It's OK to Bring Gordon Hayward Off the Bench
Arguably the Boston Celtics' best player, here's why Brad Stevens may want to experiment with a lineup decision that looks pretty controversial.
Photo by Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
The early thematic questions already asked about the 2019 Boston Celtics mostly revolve around time management. This team is loaded with exuberant talent that has no definitive ceiling. We don't know how high Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown will climb in the second and third seasons of their respective careers, how Terry Rozier will respond to a blurry breakout postseason that ended like a wet match, or how much better a 26-year-old, surgically-repaired Kyrie Irving will look in his second season out of Ohio.
Brad Stevens has to calculate who plays when, with who, and for how long. It's a fluid, critical, borderline-splendid predicament he'll need to get a handle on if the Celtics want to make the NBA Finals, let alone win their first championship in a decade—which they're built to do. But while certain known commodities (like Al Horford and Marcus Smart) are set to provide the cultural bedrock Boston leaned on last year, the most compelling and convenient chess piece at Stevens's disposal remains Gordon Hayward.
With a skill set void of any obvious weakness—he can defend several positions, make plays off the bounce, shoot on the move or standing still, create his own shot, post-up, cut, and so on—Hayward is, on paper and when healthy, a natural fit in just about any environment. But not all situations are equal, and figuring out how to maximize Hayward's ability while also utilizing him in ways that most benefit the team isn't obvious.
Expectations for the All-Star are tempered by what happened the last time we saw him jump, but assuming he's at full strength by Halloween, Hayward adds several dimensions to a team that found itself in desperate need of exactly what he brings to the table last season. (They couldn't score when Irving sat.) As the most flexible two-way player on Boston's roster, there are a variety of reasons why Stevens may want to explore avenues that at this time last year were unthinkable. Namely, bringing one of the conference's best players off the bench.
Debating who Hayward should replace in last year's regular starting five stirs up an interesting debate. Irving, Tatum, and Horford are obviously not sliding to the bench, which leaves Brown and Aron Baynes as the two most logical options.
Before we go any further, a few points should be said. First, Stevens decided to open last season with Baynes on the bench and Horford at the five (against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that played Kevin Love at center). Second, Irving, Brown, Tatum, Horford, and Baynes posted a whopping +14.1 in 701 possessions last year, boasting one of the NBA's best defenses and a frontline that did as good a job as any of deterring and obliterating shots at the rim. Third, "who should start?" is an increasingly tired question that somehow still has a place in conversations that should instead worry more about who finishes. And whether Hayward comes off the bench or not, he will finish.
This also isn't a question that pertains to the playoffs. Boston's great strength will be an ability to mime its opponent's top unit and then flex with a more talented troupe. You won't be able to go big on the Celtics and you definitely can't go small. Some five-man combination of Irving, Smart, Rozier, Brown, Tatum, Hayward, and Horford can hang with anyone and hold a notable advantage over most.
The Celtics were not good in the playoffs when Baynes played the five, and they morphed into savages when Horford bumped up to the position, stretching out lineups that feasted on both ends. According to Cleaning the Glass, Boston outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions (in 855 possessions) with Horford at center. (Most of those groups featured an inconsistent Marcus Morris at power forward, and it didn't even matter.)
But in the grind of an 82-game regular season, Baynes and Brown both might have greater use against opposing starters than opposing bench units. Neither needs the ball to be effective, and both are excellent team and man defenders. Brown turns 22 in a couple months, and is still better suited to finish plays than start them. (He made 39.5 percent of his threes last year, and 43.8 percent when wide open.) No defense is going to leave Hayward alone to crash the paint and plug up penetration, but his overall strengths are somewhat reductive next to Irving, Horford, and even Tatum.
Meanwhile, letting Brown defend the most lethal opposing wing from the jump makes more sense than bringing him off the bench when said weapon is resting. Aligning his minutes with the league's better scorers, even as Boston prefers to switch most screens, is a good idea. Furthermore, Baynes's presence helped shield Horford from some of the more physical demands Boston doesn't necessarily want him to be responsible for in relatively meaningless competition. Let Baynes do battle against the league's ogres, free up shooters with stonewall screens, and carry out the general grunt work he's paid to do. This starting five doesn't have to apply on a nightly basis against every team, but as a general rule of thumb, the Celtics know they can be successful when those two share a frontcourt.
Additionally, bringing Hayward off the bench can reduce his minutes and help ease his way into a season that really doesn't matter until the spring. Preservation matters! I'm sure Hayward wants to hear his name announced at the start of every game, but imagine how devastating the Celtics can be at the first quarter's five-minute mark when he and Smart enter the game for Baynes and Brown/Irving/Tatum? And then at the start of the second and fourth quarters against the other team's bench, when he's the primary playmaker surrounded by shooters?
It's not realistic to ask Hayward to aim for Sixth Man of the Year. He's 28 years old and about to enter the second season of a maximum contract. From 2015 to 2017, only ten players averaged at least 20 points, five rebounds, and three assists per game. All are multiple-time All-Stars and most are headed to the Hall of Fame. Hayward is on that list. He's better than Brown and Tatum, and developing chemistry with those two, as well as Irving and Horford, should be one of Boston's regular-season priorities.
But shifting him to the bench at various times throughout the season won't prevent that lineup from coalescing, particularly in crunch time. The fact is, Boston's roster is talented enough to stagger extremely good players without ever lifting its foot off the gas. As Stevens tries to figure out the best way to do so, bringing Hayward off the bench isn't as crazy as it sounds.