Gordon Hayward’s return seems less likely by the day, and yet, if the Boston Celtics star is fully recovered from his gruesome ankle/leg injury by the time the NBA playoffs roll around, he absolutely should suit up for the Green.
Is there risk involved? Of course. Are the Celtics set up for years of success with a loaded young roster? No doubt. Can the Celtics win the NBA title this season without Hayward? Probably not.
Boston has been one of the NBA’s best teams this season, thanks in large to a defense that ranks first in the league in defensive rating. Young stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in Hayward’s stead, along with Boston’s role players, but the Celtics need more offensive firepower if they want to contend for a title, which this team has the ability to do.
The Eastern Conference has been ruled by LeBron James for the last seven seasons. But with the Cleveland Cavaliers having to reconstruct their roster midseason, now seems like the perfect opportunity to break James’ reign atop the conference.
While LeBron and the Cavs would present matchup issues for the Celtics should they meet in the playoffs, there’s no reason to think Boston can’t dethrone King James and make its first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010. The other top teams in the East — the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers — each present a hurdle for Boston, but none big enough for the C’s not to be favored in a seven-game playoff series
The Celtics’ vaunted defense certainly could get them to the conference finals, and maybe even the NBA Finals, but Kyrie Irving will need help on the offensive end if Boston wants to lift banner No. 18 to the rafters this season.
Even if the star forward is limited to 15-20 minutes per game, he could provide a massive offensive lift off the bench, which would help the C’s in a battle with the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. Boston has split its regular season matchups with both of those high-powered Western Conference teams, but relying on Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier to carry the offensive load alongside Irving and Al Horford could be a recipe for a quick defeat at the hands of either opponent.
Tatum has been more effective since head coach Brad Stevens started limiting his minutes. However, it’s a lot to ask of a 20-year-old rookie to anchor a second-unit offense in the NBA Finals. Hayward, if nothing else, could alleviate some of the pressure on Boston’s young second unit by giving the C’s another proficient, veteran scorer off the pine.
It’s easy to take the safe route and look toward all of the potential NBA Finals the Celtics could get to in the near future, but nothing is guaranteed in sports or life. If Hayward is healthy and confident in his body, he could be the piece that puts the Celtics on a level playing field with the Rockets and Warriors.
In other words, when you have an opportunity to win a title, you shouldn’t waste it.