Why Gordon Hayward makes the Celtics true East contenders

BOSTON – The Celtics are a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference next season, and if you don’t believe that you haven’t watched enough Boston games – and you haven’t seen enough of Gordon Hayward. Putting aside Tuesday’s optics – and it sure looked like Hayward’s camp, panicking after word leaked that Hayward intended to sign with the Celtics, spent the day trying to make people believe he was still on the fence until his 2,000-word Players Tribune piece was ready to be posted – this is a flawless fit, a springy, scoring small forward joining forces with a 53-win team that sorely needs one.

For months, Boston hunted Hayward. It liked Jimmy Butler, it wanted Paul George, but it needed Hayward. Jae Crowder is a sturdy defender, but his offense comes and goes, and the Celtics desperately needed a wing player who could take some of the pressure off Isaiah Thomas. That’s Hayward, an efficient scorer (47.1 percent) who knocked down nearly 40 percent of his threes last season.

Hayward averaged a career-high 21.9 points, and there is no reason to believe he can’t duplicate, or exceed, that production next season. He’ll benefit from playing faster – the Jazz played at the slowest pace in the league last season; Boston was in the middle of the pack – and his open looks will multiply with all the attention Thomas draws on the floor. Finding clear paths to the basket could be difficult in Utah with Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors out there; the Celtics’ floor-spacing bigs will open up the court.

Gordon Hayward shot 47.1 percent from the floor last season. (AP)

Hayward developed rapidly the last three seasons, but there are facets of his game that are still untapped. Boston loves to play through its wing players in the post – Evan Turner and Marcus Smart are recent examples – and Hayward has the size and athleticism to become a double-team-drawing weapon on the block.

Hayward was light on the details when it came to explaining his reasons for leaving Utah – he wants to win a championship and he wants to play for Celtics coach Brad Stevens – but it’s easy to see why. For one, the Western Conference is an arms race, with the reorganization of talent (Chris Paul to Houston) and the influx of others (Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap) making the West as tough as it’s ever been. Utah was a 51-win No. 5 seed last season, but it might take that many wins just to get into the playoffs next season.

Another thing: Hayward was a first-time All-Star last season, and you can’t underestimate the importance of that honor on a young player. In the West, Hayward’s path back to All-Star status was keyhole narrow; in the East, barring injury, he’ll be a frontrunner to make the team every year.

Now, about that conference contender stuff: Skeptics will say Boston needed a monster game from Smart in Game 3 of the conference finals to avoid getting swept by Cleveland. But there’s a flip side to that – a horrendous performance by Smart in Game 4 contributed to the Celtics blowing a 16-point lead. Boston wins that, reclaims home court … and, yeah, the Cavs probably still take the series. But the gap is closer than you think. And Boston just added an All-Star while Cleveland, terrified at the thought of LeBron James bolting after next season, missed on George and has a “Help Wanted” sign outside its general manager’s office.

Is Boston the favorite? No. Is a Cavs-Celtics series competitive? Absolutely.

Isaiah Thomas should form a potent combo with Hayward. (AP)

And remember: Boston probably isn’t done dealing. Celtics president Danny Ainge is effectively operating two teams, one with a core built to win now (Thomas, Hayward, Al Horford) and another (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and as many as seven first-round picks over the next three seasons) in development. Figuring the Hayward/Brown/Tatum mix could be the most challenging. Would Ainge be willing to part with one of his prized forward prospects now that the 27-year-old Hayward is locked in for at least the next three seasons?

That probably depends on who is available. The trade market for stars has momentarily dried up. One player worth keeping an eye on, two league executives told The Vertical: Memphis’ Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies lost Zach Randolph, Tony Allen could be next out the door, and if you were filling out your Western Conference playoff bracket today, Memphis probably wouldn’t be in it. Would the Grizz move the 32-year-old Gasol for a ready-made rebuilding package of players and picks? Would Boston – which has to be wary of putting together a team that would beat Cleveland but still get pulverized by Golden State – be interested? Again, worth watching.

(An aside: What must Indiana be thinking right now? Boston was dodgy during George trade talks last week, but the Celtics were determined to see the Hayward situation through before committing to a package of players to offer Indy. But what about now? Surely Boston would be more confident of its ability to sign George next summer with Hayward committed – and therefore more willing to go deeper into its well of assets to get him. Makes the Pacers decision to jump on Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo/Domantas Sabonis offer – a package that figured to always be there – that much more perplexing.)

Regardless, it’s good to be Boston right now. For the second year in a row the Celtics landed a top free agent, and just like Horford, Hayward looks like a perfect fit. The talent drain has made the East a shell of the West, but the competition at the top of the conference figures to be as fierce as it’s been since James returned to Cleveland. Ainge got his star, Stevens got back his favorite player and the Celtics are true contenders once again.

Popular video from Yahoo Sports: