Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 6, 2017

The Celtics Got Better, But Not Good Enough

When news broke Tuesday afternoon that All-Star free agent forward Gordon Hayward was leaving the Utah Jazz to sign with the Boston Celtics, reaction around New England was overwhelmingly positive, with pundits singing the praises of Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. The chorus of good cheer was interrupted briefly when Hayward’s agent injected a stutter step into the move by denying the initial reports of his client’s decision, but by evening all parties were confirming that the 27-year old was indeed bound for Boston.

The key factor in Hayward’s move may not have been Ainge’s power of persuasion but the fact that Brad Stevens is Boston’s head coach. Hayward seemed to suggest as much in a posting on The Players’ Tribune website. After expressing his deep appreciation to Utah’s fans for their support during his seven seasons with the Jazz, he recounted the guidance and encouragement Stevens, then Butler’s head coach, gave the 20-year old Hayward when he was deciding whether to declare for the NBA draft after his sophomore year at the mid-major.

Butler had just narrowly lost the national championship game to Duke, with Hayward’s desperation heave from midcourt bouncing off the rim at the buzzer, and he clearly felt that in departing for the pros he was leaving unfinished business behind. He closed his post with a thought on that subject which Celtics fans were sure to love, writing “And that unfinished business we had together back in 2010, when I left Butler for the NBA … as far as I’m concerned, all these years later, we still have it: And that’s to win a championship.”

Before plans for the duck boat parade down Boylston Street get too far advanced, fans might want to recall the nearly four century old cautionary Scottish proverb, “if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” That warning is not meant to suggest that the Hayward signing is anything but a good move by Ainge. Because he’s played his entire career with Utah he’s been a bit under the radar. He’s a very efficient scorer, as shown by last season’s usage rate (the percentage of a team’s plays that end with the player last touching the ball – either shooting, being fouled, or committing a turnover) of 27.6, one of the lowest rates for players averaging over 20 points per game. He’s great in transition, and should benefit from Boston’s faster paced offense as compared to Utah. Hayward’s also very good in traffic. His ratio of scoring and getting fouled as opposed to having his shot blocked was fourth highest in the league, trailing only Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. And while much of the commentary focused on his offense, he’s also a better than average defensive player.

But Hayward doesn’t come to TD Garden for free. To fit Hayward’s $128 million four-year deal under the league’s lower than expected salary cap, Ainge must dump some contracts. He’s already renounced rights to Kelly Olynyk and has been shopping one or more of Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. While none of those four will be mistaken for Gordon Hayward, they all had their roles on the team that went to the Eastern Conference Finals this spring.

More importantly, advanced metrics suggest that while Hayward deserved his first All-Star nod this past season, he’s not a superstar, not a player who is going to singlehandedly shift the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. As recently noted in this space, in the days leading up to the NBA Draft rumors circulated that Ainge was working on a deal to trade some of his plethora of picks for Paul George or Jimmy Butler. In the end neither was headed to Boston. Nor was Chris Paul, nor Blake Griffin, nor even Kristaps Porzingis, who has yet to achieve what Hayward has but who is also six years younger. Ainge continues to hoard his “assets” as he refers to Boston’s stockpile of high draft picks over the next several seasons. Unfortunately for Celtics fans those assets don’t score any points or block any shots.

Once the general elation surrounding the Hayward signing dies down, Celtics fans will still be left with the reality of the beatdown their team received from the Cleveland Cavaliers in that recent Conference Final series. Cleveland’s four victories were by an average of 26 points, and the Cavaliers led by at least 16 points for nearly half of the minutes played during the entire series. Given that Boston actually won one game, and that all five contests started with the score 0-0, that last statistic speaks volumes to the lopsided nature of the series.

And Boston fans will also remember that after the Cavaliers were done thrashing the Green, they in turn were spanked by the Warriors. As the offseason has unfolded, Golden State hasn’t gotten any worse, and Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Houston have all added significant pieces. Pick among those three and San Antonio, which has been quiet so far, and the Western Conference has not just the defending NBA champion and prohibitive favorite to repeat, but arguably the best three or four or even five teams in the league. Using a three-year rolling average of three key advanced metrics, the website FiveThirtyEight.com found that even after Hayward’s move east, 22 of the top 30 players in the league are now in the Western Conference, the greatest conference disparity of talent since the NBA-ABA merger four decades ago.

After the Hayward hoopla dies down Celtics fans will understand all too well where their team really stands. With their newly signed forward on the wing, Isaiah Thomas running the offense, and Stevens on the sideline, Boston will be a very good team. A sure thing for the postseason, maybe even the best of the rest in what has become a highly stratified NBA. It’s just that with 17 championship banners hanging from the rafters of TD Garden, those fans are used to aiming higher. But at least they’ll still have all of Danny Ainge’s assets.

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