. By and large, secondary creators succeed when handed a mix of on- and off-ball duties (how much of either specifically depends on the player’s specific strengths and weaknesses). And secondary creators go above and beyond when tethered to a primary creator. Hayward is what Nicolas Batum never ended up being for the Charlotte Hornets — a seamless fit with Kemba Walker. The former Hornets guard mixes Kyrie Irving’s pick-and-roll pizazz with Isaiah Thomas spot-up skill and he excels flaring off screens. Substitute Carsen Edwards for Walker and you see the makings of someone similar — an off-ball flamethrower built like a fire hydrant. If Tatum can retain his rookie season shooting profile, the Tatum-Hayward pairing will be useful too.
If Hayward plays the 4, former advantages are erased. He isn’t quicker (especially post-injury) and isn’t taller than most 4s. He’s a better wing passer than Brown or Tatum, but he isn’t Horford: he’s not a release valve in the post. And he’s not a small-ball 4, either; he’s not Draymond Green. He doesn’t match up well against the “tall skill-ball” lineups of today’s Eastern Conference giants: Giannis and Lopez, Horford and Embiid, Sabonis and Turner.
As a wing, he is a really good passer. He is capable of making skip-passes. Even when a tad misplaced, his skip passes enable the recipient to gain an extra step on the defense.
But he’s not advanced. He makes skip-passes but also misses some. Sometimes, he’s overly cautious: he takes an extra dribble or two. Sometimes, he gets tunnel vision because he over-relies on his trusty right-hand.
In the above clip, Hayward tricked the defense. He shot-faked the pull-up shot, which causes O.G. Anuoboby to bite. While Baynes deserves credit for running the floor and later sealing his defender, Hayward makes the play happen: he fakes the pass getting VanVleet out of proper help side position.
Because he’s so well-rounded, there are other ways to utilize Hayward. When healthy, he is capable of spotting-up, handling the ball, and driving to the cup. That lends to him playing next to other players, too.
Grant Williams? Brad Wanamaker? Romeo Langford? Jaylen Brown? There are a ton of unanswered questions in terms of who fits with whom. By coming off the bench he can get minutes next to Walker and help unlock his potential, but also spend plenty of time with the ball in his hands helping open the floor for the suddenly young bench.