In a recent Locked on Sports podcast with Jazz radio play-by-play caller David Locke, a question was raised concerning what Gordon Hayward’s status would be if he played for an Eastern Conference team. In an ideal world, Hayward would remain a Jazzman for his entire career. But what if Hayward did find himself playing in the East?
First, it’s important to figure out which team would be the best fit for Hayward. One possibility is the Atlanta Hawks, where so many former Jazz players have suited up in recent history. Another option is the Charlotte Hornets, the team that signed Hayward to an offer sheet before the Jazz ultimately matched. But for this exercise, Hayward is going to reunite with his former college coach, Brad Stevens, in Boston.
Last season with the Jazz, Hayward averaged 19.3/4.9/4.1. There are two important factors that make a Hayward-Celtics scenario intriguing; the relative decline in competition moving over to the East, and the style with which the Celtics play.
The Jazz had a pace of 92.781 last season, placing them at the very bottom of all NBA teams. While this style of play may help the Jazz win more games by grinding out the clock, it can have a slightly hindering affect for someone who is as gifted offensively as Hayward. In contrast, the Celtics played at a pace of 98.4 possessions per 48 minutes — good for fifth in the association. If Hayward were to maintain his usage rate of 26.1 percent and apply it to the Celtics pace, he’d have a little more than 1 more possession per game to add to his scoring totals. Instead of averaging 19 points, he’d most likely average closer to 20. A simple transition from a “Floyd Mayweather Jr-esque” offense to a much more up-tempo style would give Hayward a statistical boost across the board.
On top of added scoring opportunities, the level of competition plays an even bigger factor. Being a member of the Boston Celtics would place Hayward in the Atlantic division and provide him the chance to play against the Sixers, Nets and Knicks four times each throughout the course of the season. Even while playing at Utah’s slow pace, Hayward averaged 20, 24 and 33 points against those teams respectively. While the sample size against each team is small, there is no reason Hayward would not be able to sustain, and perhaps surpass, those numbers while playing them more frequently.
The other aspect of Hayward’s fit in Boston would be the personnel around him. Playing alongside the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jonas Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk would give Hayward something he desperately needs — shooters who can space the floor. All of the aforementioned players shoot the three at 34.5 percent or better, with both Jerebko and Olynyk functioning as stretch bigs. For a player like Gordon Hayward that kind of spacing could do wonders. Lanes would open up for him to attack the basket much more easily and effectively than having to do so with three defenders waiting for him in the paint.
This exercise is hypothetical, but there’s a chance certain elements of these scenarios could play out. I’m not talking about the likelihood of Hayward making his way over to Boston, but rather an application of these same themes while remaining in Utah.
Part of what needs to take place is for the Jazz to play with more pace. Perhaps the addition of Raul Neto or extended minutes for Bryce Cotton could pick up the tempo for Utah. It’s hard to imagine the Jazz playing as slowly as they did last season, even if there’s only a moderate emphasis on picking up the pace.
What could help Hayward reach another level is that oft-elusive spacing created by shooters. It’s no secret the Jazz had trouble connecting from deep, which caused the offense to sputter for stretches. But the Jazz do have players capable of creating space when healthy. Both Rodney Hood and Alec Burks had their spats with injury, and both have the tools to open up lanes for Hayward. Trevor Booker has the shooting percentage, but lacks the volume to make him a threat in the minds of opponents. If Booker was able to hoist up a few more three-pointers per game, defenders would have to stay home on him more often. New Jazz big man Tibor Pleiss is rumored to be an outside threat, but hasn’t played in systems that allowed him the opportunity to stretch the floor. If Pleiss is capable of scoring from outside, Hayward may have the space he needs to operate while they share the floor.
The Jazz will never be lucky enough to play the 76ers four times a year, but Utah does find itself in a relatively weak division. The Timberwolves remain a young team who will still be going through the growing pains of an inexperienced roster. The Nuggets will be led by a rookie point guard without any true scoring threats after the purging of Ty Lawson. The Trail Blazers are a team in flux after losing Wes Mathews, Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge to free agency and trading away Nicolas Batum. Damian Lillard will have to deal with being Portland’s (and opposing defenses’) focal point.
Would Gordon Hayward’s path to the playoffs be easier on a team like Boston? Certainly. Would he bolster his chances of making the All-Star team playing in the East? You bet. But regardless of which conference Hayward played in, he’d still be a top five small forward in the league. No matter which division his team belonged to, he’d still be leading them in a playoff push. Whether it’s Boston or Utah, Gordon Hayward is great.