For the second straight offseason, the Celtics signed one of the biggest free agents on the market, Gordon Hayward. It’s a nice addition, although adding either Paul George or Jimmy Butler instead would’ve been better.
Here are my three thoughts on the signing:
1) Can we stop overvaluing Hayward, making it seem like he’s a superstar?
Hayward, who averaged 21.9 points per game last year, is a really solid player. He’ll probably be a perennial All-Star now that he’s in the Eastern Conference. But to see most people’s reactions to this signing, you would’ve thought the Celtics just brought in the aforementioned George or Butler.
Here are some facts. First, the highest Hayward’s ever finished among qualified players in points per 48 minutes is 28th. He’s a good scorer, but not a great one. Moreover, the highest he’s ever ranked in Player Efficiency Rating, which accounts for all aspects of a player’s game, is 27th. Hayward’s also only finished in the top 50 among all NBA players in PER twice in his career (’16-17 and ’14-15). Clearly he’s far from an elite player, which leads me to point number two…
2) This signing doesn’t change the complexion of the East next season
Assuming no further shakeups occur this offseason, acquiring Hayward means the Celtics will lose to the Cavs in…oh, probably five games again in next season’s Conference Finals. Honestly, they were lucky to steal one game from Cleveland this past year, and I don’t think Hayward will be enough to significantly close what, at times, was a 40-point gap between the Celtics and LeBron’s Cavaliers.
However, signing Hayward certainly increases distance between Boston and comparable squads like Washington and Toronto. While the Celtics added an All-Star to add to their already formidable core of Isaiah Thomas, Al Hoford, and company, the Wizards and Raptors only managed to retain their key pieces–neither added anyone of note. In addition, a few fringe contenders, namely Indiana and Chicago, are no longer factors after losing their respective stars. The Celtics are now definitively the second best team in the East, and they’re unlikely to face as much resistance in the first two rounds of next year’s postseason.
3) So here’s the really good news regarding the Hayward signing: the Celtics are in position to be the best team in the East after next season
As mentioned, the East is not very strong and the difference between Boston and the thirteen teams below them has increased. Looking past this year, though, the only teams capable of seriously contending over the next 2-3 years, beside the Celtics, are likely Washington, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. The Wizards and Bucks will be competitive as long as their cornerstones–John Wall and Giannis Antetokounmpo, respectively–are around (although that doesn’t mean they’ll ever have enough talent around them to actually win the East). My assessment of the 76ers, meanwhile, is speculative. They might develop into a great team in a couple of years. Or, they might disappoint.
The one team I’ve notably excluded form this discussion, of course, is Cleveland. As long as LeBron is a Cavalier, they will obviously be the best team in the East, at least for the foreseeable future.
James is a free agent after next season, though. Given Cleveland’s instability this offseason, which included the sudden dismissal of their GM, David Griffin, and reports indicating that Cavs’ players told Jimmy Butler not to bother requesting a trade to Cleveland, I bet LeBron is gone in 2018.
Could he stay in the East? Perhaps. Maybe he’ll reunite with Dwyane Wade in Chicago, head for the bright lights of New York City, or take his talents to South Beach once again. But the talk is that he’s going to go west, to Los Angeles.
In that case, the Celtics will then become the team to beat in the East. And even if Danny Ainge is forced to jettison a couple key players due to hit free agency (i.e. Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart), Boston will still arguably be the most talented team in the East with the likes of Thomas, Horford, and now Hayward. Plus, with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and another top pick from Brooklyn next year, it’s likely that at least one of those top draft picks develops into an All-Star caliber player.
He won’t make too much of a difference in the short-term, but I think signing Hayward will lead to at least one Finals appearance for the Celtics in the next three years. In Danny we trust.
Hayward photo courtesy of Sporting News