The Case Against Gordon Hayward Returning This Season (Even If He’s Healthy)

Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens

Photo via John Geliebter/USA TODAY Sports Images

The Boston Celtics could use Rick Pitino right about now.

OK, sorry. That will never be the case, ever. But C’s fans could benefit from hearing these eight words: “Gordon Hayward is not walking through that door.”

Hayward has been sidelined since Oct. 17, when he brutally snapped his left ankle in his Boston debut. Both head coach Brad Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have gone on record saying Hayward won’t play again this season. With just 17 games left in the regular season, Hayward’s still confined to basic shooting and dribbling drills and is a long way away from even playing 1-on-1.

Amazingly, though, some are holding out hope for a late-season return. In a way, we can’t blame them. You’ve seen the workout videos, right? Imagine having a 20-point scorer at your disposal in an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers? Imagine Hayward riding in on his white horse to lift the C’s to an NBA Finals berth — and possibly Banner 18?

Let’s stop you right there.

Even if Hayward somehow gets medically cleared before the end of the playoffs — which seems unlikely — he shouldn’t return. His next game for the Celtics should be next fall. Here’s why:

1. The history. There’s a precedent here, and it’s not a good one. Ex-NBA big man Shavlik Randolph suffered basically the same injury as Hayward in November 2006. He missed the remainder of the season and didn’t play again until December 2007. Paul George went down with a gruesome knee injury on Aug. 1, 2014, and tried to return late in the Indiana Pacers’ 2014-15 campaign. He made his season debut April 5 but was a shell of himself, averaging 8.2 points over the team’s final six games.

2. The big picture. Sure, Boston’s goal is to win a title as soon as possible. But Hayward, who’s under contract through 2021, isn’t going anywhere. Why rush him back and risk the chance of re-injury? The Celtics should be legitimate contenders next season with a fully healthy Hayward in the fold (and an extra season of experience for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum). They’ve played their cards perfectly so far on this rebuild and should refrain from showing their ace too soon.

3. The reality. Would Hayward even be effective if he returned for the playoffs? The guy hasn’t played since October, after all. Isaiah Thomas needed several games to shake the rust off his hip, and his injury wasn’t nearly as severe as Hayward’s. The 27-year-old has both physical and mental hurdles to overcome (just ask George), and immediately ramping him up to full speed on the NBA’s biggest stage is a recipe for disaster.

Can Hayward still help the C’s this season? Absolutely. Let him travel for playoff games and act as an assistant coach of sorts. But allowing him back on the court just six months after his ankle turned 90 degrees is nothing short of foolhardy — which is why the Celtics should officially rule Hayward out for the season and put the kibosh on the speculation.

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