How long are you supposed to wait before talking about what a major injury “means to the team?” Is it crass to go there the next morning? It certainly feels odd.
Gordon Hayward suffered an injury that shook the entire Celtics fanbase and, I imagine, franchise. The first concern is with his health and recovery, but a seriously injured ankle is not the end of Gordon Hayward, the Boston Celtics, basketball, sport, or the world. The team will move forward because what else can they do? Fans will move forward because what else can we do?
This injury will have short, medium, and long-term effects on the team and individual players. There are implications to career arcs and future earnings for players, trade and free agent considerations for the team, and salary cap machinations to deal with.
I’m going to operate under the assumption that Hayward is out for the season but will be back next year. Words like “clean break” being used last night gave some hope that he could return this season. The look of the injury brought back thoughts of Paul George and Grant Hill, one of whom took multiple years to truly recover and the other never did. More information will come out in the near future; at the moment I’ll work from that his year is done but not his career.
Brad Stevens will have some choices to make for how to configure his lineups. Marcus Smart started the second half in Cleveland and seems likely to get that spot at least until Marcus Morris is ready. It’s possible that when we get to that point Stevens will slot Morris into Hayward’s spot and move Smart back to the bench.
The initial plan was probably to have Morris replace Jayson Tatum in the starting lineup in a few weeks, but I doubt Stevens goes that direction now. Both of the Marcuses will have to carry a heavier playmaking load on second units so starting Kyrie with both of them makes rotations more difficult. Keeping one of them on the bench means Jaylen Brown and Tatum will both probably retain their starting spots for at least a while.
Semi Ojeleye and Shane Larkin got some run after the injury. Those two, plus maybe Abdel Nader, could find a more established role with the team now that we’ve lost a wing and ball handler in one. The team started the season with a lot of shooting from their three stars but not much from the role players and reserves. Shorn of Hayward, a lack of wing shooting may be a real problem. I don’t even know who the second best player on the team is at shooting off the catch in motion. Terry Rozier? A lot of sets that Brad Stevens was planning to rely on may be getting re-worked on the fly.
Brown, Irving, Tatum, and Smart all played too many minutes against the Cavs to be sustainable. Morris will help with that, but right away the team needs Ojeleye and Rozier to step up.
Filling a Roster
The Celtics have held open their 15th roster spot and may find need to use it. The simplest thing to do may be to offer a minimum contract to Gerald Green, who played for the team last season, including a couple of surprise playoff starts, and is currently a free agent after being cut by the Bucks. Green would provide desperately needed wing shooting along with system familiarity.
If Hayward’s diagnosis is that he’s substantially more likely to miss the remainder of this season than to return, the Celtics can also apply for a Disabled Player Exception. A league doctor, or panel of doctors, would review the application and decide if they will grant it. If it is granted, the DPE would be worth the equivalent of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception for $8,406,000.
The DPE can be used in one of three ways:
- Sign a free agent to a deal for no longer than the remainder of this season
- Trade for a player in the last season of their current deal
- Claim a player off waivers who is in the last year of their deal
If the Celtics decided to go this route, they would be able to use the exception up until March 10. They could possibly sign a minimum contract player into the 15th spot and hold the exception until later in the year when more veteran players could become available following waiver buyouts.
If Hayward returns this season but the DPE has already been approved, any player already acquired with it would be unaffected. If they exception were still open and no player had been acquired with it, the exception would go away. If Hayward’s diagnosis is something like “out 4-6 months” it’s likely that the team would not get the DPE approved at all, as he would not be “substantially more likely than not” to miss the whole season.
The list of healthy, helpful, and eligible players who could conceivably become available this season for trading into a DPE is pretty slim. Will Barton, Doug McDermott, and Anthony Tolliver might be the best of the bunch. A DPE cannot be combined with another player, though obviously the team could try to cobble together another trade to add shooting at the expense of something else and not use a DPE at all.
One other place to look at is Jabari Bird. The 2nd round pick is currently on a two-way deal. He’s 6’6″ with decent athleticism and can shoot the ball. If the team is looking for a stop-gap to fill the end of the bench until they can figure out a DPE plan he could get some early season NBA assignment days. His contract could even be converted into a full NBA one if they think he can do more than that, though adding yet another rookie into the full team mix seems unwise.
The most commonly referenced statistical projections from ESPN and 538 now show the Celtics as a below .500 team. Other models probably aren’t likely to be too much better. Those ESPN models, based on Real Plus Minus and Box Plus Minus, didn’t particularly like the C’s to begin with. Removing their best all around player puts them near the bottom of the East’s playoff crawl.
The blessing and curse of a team filled with youth is variance. The average expected outcome for the youth brigade isn’t very good, but they are also less accurate than those for older players. If Jaylen can be a consistent 18 PPG scorer and Tatum follows up his rather historic debut with a season of balanced and efficient play the Celtics could well outperform adjusted expectations. They could also fall flat, asked to do more for longer, and leave the Celtics in a 2/7 series to open the playoffs, but in a different role than the one we thought they’d have.
The team is also now at huge risk for further injuries. In the sad sack conference they live in, surviving one major injury and making the playoffs is reasonable. They now have 81 more games to get through and if Kyrie or Horford miss any extended time this could get really ugly. It’s hard to imagine them falling all the way out of the playoffs, but what if Horford misses 40 games on top of Hayward missing 81.9?
By best guess is that this team lands in the 4/5 series now, meaning Game 2 of the season may be a very early playoff preview.
It’s hard to answer this without knowing more of Hayward’s diagnosis. If it’s as bad as it first looked, and worse than some reports, it could alter the entire trajectory of his career. If the Celtics are left with a $127M albatross contract for the next four seasons you can basically kiss any dreams of contention goodbye. That’s the kind of extraordinarily bad luck that derails a franchise for a generation. If that were the case, you start talking about trading Kyrie and Horford next summer and rebuilding on a timeline that converges when Hayward clears. It’s ugly and, thankfully, doesn’t appear to be the situation.
If Gordon comes back next season or at the tail end of this one, the opportunities for playing time that the injury opens could still have significant impacts. If Marcus Smart goes from 6th Man to starter, it can change perceptions and impact his next contract. The most likely path to him leaving the Celtics is having a good-but-not-great season while Brown and Tatum show star potential. That could entice one of the few teams with cap space to make a run at him while Boston is forced to think about future contracts and the luxury tax. All three of those things seem more likely with Hayward out, though still not as likely as Smart having a season of progress and then re-signing in Boston.
If Brown and Tatum are now 25+ MPG contributors it will reveal a lot about their prospects and, if you want to go that far, trade values. The world is going to get to see what these guys are. For one night they looked like back-to-back #3 picks. What will they look like in back-to-back games?
Ojeleye may be elevated from “maybe Jae Crowder in three years” to “maybe Jae Crowder next year.” He’s going to get NBA playing time by default, but the why no longer matters and the what takes over. There are 1,000 players trying to make the NBA, 450 full spots open, and 300 roles to fill. Semi Ojeleye may have just moved from one of the 450 to one of the 300. If he proves to be a minimum salary player who can do a job it increases the franchise’s flexibility; if not it forces their hand.
If you want to get really far out there, their own draft pick will be a little better and their appeal as a destination franchise probably got worse. They don’t have any more cap space though, so the possibility of increasing the trade value of other parts is one thin silver lining around a very dark cloud.
Hindsight and Foresight
If Kevin Durant weren’t available, would the Celtics have pursued Al Horford? If Danny Ainge didn’t feel an “obligation” to Horford and Hayward, would he have traded for Kyrie Irving? The team of infinite possibilities finally picked a path and have now had it blocked almost immediately. Realistically though, this team was not going to win the title this season and the development of a group of young players was likely to define their ceiling.
If Hayward returns next season and is full strength by the 2019 playoffs then there might be long-term positives the team can extract from this. It could as easily go there other way, diminishing him long-term and trapping, or exposing, the team as a pretender to the NBA throne.
Today is about stabilizing. Tomorrow is about developing. The future? I wish I knew.