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Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens Have Unfinished Business

The Butler duo are reunited, and along with Boston’s mixture of veteran talent and young prospects, they hope to make the Celtics a contender for years to come. Now comes the hard part.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Gordon Hayward is on his way to Boston, but it was quite a bumpy landing. In one of the more awkward free-agent announcements in the post-Decision era, complete with false alarms, conspiracy theories, and conflicting news-breaking tweets coming one after another, Hayward decided to leave Utah for the Celtics, agreeing to a $128 million deal over four years, with a player option in the fourth year. The Celtics are now positioned to have their cake and eat it too; they’re loaded to contend in the Eastern Conference, in the short term, while holding on to their young players and draft-pick assets to build for the future. The lure of heading East to join forces with former coach Brad Stevens must’ve been too hard for Hayward to pass up.

With Hayward, the Celtics could possibly push themselves ahead of Cleveland this year, though the Cavs should still be favorites. If LeBron leaves Cleveland next summer, which league sources increasingly expect him to, then the Celtics would be positioned to dominate the East for years to come. They could conceivably get multiple title chances before Milwaukee and Philadelphia are ready for that stage, and even then Boston could be a favorite due to its young-talent pipeline.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said July 1 that Hayward was studying "style of play, cap space, young assets." Hayward obviously has familiarity with how his old college coach likes to play, Boston will have no cap space next summer, but the team has appealing young players like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and European imports Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele on the way. For all the jokes lobbed in their direction, the Celtics still have one of the most enviable situations in the league.

The Stevens connection cannot be underestimated. Hayward lost a lot by leaving the Jazz. But if you want to talk about building a lasting legacy, it’d be a remarkable chapter of his story to win a title with the coach who discovered him, who first planted the seed in his mind that he could become an NBA player. And you know damn well this moment still weighs heavily on their minds:

Hayward and Stevens have "occasionally" dined when the Celtics and Jazz have met in the past, according to the Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett. While Hayward has grown close with Jazz coach Quin Snyder, he and Stevens have known each other since Hayward was a teenager. Without Stevens, there’s no chance this deal gets done for Boston.

Forget the sentimental stuff. Hayward is headed to Boston for basketball reasons. ESPN’s Chris Forsberg reported that the Celtics would spend nearly their entire meeting Sunday focusing on strictly basketball, how Hayward would fit on the roster, and what his role would look like. Hayward will make an immediate impact defensively, solving one of Boston’s pressing issues last season with inexperienced in-between defenders. As much of a piranha as Avery Bradley is, he’s too undersized to defend larger players. You need a bigger guy on the perimeter if you’re going to have Isaiah out there on defense, and Hayward is one of the most underrated perimeter defenders in the game.

The Celtics needed a second go-to scoring presence to complement Isaiah Thomas, who was blanketed by defenders during the playoffs and is recovering from a hip injury. Hayward will help ease the load on Thomas, giving the team a more dynamic attack in end-of-clock situations. Hayward is one of the NBA’s most well-rounded scorers. Per Synergy, he ranked in at least the 80th percentile in the following play types: pick-and-roll, spot-up, off-screen, transition, and cuts. Stevens can feature him in myriad ways, much like he was used in Utah.

Stevens preaches crisp ball movement, with side-to-side passing meant to get the defense off-balance. Hayward is known for his scoring, but he’s always been a player who likes to move the ball and make plays for his teammates. Snyder’s offense in Utah highlighted Hayward’s passing prowess, but Hayward will now play in an offense that works at a lightning-quick pace, at least compared with what he’s used to:

Utah has ranked last in pace over the past three years during Snyder’s tenure, while the Celtics regularly find themselves in the top half of the NBA. Stevens often has the rebounder motor the ball up the court to initiate the offense, rather than find the primary playmaker, Thomas, which means Hayward will have many more transition scoring chances. Last season Hayward scored a near-league-best 1.4 points per possession on the break, per Synergy, but logged only 150 possessions. With Boston, you can expect his transition frequency to skyrocket.

In the half court, Hayward’s role probably won’t change significantly from what it was in Utah. The Celtics run a motion offense, though at a faster tempo, so Hayward will get touches, move the ball, and space the floor.

This free-agency decision was anything but up-tempo. This was a fascinating saga, for both basketball and Basketball Twitter reasons. On July Fourth, Hayward’s Indecision became the most entertaining and chaotic free-agency story since DeAndre Jordan’s emoji-fueled Dallas–Los Angeles about-face in 2015. He was leaving Utah and going to Boston, then he wasn’t, and finally he made up his mind.

The Celtics are the big winners here, even if they had bigger dreams of pairing Gordon with another All-NBA-level talent like Paul George, Blake Griffin, or even Jimmy Butler. Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck has always said they needed two stars, and they got only one. There’s a chance Tatum or Brown develops into that other star, but that won’t happen anytime soon. Boston is still a tier below Cleveland, and it’s a few notches below the Warriors.

Adding Hayward doesn’t get the Celtics to the level they want to be, but it gets them closer. They needed this if they had any hopes of contending in the short term, since their cap space would be absorbed next summer by some combination of Thomas, Bradley, and Marcus Smart. With Hayward locked up, they might need to move off Bradley or Smart or Jae Crowder, in addition to renouncing the rights to other pending free agents.

Boston has a logjam at forward, which is by design. The Celtics have championship aspirations, and as we’ve seen in the past three postseasons, to beat the Warriors, you need to match their level of versatility. Brown and Tatum might not get the heavy minutes typically seen by top-three picks, but they can develop into their roles as complementary players off the bench. The appeal for the Celtics is, while they won’t be favorites in 2017–18, as Brown and Tatum progress on their rookie-scale contracts, they’ll have a deep roster that can switch positions defensively and attack with a wide range of players on the floor. The Celtics can surround Thomas and Al Horford with forwards, or put two bigs on the floor and supersize their offense by running it through Hayward. Stevens has the personnel to adapt to different types of opponents.

The Celtics aren’t true contenders yet, and now it’s on Danny Ainge to continue pulling the right strings moving forward. The NBA is a high-stakes game, and Ainge is still holding a lot of chips. The decisions he makes moving forward will be a huge factor in determining whether Hayward’s reunion with Stevens will finish the fairy tale they began at Butler.