Gordon Hayward returned from a lost season to the Celtics’ lineup, and rather than sparking a new golden age for the team, Hayward has instead struggled mightily as Boston has limped to a disappointing 11-10 start, their point differential so far this season projecting them as a lackluster 48-win team despite the second-best defense in the league.
Then again, the man at the center of this entire discussion is a guy who used to toil for a team that can’t crack 50 wins despite being one of the league’s best defensive teams.
But the Jazz play in the West. Except for the Raptors, Bucks, Sixers, and in-the-eyes-of-their-delightfully-over-optimistic-fan Pacers, who is Boston playing? The East is a Dumpster fire. Put LeBron on the Knicks and they go 55-27.
The point here is that Hayward, rather than being the genesis of a superteam alongside Kyrie Irving and featuring Al Horford in the Kevin Love/Chris Bosh role, has looked nothing at all like the superstar he once was.
The clearest comparison you’d think of right away would be Paul George, who missed all but six games of the 2014-15 season with a gruesome leg injury, but PG13 shot broadly in line with his career averages when he came back, and he was an All-Star the year he came back.
The Pacers won 45 games that year…speaking of great defensive teams (Indiana was third in Defensive Rating) who can’t score a lick, the 2016 Pacers belong on that list too. And they didn’t have Irving or Horford. They had Ian Mahinmi, Monta Ellis, and three guys named Hill.
It’s been 21 games. It’s time to start making some early speculation as to whether Hayward’s injury has permanently stripped him of his status as a star player, or if it’s just Boston’s bigger problem of massively underperforming as a whole team.
The Counting Stats
Hayward is averaging 10.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists in 26.7 minutes a game. His shooting splits, at 40 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three, are the worst of his career, and they’d be worst by a mile were it not for a weird 2013-14 season when Hayward forgot how to shoot and had 41.3/30.4 splits. For his career, he’s at 44.3 and 36.5 from the field and three, respectively.
Per 36 minutes, his 13.5 points is the worst since his rookie season.
On the bright side, those per-minute numbers on his rebounding and assists are career highs, so he’s making an impact in the box score, just not the one you want to see from a guy who makes $31.2 million this year and scored 21.9 a game his last year in Utah.
Speaking of silver linings, his 85 percent free throw shooting is a career high, and if you’re one of those types who sees free throws as a bellwether for someone putting in the work, that’s encouraging.
Or it would be, if Hayward didn’t look like he was afraid of contact, his attempts per 36 minutes down by more than half from 6.1 to 2.8.
And don’t tell me it’s Brad Stevens’ system. He’s Gordon Freaking Hayward. You build for your star to get the touches, and Kyrie Irving isn’t putting up a 40 percent usage rate. Hayward’s usage, 18.3, is the lowest since his sophomore season.
The biggest difference between Jazz Hayward and Celtics Hayward is that most of the shots Hayward takes that were long twos in Utah have become threes in Boston.
To wit, his last year in Utah, 18.1 of his shots were long twos beyond 16 feet; 32.4 were threes.
In Boston, those numbers are 10.6 and 42.4, respectively.
Downside? His three-point percentage is down from 39.8 to 29.2. That’s a problem.
As for those long twos, they’ve improved from 37.8 to 38.9, in case you wonder why basketball players shouldn’t shoot long twos. But I digress.
Hayward’s finishing at the rim is DOA as well; he’s dropped from making 69.2 percent of his shots from three feet and in all the way down to 55.9.
And then you look at the giant elephant in the room: Hayward has a negative On/Off split for his Net Rating, by 1.6 points per 100.
Then again, Marcus Morris, ostensibly Hayward’s backup when the C’s play him at the 4, has a -4.0 on/off split, so part of the problem is that Boston lives and dies by Jayson Tatum (yes, seriously; Tatum’s +7.6 Net Rating split is the best on the team. Tatum’s not eligible for this feature until next year, but let’s just say calm yourselves, Celtics fans, you’ve got a great one there.)
Let’s just tie everything with a neat little bow and throw the Big 5 advanced stats in there.
Hayward’s True Shooting is .509, worst of his career. His PER, 13.8, is worst since his rookie season.
And his WS/48 (.110), BPM (0.9), and VORP (0.4, or about 1.5 prorated for a full season) fall broadly in line with his early years in Utah, when he looked every bit of a good-but-not-great NBA player before his breakout season in 2014-15.
Hayward is 28. Not old…but not young either.
Put simply, Hayward’s best-case scenario is that he turns into Paul George, a guy who, after working out the bugs from a long layoff (and on a putrid Pacers team he carried to the playoffs by himself), has become an honest-to-gods second superstar and possibly the best player on the Thunder depending on how you feel about Russell Westbrook.
Hayward, meanwhile, looks to have regressed to the player he was in 2013.
I’m not going to say Hayward sucks. There will be time enough for that if it’s April, the Celtics are facing the possibility of opening the playoffs on the road, and Hayward is still averaging 10 points a game and shooting like he’s Westbrook out there.
But you don’t get a Confirmed out of me with numbers like that, no sir.
Plausible it is…but if I were a Celtics fan I’d be freaking out right now that Hayward’s floor is “he got hurt and he was never the same.”
NEXT WEEK: Klay Thompson. Warriors fans are going to kill me.