The Eastern Conference frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year was smokin’ hot. Gordon Hayward started the season with 25 points (against the Sixers). He had 21 points against the Bucks, 20 points at Charlotte, and a I’m back 39 points at Cleveland. At Charlotte, Hayward had his highest +/- of the season so far, +20.
It has felt like a lifetime since Hayward agreed to a max contract and Celtic fans were pouring the champagne. It was not long after that tears filled buckets.
Year one was injury rehab. Year two was trying to recover, getting preferential treatment from Brad Stevens, and the young kids in the locker room whose minutes Hayward was taking without him earning it, were in a funk. Year three was a healthy Hayward, toxicity in the locker room elsewhere, and basketball was good again. But the carousel keeps turning.
Hayward had barely enough time to take his breath before he broke his hand in San Antonio. He had nine shots under his belt and 14 minutes.
The break will keep him out the lineup for months. It’s devastating for Hayward and the Celtics. (He may need surgery.) The Celtics don’t have skilled scorers who are 6-7 and have experience and can drop 40 on a given night. To quote the late Chick Hearn: Hayward was as cool as the other side of the pillow.
The Celtics have the best record in the East. Will that be true when Hayward returns sometime in 2020? The pressure, for the most part, is on Jaylen Brown who was in a perpetual bad mood when Stevens overplayed Hayward last year, as Hayward was still struggling to make it back to form. Brown’s point was that Hayward wasn’t a superstar and hadn’t earned the right to have his starting place handed back to him just because. Hayward should have been judged by his ability and then if he was better than Brown, he should have started.
Now Brown is on the clock to be a consistent scorer. And Brad Stevens (once again) has to fill the crack with glue, otherwise known as Marcus Smart, and hope it doesn’t break again.
As for Hayward. His past is his prologue. He was overlooked in the 2010 draft. Drafted ahead of him were Wesley Johnson, Ekpe Udoh, Greg Monroe and Al-Farouq Aminu. In Utah, they didn’t think enough of him to give him a max extension on his rookie deal and Hayward was bitter about it. He relished free agency and leaving Utah. But you know, be careful what you ask for.
Boston has been an injury nightmare that continues to wrap Hayward in some bad voodoo juice. He was in Utah for 7 years. His last two years in Salt Lake validated his max deal. 20 points and 21 points (2015-17). He was an All-Star. Hayward’s last year in Utah, his PER was 22.2. This year, a healthy Hayward has a PER of 22.5 and his offensive rating is 120. His defensive rating is a career best 103.
Athletes sustain injuries and so no one is really feeling sorry for Hayward except Celtic fan. It’s not overthinking things to say Hayward seems like he is on the Derrick Rose track. One injury here. Another injury there. It is death by paper cuts. It plagues the mind.
Broken hands heal. Hayward will return. But to what? If the Celtics maintain their excellence without Hayward, slot Brown at the three and insert Marcus Smart at the two, he then has to earn back what he lost. The chemistry has already been cemented. But if the Celtics fall way into the pack in the swollen mediocrity of the east because of a weak bench, Hayward is their savior and the pressure is enormous. But it’s been that kind of career for Gordon Hayward.
Two steps forward. One step back.