[OPINION] Why the Boston Celtics shouldn’t rush to bring back Gordon Hayward this season
MANILA, Philippines – The Boston Celtics have been one of the NBA’s most resilient teams. Led by newly-acquired superstar Kyrie Irving, Beantown has shot out like a cannon to an Eastern Conference-best 23-5 (82.1%) record. The Houston Rockets (20-4) are first in the league only because they have a higher winning percentage (83.3%) at four fewer games played.
After the first game of the season, however, this masterful run orchestrated by coaching prodigy Brad Stevens was completely inconceivable. Almost two months ago, the league got its first major headline after its other newly-acquired superstar Gordon Hayward snapped his left leg very early into the first quarter of their very first game. Immediately, the storyline of what would have been a heated matchup between Irving and former teammate LeBron James died down in a horrible silence.
In the gaping hole suddenly left in their starting lineup, Boston was forced to fill in 2016 3rd overall pick Jayson Tatum as Hayward’s substitute, with 2015 3rd overall pick Jaylen Brown helping him out by his side. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as both Tatum and Brown meshed marvelously with Irving and star center Al Horford.
In 28 games played so far, Tatum has made a strong case for the NBA All-Rookie First Team with averages of 14.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game on a stellar 51% field goal percentage and 52% on 3-pointers. His 52% 3-PT percentage is first in the league (min. 40 3PTs made) and far ahead of his competitors like Klay Thompson (47%) and Steph Curry (38%).
Brown meanwhile, has been rolling as a permanent starter, averaging 14.7 points and 5.8 rebounds on 47% shooting and 39% from three. Last year as a rookie coming off the bench, he only averaged 6.6 points and 2.8 boards in 78 games.
With the Celitcs now firmly entrenched in the playoff picture and emerging as a serious Finals contender, reports have been popping up entertaining the prospect of Hayward returning deep into the postseason.
However, that may just create more problems rather than solving them.
For one, the Celtics are doing really fine without him. Aside from the obvious statistic of 23 wins in 28 games, they are also 1st in the league in Defensive Rating, 12th in Offensive Rating and 3rd in Player Impact Estimate (percentage showing how much of a positive or negative impact the players have on a game).
They run the 6th slowest offense in the league, a trait usually reserved for older and more mature teams like the San Antonio Spurs (2nd slowest in pace). In contrast, the three fastest (and youngest) teams in the league are the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets, who have a mediocre combined win-loss record of 39-53. Basically, the Celtics are one of the most mature and disciplined teams in the league despite being the 5th-youngest team with an average player age of 24.4 years old. In comparison, fellow Finals contenders Cleveland (30.1) and Golden State (27.9) are the league's oldest and 3rd-oldest teams, respectively.
Second and most importantly, Hayward would put himself at serious risk of aggravating his injury with a rushed return, especially in a heated series like the playoffs. With the level of advanced medical technology the league is employing and enjoying nowadays, team doctors have been more careful than ever in dealing with injuries. Young stars like Chicago’s Zach LaVine and Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker have seen extended absences after being advertised for on-court returns this year. Even completely healthy megastars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been given periodic full-game rests especially when playing against lower-ranked teams.
Aside from having to make major revisions to their mastered game plan and minutes distribution, Hayward would also need some time to get back into a groove and mesh with his new teammates, which in turn raises a whole new array of questions. Can Tatum effectively play power forward? Can Tatum, Brown or even Hayward himself excel off the bench in limited time? Can Irving’s deadly but ball-dominant style of offense endure a major reduction of ball-handling time? Can the team as a whole make adjustments on the fly in the most crucial period of the year while also considering that Hayward is not at full strength?
Playoff time is not practice time. A single loss at the highest level of competition can prove to be devastating and momentum-shifting. The best example of this would be the 2016 NBA Finals, where the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead and a 73-9 season after the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers slowly ate up their momentum at the last possible moments.
Like Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward is one of the franchise’s most prized pieces in building a potential young dynasty of Finals contenders. The Boston Celtics, led by Brad Stevens and General Manager Danny Ainge, are masters of long-term planning. Acquiring Tatum and Brown as consecutive top-three picks despite still being a playoff contender is the best product of this years-long scale of management. In this perspective, one complete season of rest for Hayward is way more valuable than a two-week trial period.
The 18th banner may not come this season, but it’s for the best, and Boston knows all about being the best. – Rappler.com