In case you forgot, the Boston Celtics had an impressive season in which they locked up the East’s No. 1 seed and then won two playoff rounds. This all happened before they got absolutely decimated1 by LeBron James and the Cavs during the conference finals.
Two things became pretty clear in the aftermath of that beatdown. First, Boston obviously needed a second star to lessen the burden on its undersized leading scorer, Isaiah Thomas.2 And secondly, even if the Celtics managed to land that player, it still might not be enough to get past the Cavs in 2018. After all, Cleveland held a lead of 16 points or more in 46 percent of the minutes played in their lopsided series.
Boston has to feel good about successfully addressing the first issue. Gordon Hayward, the All-Star forward who was departing the Utah Jazz as a free agent, confirmed on Tuesday night that he was joining the Celtics, which makes them a bit more formidable at a time when the Cavs have their own organizational challenges in front of them.
FiveThirtyEight: Is Gordon Hayward worth it?
Judging by national TV ratings, it’s safe to assume that a large swath of casual NBA fans haven’t seen much of Hayward and don’t know what makes him special. And yet his statistical production3 and the sheer level of attention his decision generated — though confusion over whether he was having a change of heart on Tuesday certainly ratcheted up the media frenzy — may lead some to expect that he’ll become the team’s No. 1 option, or that the offense will run through him. But neither development seems likely, barring Brad Stevens — Hayward’s college coach at Butler — making big alterations to Boston’s playbook.
Hayward is one of the more organic scorers in the NBA and doesn’t need to dominate the ball to make an impact. His 27.6 percent usage rate was one of the lowest among players who managed 20 points per game last season. And despite being Utah’s primary option, his usage didn’t increase much in clutch situations (28 percent). This pattern is much different from that of Thomas, whose usage skyrocketed to 46 percent in the clutch from 34 percent in general.
Hayward gets his offense in other ways. He excels in transition (only Jimmy Butler outscored Hayward’s 1.38 points per transition play, per Synergy Sports4) and figures to have more fast-break opportunities as a Celtic because Boston plays at a much faster pace than Utah, which has finished dead last in tempo each of the past three seasons.
The 27-year-old also gets to the line frequently. Hayward, like many other NBA guards, has nearly perfected the art of drawing fouls as a jump shooter (he drew calls 19 percent of the time when the defender tried to go over his screen in pick-and-rolls, which is the NBA’s 11th-highest mark, according to Synergy5). He’s gotten far better at finishing through contact, not only shooting 69 percent at the rim, but also finishing the season with more and-1s6 than shots rejected. To give that context, consider that only three other wing players showed a similar ability to hit and-1s more than they got blocked, per Basketball-Reference.com: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron.7
That’s part of the reason that Hayward figures to fit so well with Boston. He can comfortably play off the ball — per Synergy, he draws shooting fouls almost 23 percent of the time when he cuts to the basket, and he’s a solid spot-up shooter — and the Celtics assist each other at a much higher rate than the Jazz did last season. Boston currently designs many of their sets around Thomas’s quickness — they use handoffs more than any other team because he excels at them — and there’s nothing about Hayward that suggests that will change.
If there’s a clear downside in all this for Boston, it’s that the club still has to make room under the salary cap for Hayward and his max contract, and that means shedding players. In addition to unloading Kelly Olynyk, there’s a very good chance the Celtics will have to trade solid, defense-minded guard Marcus Smart. Presumably they hope to trade in some of their assets — whether it’s sophomore Jaylen Brown, future picks, or both — for yet another star to put alongside Hayward, Thomas and Al Horford, who signed in free agency last summer.
Hayward is best known for what he does on the offensive side of the ball, but he’s no slouch on defense. He held his own for the Jazz, who had one of league’s best defenses last season and, like the Celtics, used versatile, wing-heavy lineups that could switch their defensive assignments at will. To some extent, that strategy8 is the one Boston will have to use on the Cavaliers — both to contain James and to get out to Cleveland’s stable of perimeter shooters.
As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted, the Hayward signing itself may not yield more regular-season wins right off the bat. Last season’s team collected 53 wins, which is five more than the Celtics’ point differential suggested they should have finished with.
But at this point, regular-season win totals and playoff seedings aren’t the target anymore; the Cavs are. And as long as the Hayward acquisition makes them a more legitimate threat to Cleveland, this pickup can only be viewed as a considerable success.