In a now somewhat infamous photo from last season's media day, the starting lineup for the Boston Celtics stood five across, arms folded at their chests as they stared into the camera. "The Celtics are back!" the NBA's Twitter account proclaimed.
The excitement was not unfounded. After falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the All-Star duo was healthy for opening night, and the Celtics were the favorites to come out of the East.
That didn't even come close to happening for all sorts of reasons, which have been discussed at length over the past 11 months. Chief among them was Hayward's play. Not only did he spend last summer recovering from his catastrophic broken leg injury, but also a second surgery to remove hardware in his ankle that was causing discomfort. Though he was cleared to play by training camp, it was obvious that Hayward wasn't done with his recovery. He didn't have the same level of athleticism and was inconsistent for much of the season before picking things up down the stretch. But he disappeared again in the second round of the playoffs, along with most of the team, as they lost four straight and were eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks in five games.
Now, Irving is gone. and so too are Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier and Aron Baynes. Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter are in, along with a promising group of rookies. This season for the Celtics will be different, but they should be competitive and less volatile. They might even be better in the regular season.
After winning 49 games, their early 2019-20 win total projection is 49.5, via Westgate. SportsLine has them at 46.4 wins. Some of the optimism is geared toward the expected culture reset with Irving out of the locker room, some is about the addition of Walker and some is about the expected growth of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. But if the Celtics really want to improve on last season's disappointment and make some noise in the East, they'll need Hayward to return to All-Star form.
Though equipped with a player option for 2020-21, a strong bounce-back season could give Hayward the chance to opt-out next summer and sign a long-term deal into his mid-30s, either with the Celtics or elsewhere. It's almost shocking how weak next year's free-agent class is, and if Hayward proves he's back to his old self, he will be one of the best players on the market should he choose to enter it.
At the same time, Hayward returning to form would be vital to a team that lost three of its top four scorers from last season, as well as their two leading assist men. A former 20-point-per-game scorer and strong playmaker, Hayward is well-positioned to help fill both of those voids. But will he? And to what extent? That is the $127 million question.
Ahead of next season, let's take a closer look at a few key aspects of Hayward's game.
Hayward never flew around like Russell Westbrook, but he was an explosive athlete before his injury. Of all the issues that contributed to Hayward's poor play last season, his lack of consistent burst was the most obvious. An easy way to visualize this is to watch his dunk attempts from 2016-17, his last season with the Jazz, compared to the first few months of the 2018-19 season.
Dunks with the Jazz in 2017:
Dunks in October and November of last season:
As the season went on, it was clear Hayward was starting to improve across the board in terms of athleticism; the spring in his step was back. Just look at how he was attacking the rim in March and April.
Unencumbered by any injuries this summer, Hayward has had a full offseason to not only work on his game, but also continue to get stronger and more comfortable on the floor. This is one area where there should be no concern anymore.
The Celtics lost over 45 points per game of offensive production from their rotation. But most importantly, in Irving they lost one of the best one-on-one scorers in the league, and a trusted source of offense when things broke down -- at least until the second round of the playoffs.
Walker will take on much of that burden, and figures to often have the ball in his hands at the end of games. But as good as he is, he isn't quite on Irving's level and is still a small point guard. Even accounting for offensive production from Kanter and expected improvement from Tatum and Brown, the Celtics will need Hayward to step up. Aside from Walker, he's the only other player on the roster with proven experience being a team's go-to scorer; the Celtics will need him to tap back into that aspect of his game.
More defined roles should help everyone on the Celtics, but Hayward in particular. At times last season, it felt like Brad Stevens was pushing him along, forcing Hayward back into the action even as he struggled on the court. There were some reports that players were bothered by what they perceived as special treatment for Hayward, who has a longtime relationship with Stevens, and that may have been yet another factor in the team's dysfunction. In truth, that angle seems a bit overblown, as Hayward was pulled from the starting lineup by November. His poor play was more damaging to the Celtics than any potential locker room issue.
In any case, Hayward moved from the starting lineup to the bench after 18 games and averaged just under 26 minutes and 11.5 points on nine shots a night. This season, he should start every game he plays, and increases to somewhere around 30 to 32 minutes and 12 to 14 shots per game seem reasonable.
It will be interesting to see how he fares with that increased responsibility, as well as facing better, stronger and quicker defenders with most of his minutes coming among the starters. There are some positive indicators, though, that Hayward can handle it.
For the first four months of 2018-19, his shooting splits were 42.2/32.0/84.4 on field goals, 3-pointers and free throws, but over the last 25 games, when Hayward's athleticism started to return and he looked more comfortable, they jumped to 55.5/37.3/82.1.
The shooting is great, of course, but perhaps the best sign for the Celtics was how Hayward looked driving to the rim. In his last 25 games, Hayward converted 67 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, and 64.9 percent of his shots in the paint (non-restricted area) compared to 62 percent and 45.3 percent, respectively, earlier in the season.
During that final 25 game stretch he also increased his free throw attempts to 3.1 per game, up from just 2.3 per game. The Celtics were notorious for not getting to the free throw line last season, finishing 29th in the league with 19.5 attempts per game. Throughout his career Hayward has been adept at getting to the line, and this is the area where he could be most impactful.
Last season the Celtics averaged 26.3 assists, which was fifth in the league, and 62.4 percent of their field goals were assisted. While much will be made about the scoring they lost in the summer, they're also now without two of their best passers in Irving and Horford.
While it's easy to pencil in Walker making up for much of Irving's playmaking, replacing what Horford brought in that department will be much more difficult. That's where Hayward comes in.
He grew into a solid ball-handler and playmaker in Utah and showed flashes of those skills running the Celtics' second unit. It would seem wise for Stevens to put Hayward in that same position at times this season, letting him operate as the main offensive creator. But even when Hayward is playing with the starting unit, it never hurts to have another playmaker on the floor.
Hayward makes smart decisions in the pick-and-roll and had the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career last season at 2.32. An interesting look would be putting Hayward at the small-ball four and surrounding him with a rim-running big man and three shooters. Similar lineups last season were successful for the Celtics, even with Hayward not at his best.
Aside from the quickly scrapped original starting lineup, the next most-used lineup involving Hayward had him playing the four with Terry Rozier, Tatum, Brown and Daniel Theis. In 87 minutes, that group posted a net-rating of plus-22.8.
Hayward should be much more of a threat on drive-and-kick opportunities. Two main reasons he struggled last season were, 1) he didn't have the quickness to beat his man and get into the lane and, 2) he wasn't shooting the ball well from the outside. That's obviously a bad combination, and made it relatively easy for defenders to guard him. Neither was as much of an issue down the stretch, however, and if that trend holds it will not only make him more of a scoring threat, but a passing one as well.
It would be shocking if Hayward were not stronger, healthier and more reliable in 2019-20. In addition, he should have a more prominent and more defined role in the offensive system.
The big question for the Celtics is how much he'll improve. If he takes small, incremental steps, the Celtics will be fighting for home-court advantage in the first round. If Hayward takes a leap to something close to his All-Star form, however, the Celtics could be back after all.