Free Agency Preview – Gordon Hayward (Player Option)

By Matt Esposito

And you thought that this nation was divided over politics? Well, guess what: The real division lies within Celtics Nation, where C’s faithful argue over Gordon Hayward’s future with the team. Soon enough we will know whether or not he opted into his contract; one that was scheduled to be worth $34 million but could be worth much less due to the impact COVID-19 had on the league’s finances.

Some may chalk these Hayward rumors up to the due diligence of his agent, Mark Bartelstein. After all, the man’s job is to quite literally get his client the most money possible. This could be a clever play to pressure Danny Ainge into re-signing Hayward for a hefty amount of cash. Would Ainge really let Hayward leave for a team like Atlanta without getting anything in return? Very un-Danny like if you ask me.

I lied. That would be super Danny like. Recently, Ainge has let both Al Horford and Kyrie Irving walk in free agency despite rumors of their departures popping up while they were still tradeable. If Hayward feels he’s trapped in a role he’s overqualified for, he could follow Irving and Horford out the door. Should he leave, there should be no shortage of suitors; every team in the league is in the market for a player with Hayward’s skillset.

Underrated Scorer

Last season, Hayward scored 20 or more points in 21 of his 52 played games. I spent the last week watching John King break down election results, so I’m a math guy now. In other words, Hayward scored 20 or more points 40 percent of the time. Considering he shuffles between being a third and fourth option and owns the lowest usage rate between Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, that’s pretty impressive. 

Hayward is one of the most efficient forwards in the NBA. Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass (future employer? *cough cough*) gives us useful tools for understanding Hayward’s scoring prowess. The chart below shows his shot accuracy from different spots on the court. The seasons included span from his pre-injury days in Utah to his most recent season in Boston.

Although it took him a year to find his range again, Hayward actually improved his efficiency in many areas. Forced to adapt to his post-injury athletic limitations , Hayward found ways to develop his midrange game (more on this later). He is a magician at snaking pick-and-rolls into pull-up jumpers. Ask the Timberwolves; they’ll tell ya.

Bet you didn’t think he had this up his sleeve either?

Hayward’s knack for scoring despite a relatively low usage rate (for a star player, that is) makes him a perfect fit for Boston. As Tatum and Brown both expand their games, the offense will more frequently run through them more. That Kemba guy isn’t going anywhere either. The Celtics need a low-usage, high-efficiency scorer who can defer to younger, better players. Hayward does that and more.

Facilitator

Gordon’s playmaking contributions cannot be understated. Cleaning the Glass measures out the willingness of a player to pass into an assist (assist-to-usage ratio); of the Celtics’ core playmakers (Tatum, Brown, Smart and Kemba), Hayward had the best percentage. In fact, it wasn’t even really close; Kemba and Jaylen both finished this season below the 10th percentile for their respective positions. Tatum landed in the 42nd percentile and Smart, who has never dropped below the 92nd percentile, fell to the 73rd.

Hayward’s deference is critical to this team’s success. It is the reason we haven’t heard any takes about chefs and kitchens and whatnot. Perhaps embracing this role made sense to Gordon. It is difficult to find your rhythm after a major injury comeback, and distributing could be the best way to help your squad. Whatever the reason, Hayward showcased his playmaking skills all year long.

Athletic Limitations

Another reason Hayward may have opted out of shots could be due to his physical limitations. You don’t need to watch him for long before realizing Hayward lacks the pop he once had. Defensively, he is able to cope by being a smart, hard-nosed competitor. Offensively, however, this often leads to hesitation, passivity and blocked shots.

Prior to his injury, Hayward consistently placed in the upper half for his position for how frequently he took shots at the rim. Last year, Hayward dropped to the 32nd percentile, passing his previous career low by over 20 percentage points. That’s a big drop—like, a Peyton Manning-not-being-to-throw-20-yards-anymore drop off. Watch how Hayward hesitates before jumpers or fails to execute at the rim:

It looks like he no longer trusts his explosiveness. There are moments when he pauses instead of lifting for a dunk. Other times, he battles among the trees, gets stuffed, and then looks around for a foul call. To be blunt, it is sad to watch. It’s always tough to watch a star come to grips with their waning athleticism, especially when it is due to catastrophic injury and not age. What sucks even more? Hayward will likely never recover any of the bounce he once had.

Fits & Potential Contract

Hayward is stuck between a rock and hard place. In honor of the beloved Nickelodeon character’s cartoon home, we call this the Patrick Star Dilemma. (Ok, maybe we don’t, but I want it to stick.) Nonetheless, Hayward has two choices this offseason. If he finds himself tired of the passive, playmaking role he has in Boston, Hayward can look for a higher usage situation. Teams with cap space like Atlanta and Phoenix can both give that to Gordon. Plus, those teams want to make the postseason, and although it will be tough to crack, Hayward can help them move toward that goal.

Ultimately, however, those clubs will likely fall short of reaching Hayward’s postseason desires. Opting in or re-signing with Boston gives him the best chance at making the Finals. There is a catch, though. Pretend Hayward signs a reasonable four-year, $80 million deal. That contract could be combined with picks and young assets like Romeo Langford or Grant Williams to land an upgrade for Boston. Considering what we know about Ainge, it is fair for Hayward to question just how stable a long-term home in Boston would be.

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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