Gordon Hayward is 30, the age at which you give up on your dreams and grow into lame habits. He’s already a competitive gamer, but we can expect him to take up sleepier pursuits like canning or birding. He’s rich; maybe he’ll drop a bunch of money on woodworking equipment he never uses. He’s going to have to be creative in seeking satisfaction. The Hornets were already not very good before they signed him to a four-year, $120 million contract, which is a reason they likely won’t be very good going forward. They might have had the something if they had managed to pry him away from Utah back in 2014, when they offered a max deal that the Jazz matched—a young and healthy Hayward plus Kemba Walker would’ve been fun—but this is an organization constrained by both market and their own cramped imaginations, fooling themselves into thinking they can restore past hopes like corrupted save files.
The dude’s foot cracked and hung off his leg at a 45 degree angle. That was minute six of his Celtics career. It’s easy to forget, because it never came to pass, that Hayward was brought to Boston to be a franchise player. He was Danny Ainge’s number one target in the summer of 2017. Kyrie Irving, who arrived via trade in late August, was an impulse buy. The initial plan was to center the Celtic offense around Hayward’s versatile scoring and playmaking talents as developing lottery selections Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum took their lumps. Then Kyrie became available and catalyzed a tweak in the setup: he would run the offense and Hayward would function as an awesome cutter, spot-up shooter, and secondary ballhandler. Al Horford, ever-flexible, would find buckets wherever they were available, and the young guys wouldn’t be overwhelmed with too much responsibility. With a little luck, a core of Kyrie, Hayward, and Horford could contend in the East.
And then the foot thing happened. Kyrie got hurt before the playoffs too, and it turned out Tatum and Brown were no longer going to be able to learn from within the cosset of limited roles. They acquitted themselves extremely well, losing to LeBron’s Cavs over seven games in the Conference Finals. Tatum in particular thrived in Kyrie and Hayward’s absence, suggesting that he was going to be a constant headache for the rest of the league, and well ahead of schedule. The Celts wrapped up the 2017-18 season on a note of warm sanguinity. Hayward’s return from a catastrophic injury was the only cloud hanging over a franchise that was otherwise gazing at sapphire-blue skies.
Their trajectory didn’t continue upward for a number of reasons, a large one being that Hayward lost some of his athleticism and nearly all of his nerve. For two years, it was stop and start, struggle and heat up and cool off. He didn’t go to the hole with the same verve he used to. He had trouble fitting his diminished game around Tatum’s exploding one. He kept picking up niggling injuries, and when Brad Stevens showed faith in him—an overgenerous amount—there was behind the scenes grumbling that Hayward wasn’t being held to the same standard other players were, because he and Brad are friends. He missed the first two series of the Celtics’ most recent failed playoff run, and characteristic of his snakebitten spell in Boston, when he returned for the last four games against the Heat, he didn’t make much of an impact. The Celtics would have been happy to bring him back for this upcoming season, but only because they can’t replace him due to cap restrictions. They’ll figure out how to live without him. They’re not losing the Gordon Hayward they thought they were getting in the first place.
It would be an insult to the Hornets to call Hayward’s fresh endeavor a semi-retirement, but insults can be true. They are trying to do stuff, in their haphazard way: Miles Bridges is cool, P.J. Washington had a solid rookie year, and LaMelo Ball, no matter which way his development breaks, will be exciting. If you’re not going to do the thing where you let a passel of young’ns lose as many games as they will, then Hayward is a fine vet to bring in. If you can put to one side the ridiculous cost—which is hard to do—he’s a total pro, and we probably think slightly less of him than we should because Boston was such a damaging experience. He’ll be a steady hand for the guys still on rookie deals, and LaMelo in particular, having spent his entire basketball adolescence freelancing, is going to need structure. It feels as if we’ve been traveling toward this sentence since he was starring for the Butler Bulldogs: Gordon Hayward is drywall.
There’s little opportunity for him to be more than that. You take a big contract in a small city, and you’re stuck there. But it seems like Hayward is ready to settle down. Stack ends, buy property, and play relatively pressure-free ball. It’s good work if you can find it, and he’ll be happier in Charlotte, if not fulfilled. That is getting older, for a lot of people. You give up a little bit, and realize it feels okay.
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