The Celtics have so many talented players.
Yet, they started Gordon Hayward – whose play clearly didn’t merit it – his first 15 games this season.
Boston went just 8-7 during those games. Its main starting lineup – Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford – scored only 91.1 points and got outscored by 3.9 points per 100 possessions during that span.
Why were the Celtics so invested in Hayward?
He’s earning $31,214,295 this season and is due $66,887,775 the next two years. He was going to factor significantly into the team’s roster construction, regardless. There was plenty of financial pressure to get Hayward on track.
Hayward suffered a season-ending injury in Boston’s first game last season. He didn’t get healthy until shortly before the season. Hayward reaching full speed was always likely to require a rocky transition into game play at some point.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens coached Hayward at Butler. It always helps to have the coach so personally believe in you.
And then there’s the element of Boston, Massachusetts. They don’t just want a star. Of course, they’ll take any star that they can get, because their priority is winning. But everybody and their mother knows that particularly when it comes to Boston, if we can have a white superstar, that would be even better. And they view Gordon Hayward as having that kind of potential.
So, all of those things considered, the players recognize this, were aware of this. And ultimately those who were compromised by having to be on a court with Gordon Hayward were sensitive to it.
Not because they don’t like him. Not because he’s not a good guy, because he is a good guy. It’s just that they know he hasn’t fully recovered 100 percent from his injury. So, he’s not the same as he used to be. They know he’s going to be a step slower. They know he’s going to be compromised. I have spoken to people in the league who literally have said, “Look man, no disrespect to Gordon Hayward, nice guy, but he’s really, really compromised right now. He’s not the same guy that he was.” And they said, “We actually kind of feel sorry for him, because he is a nice guy, and we know he’s trying to come back from injury.”
Are there Celtics fans who’d prefer a white star? Yes.
Has that thinking trickled into the team’s actual decision-making? I don’t know.
Are Celtics players sensitive to all of this? Apparently so, according to Smith.
Boston has earned a reputation for its racism. That doesn’t make everyone in Boston racist. That doesn’t make anyone in the Celtics racist. That doesn’t make Boston the only city with racism. But there is a perception, and sometimes perception itself matters.
Discussion of race and the Celtics intensified two years ago, when Boston fans cheered Hayward, who was then visiting with the Jazz. Jae Crowder, who’s black and was the Celtics’ starting small forward at the time, took exception. Did Boston fans support Hayward over Crowder because of race?
Celtics fans also also cheered visiting black players, Kevin Durant the year before and Anthony Davis this season. Durant and Davis are significantly better than Hayward. On the other hand, Durant (2016), Hayward (2017) and Davis (2019) each looked like the best player Boston could realistically acquire each of those summers.
There are no clear motives here. Not every fan cheering for Hayward did so because he’s white. Even the fans who prefer their team has a white star rarely admit it, including to themselves.
But this is where perception matters. If Celtics players believe Hayward gets special consideration because he’s white, whether or not he actually does, that would lead to problems with togetherness, supportiveness, attitude and environment – all issues Boston players have said the team has faced this year.
But it doesn’t have to be only one thing. Whatever is happening with Irving, the situation around Hayward could also be causing resentment.
There are plenty of good reasons to lean on Hayward – his contract, his upside as he gets healthier. More than with any other player, the Celtics have played best when Hayward is playing well. It’ll be difficult for Boston to reach its goals without Hayward clicking.
He and the Celtics have played better lately. The micro problem could be solving itself – at least one micro problem.
Like most things, Boston’s issues are likely complex.