By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
I have to admit, I’m dubious of the NBA trade winds swirling around Gordon Hayward.
We’ve gone from discussions about Danny Ainge acquiring some other team’s pocket lint, to visions of Jrue Holiday or Victor Oladipo in green.
I’ll believe it when I see it. But it’s convenient, given Hayward has become a scapegoat for Boston’s most recent playoff disappointment.
Should the veteran opt in for the final year of his contract, he’ll have $34 million reasons not to care what fans think. However, the view of Hayward as an albatross – some kind of modern day Theo Ratliff that Ainge can flip to win a championship with somebody else – is a disservice to a guy who submitted some of the best numbers of his career last year, then missed the birth of his son to stay in the Florida bubble with the team.
Meanwhile, his hand and ankle injuries prompted a friend to consistently group text pictures of Hayward’s face photoshopped on that of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out loser Glass Joe.
I get it. You look at that contract and the games missed and you think Grant Hill in Orlando, Penny Hardaway in Phoenix, of some other hopeful franchise that bet on a big name and came up empty.
You see that number 20 and you might even think of Ray Allen, his name still a trigger eight-plus years after his free agent departure.
But Gordon Hayward’s presence (or lack thereof) isn’t what killed the Celtics in the playoffs.
Ever since the swingman dressed up like a member of Augusta National and made eyes at Kyrie Irving in a 2017 press conference, the NBA Finals have been the next logical step in the rebuild. For many in this city, it was a baseline expectation.
Then Hayward snapped his leg, Irving’s bionic knee malfunctioned, and a seven-game run at LeBron was chalked up to a pleasant surprise. A year later, chemistry issues were to blame during a second-round exit.
This past year, the hoops gods rolled out the red carpet. The C’s dispatched the 2-seed Raptors and didn’t even have to face Giannis on the road to the Finals. But the Heat had other plans, and fans are once again looking for an excuse.
They didn’t have a bench and got killed in the paint. Hayward and Kemba Walker weren’t 100 percent. And, despite their immense talent, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are 22 and 24 years old, respectively.
Can we possibly accept that it wasn’t their year?
They started the season with the ninth-best championship odds. The minute the Bucks hit the canvas, we wanted Tatum and Brown to make like Jordan and Pippen, circa ‘91. We wanted Kemba’s knee to Hulk up and for Hayward to forgo a family milestone (which he did). We wanted every game for Marcus Smart to be Game 2.
The NBA doesn’t work that way – only in the finest of years. For the Celtics, that’s happened just once over the past 35 seasons. Oh, we’ve had fun, and they’ve been close. But one trophy. And whether or not you count the titles in Minneapolis, Laker fans will gladly tell you about their 17 championships.
The coming week brings the draft and free agency. The Heat will be looking to add. The Nets anticipate a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie. The Bucks have been a regular season juggernaut two years running.
If Ainge can pull off some kind of heist between now and Christmas, great. But the Celtics would be fortunate to have the chance to run it back with Hayward.
If he opts out, who’s going to take that weight? Do we really want Tatum and Walker pounding the ball every possession like we observed in the playoffs? Or for Marcus Smart to continue his Vernon Maxwell tribute act?
How’s Oladipo’s health? Is loading up on guards like two-way menace Holiday – who has a player option beyond the upcoming season – Boston’s ticket out of the East? Or maybe it’s Myles Turner, a 24-year old big man who fancies himself a three-point threat and may or may not be able to rebound?
It seems like most fans want the quick fix. But in our haste to drop Hayward off at Logan, let’s remember that the post-Kyrie Celtics were only going to work as an Eastern Conference powerhouse if they grew into the role. Next year is another opportunity to do so, and Hayward is capable of facilitating that growth.
Hayward probably wouldn’t have written it up this way when he left Utah to play for his college coach in a city that’s experienced a lot of pro sports success. But the narrative of his stay in Boston can spin around pretty quickly.
Just ask Ray Allen.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.