NBA free agency breakdown: How Gordon Hayward changes the Boston Celtics
An All-Star, but where does Hayward fit Boston's offense and defense? Where does he fall short?
The Boston Celtics landed the best available free agent Tuesday when Gordon Hayward agreed to a four-year, $128 million max contract. Club president Danny Ainge landed a signature deal and perhaps made up for misses on significant trades.
Hayward is an All-Star and a franchise-enhancing player -- though not a superstar. He's versatile and efficient offensively, and a top-notch defender. He's coachable -- with the added benefit of playing for his college coach, Brad Stevens -- and low maintenance. Pursuing him was an easy decision.
Here's a deeper look at Hayward's addition actually means for the Celtics.
SportsLine: A mixed bag
The data say Hayward makes the Celtics better. But does he make considerable impact? Remember, the Celtics were the East's No. 1 seed and reached the conference finals last season. While Hayward improves the projected win total next season, they actually drop to the No. 2 seed and his addition barely boosts Boston's chances for an 18th NBA title.
|Boston Celtics||Wins||Win %||Playoffs||East seed||NBA title odds|
These projections assume the Cavaliers will actually play for the regular season in 2017-18, which is dubious given how little they seem to care about basketball before the playoffs approach. So there's a good chance that with 55 wins, the Celtics repeat as the No. 1 seed in the East. While the difference between 52 and 55 projected victories is significant, it's not necessarily the difference between contender and favorite.
Let's dig into what happens on the court.
Offense: Play-making is key
What happens off the ball is surprising because Hayward is not an upgrade over Jae Crowder. Crowder had a 53.3 effective field goal percentage on jump shots last season, via Synergy Sports, while Hayward shot 49.2 percent. Crowder and Hayward each shot 56 percent in catch-and-shoot situations. Hayward is a great cutter, in the 85th percentile, but Crowder is better -- in the 95th. Their profile is similar in those situations.
But Hayward is great at getting his own shot, and that decidedly is not Crowder's game. Should Crowder stay with Boston, he'll be great as a stretch four. When it comes to creating his own offense, Hayward's numbers are elite -- in the 87th percentile, at 0.981 points per possession. He shoots 49 percent in effective field goal percentage and draws free throws 14 percent of the time.
Hayward's athleticism is underrated and he's able to keep his dribble alive under closing pressure on drives. Combine that with his comfort in the pick and roll and he's able to take a variety of angles to the rim.
Hayward also can finish through contact:
The Celtics were surprisingly weak in transition last season (25th in transition offense points per possession via Synergy, shooting only 50 percent), largely because of their small back court. Teams targeted 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas and especially 6-2 Avery Bradley as targets in the post. Pinning them closer to the basket on defense often prevented them from finishing on the break. That created transition opportunities for players like Crowder, who isn't mobile or skilled enough to improvise with the ball. So Boston wound up settling for a lot of jumpers on the break. Hayward improves their top-end speed and the ability to freelance in transition:
Hayward is a key addition for Thomas. The Celtics struggled in the playoffs when teams focused defensively on IT4. Hayward gives them a secondary play-maker who will free up Thomas. While not dynamic, Hayward is a good play-maker who sees the court well (Hayward averaged 3.5 assists last season, Crowder only 1.4). He'll find offense on his own and will create more opportunities.
Defense: More value, versatility
Hayward helps in very specific areas at the other end. His numbers guarding the pick and roll are good, and that's an area where Boston was 16th last season. They were 22nd in isolation, and Gordon was in the 54th percentile, so he will help in both categories.
Last season, the Celtics struggled against screens on and off the ball. Bradley is slippery and aggressive, but he's small and can be pinned and struggles to get back to contest guys who rise and fire. Thomas is a nonfactor and Crowder struggled with navigating multiple screens, often winding up a step late -- though he was excellent in the playoffs in this area.
Hayward is big enough to be able to shrug off screens and still contest, and he can stay tethered to ball-handlers coming off screens.
However, Hayward's numbers might drop a bit. His Utah pick-and-roll numbers were impacted by Rudy Gobert, one of the league's best defensive players and rim protectors, in the paint behind Hayward. Al Horford is not that kind of presence and often was attacked by guards coming off picks, though he did improve as the season progressed. Hayward will help the Celtics with his length and mobility, but if they can't protect the paint -- a well-chronicled weakness in Boston -- there still will be trouble.
In the playoffs, the Celtics faced smaller and smaller lineups. Against four-guard lineups, Hayward can play next to Thomas, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, giving the Celtics three great perimeter defenders -- and Thomas. But it will be easier to hide Thomas with Hayward on the floor. Hayward enables lineup flexibility, a major factor in today's NBA.
The Celtics clearly got a win with a secondary play-maker who can open the floor for their talented roster and a player who makes the defense more versatile (though rebounding and rim protection remain a problem). The Celtics will be better, maybe even great. But they also right now stack up short of elite.
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