Hayward's move to bench a catalyst for improving Celtics

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BOSTON — While much of the praise for the Celtics’ recent turnaround has rightfully fallen on Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris for elevating to starting roles, it’s clear that the corresponding shuffle of Gordon Hayward to a reserve role might be just as important to the team’s more inspired play.

Consider this: Since the Celtics shifted Hayward to a reserve role on Nov. 19, Boston owns the NBA’s best offensive rating at 115.8 points per 100 possessions and the third-best net rating in that span at plus-9.6. Individually, Hayward owns the best net rating (+16.9) on the team for that eight-game span, ahead of even Kyrie Irving (+16.1).

All of which is pretty remarkable when you consider that Hayward’s net rating was a meager +2.3 through the team’s first 16 games. Hayward has obviously made great strides in his individual play while working his way back from the ankle injury that cost all but the first five minutes of the 2017-18 season. And Boston’s first unit struggles as a whole were baffling, with a lot of the criticism falling on Hayward as he worked to find his rhythm.

But Hayward set a tone by embracing the move to the bench, which has allowed him to showcase his playmaking skills, all while picking spots to rev up his offensive aggression. His 30-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist night in Minnesota on Saturday was an obvious sign of his progress but Celtics big man Al Horford was just as impressed with Hayward’s quieter 8/6/4 line in the Thursday night win over the Knicks.

"I think that Gordon again [vs. New York], the numbers probably won't show it, but his impact and the way he is getting others involved, he is making the right plays, he is being aggressive, and he just makes us look completely different,” said Horford. "I think a lot of it has to do with Gordon's play.”

Being a focal point of reserve groups has seemingly allowed Hayward to relax a bit and not force his chances. It has also spotlighted just what a complete player he can be. Late in the first quarter against the Knicks, Hayward chased down a long rebound and broke out in transition, beating four Knicks players to midcourt before a snazzy little bounce pass led to a dunk for Jaylen Brown. A minute later, Hayward drew two defenders to the 3-point line before dumping the ball over the top to a wide-open Daniel Theis for another slam. 

Since moving to the bench, Hayward is averaging 13 points while shooting 46 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He’s added 6.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and one steal in 26.6 minutes per game. Bump those numbers out to per-36 minutes and that’s 17.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6 assists, or an even more all-around contributor than what we saw in his final season in Utah (21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists).

It’s pretty obvious that, despite Boston’s first-unit struggles earlier in the year, Hayward will almost certainly elevate back to the starting group down the road. And we’re getting small glimpses of that group’s potential when Hayward and fellow bench newcomer Brown sub in for the Marcuses after the first seven minutes.

But as much as the first unit has thrived with the energy and grit of Smart and Morris, the bench is benefitting from the added scoring pop and defensive versatility of Hayward and now, Brown. Given the way the Celtics struggled so mightily to generate consistent offense whenever Irving isn’t on the court, this is no small development.

And clearly, it left Irving smitten as well.

“That second unit still has to develop their chemistry as they get Jaylen into that second unit, and I think they’ll look great,” said Irving. "We probably have one of the most talented second units in the league, if not the best talent, so now we just all put it together and put in a full 48-minute game.”

Much was made in this space about whether Brown and Hayward could coexist on the second unit, particularly after the tandem's struggles as part of the first group (and the spike their individual numbers got when not paired together). But it’s clear now that their woes might have been more tied to the unit’s struggles than anything created by themselves. It also helps that both Hayward and Brown are far more aggressive, individually, recently, playing to the strengths of their own games.

The Celtics have a long lineage of great sixth men and there will be a temptation to keep Hayward on the bench — his team-high $31.2 million salary notwithstanding — should the team keep winning. There’s little reason for coach Brad Stevens to tinker now when the team is playing some fantastic offensive basketball (even if the team’s recent offensive explosion has maybe caused a bit of defensive slippage, which is natural when a team is generating points at such a consistent rate).

Hayward’s progression is huge for the Celtics and key to how good they can eventually be this season. That Minnesota game was a glimpse of what Hayward might more consistently be able to produce later in the season but it’s clear he’s impacting winning now with his Swiss Army skills.

As Stevens likes to remind us, don’t get too hung up on who is starting. It’s all about finding lineups that play well together. And right now, Hayward’s play off the bench might be the biggest reason the team has gotten its season back on track.

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