Celtics Better with Gordon Hayward, but Still Behind Cavaliers in East

Matthew Jordan

Wednesday, July 5, 2017 1:33 PM UTC

Wednesday, Jul. 5, 2017 1:33 PM UTC

The last big free agent is off the board as Gordon Hayward decided to leave the Utah Jazz and join the Boston Celtics. It’s a great move for Boston, but there’s still a gap between it and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.

Finally, A Star Heads East

The Eastern Conference is still a lot weaker than it was at the end of the 2016-17 season after losing the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap, among others, to the West in trades and free agency. But the East at least didn’t completely strike out on free-agent stars as Gordon Hayward decided to leave the Utah Jazz for the Boston Celtics.

What does this mean in the grand scheme of things?

Hayward is a fine player, Top 20 in the NBA. He was one of the league's most efficient scorers, averaging 1.091 points per play and ranking in the 91st percentile among all players last season. Hayward can play shooting guard or small forward, defend multiple positions and averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 2016-17. He’s not really equipped to be your team’s primary scorer but is an excellent No. 2.

"The type of player we needed to get to the Finals," Celtics star Isaiah Thomas said after Hayward announced his decision on July 4.

Boston has its pseudo-Big 3 of Thomas, who remains the primary offensive option, Hayward and Al Horford. Plus the C’s still have two intriguing young players in Jaylen Brown, last year’s No. 3 overall pick, and Jayson Tatum, this year’s No. 3 overall pick. The Celtics will lose Kelly Olynyk to create cap space for Hayward as well as one of Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart or Jae Crowder.

This is a big win for Celtics GM Danny Ainge, who clearly always felt Hayward was going to sign with Boston – Celtics coach Brad Stevens coached Hayward at Butler and that was a big reason for the decision – or else Ainge would have egg on his face for not giving up some of his many first-round picks to land someone like Butler or George in a trade. Had Ainge missed on Hayward, the Celtics would have been the biggest offseason losers. I’ve seen projections that raise Boston’s regular-season win total for 2017-18 from 52 to 54.5 with Hayward.

On BetOnline NBA odds, the Celtics are now +275 to win the East – still well behind LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers (-140). That’s how it should be. Cleveland’s Big 3 of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is still vastly superior on paper to Boston’s. The Celtics still haven’t solved their lack of a dominant big man to protect the rim and address the Celtics’ rebounding issues. It’s still possible the Cavs could widen the gap again by trading for Carmelo Anthony.

Boston might again finish with the best record in the East because LeBron doesn’t care much about playoff seeding – it clearly didn’t matter that Cleveland was No. 2 behind Boston last year. But unless Ainge can pull off a trade that none of us can see right now (Marc Gasol?), his team is still playing for second in the East in 2017-18 if James is healthy.

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Jazz Will Slide In West

Meanwhile, it’s a crushing blow for Utah, which had grown around Hayward from 25 to 38 to 40 to 51 wins the past four seasons. Last year, the Jazz reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Perhaps part of Hayward’s reasoning for leaving – in addition to Stevens – was getting out of the loaded West.

Now without Hayward, the Jazz probably slip to a low-40s win club, while teams behind them in the standings last season like Oklahoma City, Denver and Minnesota all got much better. Utah also lost point guard George Hill in free agency but traded for Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who is a great passer but can’t shoot. This is now Rudy Gobert’s team.

The Jazz are +4000 long shots to win the West. They weren’t going to do that even with Hayward, but at least reaching the 2018 conference finals was possible. They might miss the playoffs entirely without him.

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