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Gordon Hayward’s Injury Has Changed the Trajectory of the Celtics—and the League As a Whole

A joyous opening night turned into a nightmare in an instant, and Boston will have to figure out how to adjust on the fly to keep its hopes of Finals contention alive

Gordon Hayward Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA opening night is supposed to feel like a celebration. The epic pregame intro video played at Quicken Loans Arena set the tone for the start of Celtics-Cavs, and carried into the first few minutes of the game. Truly, those first few minutes were a joy. My notebook quickly filled up with enthusiasms: The Celtics are switching screens; LeBron James is blocking fools; Kyrie Irving used the Dirk fade on Derrick Rose. The NBA was back, baby.

Then, five minutes and 11 seconds into the first quarter, Gordon Hayward landed awkwardly on his left ankle, and before we could even appreciate half a quarter of basketball, the league was turned upside down. It was one of the ugliest injuries I’ve ever seen, bringing back memories of Kevin Ware’s injury in the 2013 Elite Eight. The Celtics later announced that Hayward suffered a fractured left ankle; head coach Brad Stevens told the media after the game that it was a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia. The odds are that he’ll miss the entire season. Don’t look up the video. This was the reaction at Quicken Loans Arena. It’s all you need to see.

The entire NBA community, from fans to players to teams, sent its best wishes and prayers to Hayward. Basketball suddenly didn’t seem all that important after the injury; the Cavaliers ended up winning 102-99, though the result of the game seemed to be the last thing on anyone's mind. The response to Hayward’s injury was very human; it was empathy for a player suffering a horrific, unnatural injury. It’s hard to witness someone’s hopes and expectations steamrolled by uncontrollable forces.

The basketball-related ramifications may have been secondary, but the game is also the lens through which we process the injury’s severity. It feels too soon to discuss the implications of Hayward’s injury, but it’s unusual, if not unprecedented, for a player just signed to a max contract to suffer such a significant injury. We really don’t know the extent of the damage, and may never get the full scoop. It won’t be clear until we see Hayward’s movement on the court upon his return, whenever that is.

In Hayward’s injury lies a paradoxical serendipity: New opportunities have arisen for Boston’s numerous young talents. Hayward’s absence will impact Kyrie Irving more than anyone else on the roster. For the Celtics to maintain their preseason standing as one of the front-runners in the Eastern Conference, Irving will need to become the transcendent superstar he aspires to be sooner than the Celtics originally thought they’d need him to be. Tuesday night was a solid start. Irving looked like a more advanced passer than he did for the majority of his career in Cleveland, assisting on 10 makes while turning the ball over just twice. Even though he’s just getting acclimated to Stevens’s motion-based offense, the Celtics ran surprisingly crisp sets.

It’s simple off-ball actions like this that helped turn Isaiah Thomas into an efficient, high-volume scoring monster last season. Irving is obviously one of the NBA’s most adroit offensive technicians, so it may only be a matter of time before he fully internalizes this new style. The Celtics will need him to. Without Hayward, Irving is now their only consistent high-level source of offense. If Irving gets fed the ball at a rate equal to or beyond what Thomas received, he could find himself in the MVP conversation. The narrative is suddenly there: Irving gets traded to a new team, Hayward suffers a seismically consequential injury on opening night, the Celtics still have a good season, and Irving puts up monster numbers. The odds of his winning MVP still wouldn’t be likely, but there is a chance. New opportunities will also be available for Boston’s young forwards and wings. We got a glimpse of what the rest of Boston’s season will look like on Tuesday. Second-year wing Jaylen Brown seemingly absorbed Hayward’s role, scoring 25 points on 23 shots. Brown might be only 20 years old, but he played with the poise and aggression of a veteran.

Brown opened his night with a ferocious dunk and maintained his momentum throughout. He was an aggressor in transition and in the half court, on both ends. Brown cut, slashed, and played hard on defense. Boston couldn’t have asked for much more. Brown is still too raw to carry a load like Hayward can. There are kinks in his jumper that must be ironed out (he shot 2-of-9 from 3) and he still needs to make significant progress for the Celtics to have any hope of reaching the Finals. Entering the year, Brown was expected to replace Jae Crowder; now he’ll be asked to replace Hayward. It might be too much, too soon.

The Celtics’ past two seasons have been more or less about development. But the team happened to win games far ahead of schedule. The 2017-18 season will be more of the same, though they could still make some noise in the playoffs. Brown won’t be the only young player seeing new opportunities, nor was he the only one who showed promise.

Jayson Tatum, drafted third in 2017, performed well in his debut, scoring 14 points while ripping down 10 rebounds. He was overhyped as a Rookie of the Year candidate prior to the season, but with an increased role, he ought to be considered one of the early favorites. Tatum is a smooth scorer—far more natural than Brown. It says a lot that Stevens even put him into the starting lineup on Day 1. Tuesday was Brown’s night, but Tatum will have plenty of openings over the course of the season to shine.

Up and down the roster, more minutes (and shots) will be available. Rookie forward Semi Ojeleye got some run on Tuesday. Jumbo guard Marcus Smart will likely get more offensive touches, and an opportunity to audition for the league for his free agency at the end of the season. Hayward would’ve helped carry the load individually. Now it will have to be done collectively by a group of players not ready for the limelight.

The Celtics will be a strong regular-season team without Hayward, just as they were last season. Their level of focus in the face of a disheartening reality speaks volumes; their attitude stems from Stevens and trickles down to the rest of the roster. Even without Hayward, they’ll remain one of the top teams in the East. That’s great, but the full impact of Hayward’s absence won’t be felt until the playoffs. Heart and hustle don’t lead to Finals appearances; superstars do.

The East is simultaneously more open and more inevitable. With Boston more vulnerable, the window is open wider for the Wizards, Raptors, or even the Bucks to make a strong playoff push to the Eastern Conference finals. Without its best two-way player in Hayward, Boston is a star short of having any real hope of taking down Cleveland. An already depressing situation in the East just got less interesting.

It’s not easy discussing the basketball implications on a night when we witnessed a star’s season placed in jeopardy before it even began. Hayward was ready to take a leap under Stevens while starting the next chapter of his life in a new city. Now it will likely be a full season of rehab and pain management. It’s crushing, but injuries are part of the game. And part of the beauty of basketball is watching adjustments made in real time, on the fly. The season is just getting started. It can only go up from here.