Boston Celtics: Revisiting the Gordon Hayward recovery timeline

Gordon Hayward's slow season had us concerned that he may never be the same after a devastating injury. In reality, his recovery has been on schedule all along.

Gordon Hayward's return to the Boston Celtics' lineup did not follow the script we thought it would. In retrospect, it's painfully obvious how little logic was used at the time of all the hot take predictions that Hayward would, in fact, return towards the end of last season. There was very little indication that he might be ready and almost no historical precedent for a quick return. All the while, we were slapped in the face with updates from the Celtics' head coach letting us know that he wouldn't play. Before we dig in, I have a confession to make. I was a Hayward truther. I was convinced he would be ready for the playoffs. I'm sorry for my actions and I'll be smarter in the future. Thank you for your understanding.

Relevant context: the Paul George injury

Paul George's broken leg was often used as a measuring stick for Hayward's progress, as George famously broke his leg during a scrimmage in the leadup to the 2014 FIBA World Cup when he hit a stanchion that was very clearly too close to the basket. Two forwards, two broken legs. Fair enough. But in reality, George's injury coming in the summer made it so that he could see the floor by the end of the season.

In Indiana's last six games of their 2014-15 season, George put up the following stats, per basketball-reference:

0 15.2 3.0/8.2 .367 1.5/3.7 .409 1.3/1.8 .727 0.7 3.0 3.7 1.0 0.8 0.2 2.0 1.8 8.8 4.4 2.5

And here's Hayward's first six from this season:

6 24.5 4.0/9.8 .407 1.3/3.7 .364 0.8/1.7 .500 0.8 4.5 5.3 1.7 1.2 0.0 1.5 1.7 10.2 6.7 0.3

George came back the next season and averaged 28 points through his first 20 games. Hayward averaged 11 in his next 20 contests. Hayward isn't the type of scorer George is, but this is where we find the key difference in their recoveries. George had the chance to come back, test out his leg, and then take the full summer to work on basketball. The time of the injury, August 1st of 2014, to his season debut, April 5th of 2015, was about an eight-month gap. Indiana missed the playoffs, leaving another six-month gap between April and late October before playing real NBA games again. That's a 15-month span with six games in the middle. Even then, it took a few games for George to look like himself again. Compare that to Hayward's timeline and you start to understand why he struggled so much.

Hayward's timeline in comparison

Gordon's ankle exploded on October 17th, 2017. In March, theories of his return were quashed. It wasn't until April when we learned that Hayward was jogging again. A second surgery was needed in May. His first time playing basketball against NBA talent was a one-on-one match with Bradley Beal on August 28th. That's about ten months from the time of the injury to playing serious basketball again, and less than two months from the start of the next NBA season. The season opened on October 16th at home against Philadelphia, almost exactly one year from the night of the injury.

Remember, we didn't see the "real" Paul George until about 15 months after his injury.

And yet, Hayward's 15th month was his worst. January (and February) games had us thinking it was time to face a new reality where Gordon might never be back. Was it rational? No. But I'd argue that it was as good a time as any to start worrying. If the Celtics hadn't come together by then, would they ever? The trade deadline was around the corner. People were antsy about Anthony Davis, even though the Celtics couldn't trade for him yet because of the Rose rule. But if the Lakers landed him (and by the gods, did they do a lot of things besides land him), more questions loomed. Did the Celtics miss their window to become true contenders? The list of concerns filled up, as did the loss column. Of course, the Celtics stood pat at the deadline, as is their tradition.

Finally, March was Hayward's month. The shots started to fall, but more importantly, he took his foot off the brake pedal when driving downhill. The avoidance of any and all contact early in the season was a huge problem, or more accurately, a symptom of (understandably) slow progress. While his stats have steadily increased each month, the key is watching how he handles contact. Not just plays with actual physical contact, but also situations where it poses a threat. Here's a play from Christmas that's almost unfathomable now:

Hayward blowing an opportunity to score in the paint against a smaller player? In THIS economy? It's no wonder the Celtics looked broken sometimes when you look at the Hayward situation in a broader scope. He really, really wasn't ready. Not only did he let Redick bother the shot more than he should, but the way he rushes the shot tells me he expected Embiid to be looming much closer and didn't want to take the extra half-second to hang in the air and throw the ball off the glass. As I said before, the threat of contact was the real deterrent.

Here's another example:

There's some rationale here to thinking it's better to take a pull-up rather than let Andre Drummond make a play on the ball. Drummond never makes a play on the ball. Instead, he backpedals as Hayward approaches, leaving about five feet of space between him and Hayward as the shot goes up. It's extremely nit-picky to say Hayward wasn't his best self based on this play, nor is it entirely fair to say he did what he did out of fear, but the contrast with how he played later in the season is so strong that it's clear he was fighting his instinct to attack to avoid contact near the rim.

Compare that with the following:

There's taking contact, and then there's creating it. One more:

Watching Hayward's recovery on a month-by-month basis could be used as an instructional video for how to properly drive to the basket. In the first clip, Hayward tries to make the most out of the space around him by getting the shot off as quickly as possible before a defender could close in. Now he uses open space to get as close to the rim as possible until somebody stops him. I say this because for so long I chirped on Twitter about how Hayward should willingly absorb more contact when in reality he should be the one creating the contact himself. Getting hit and still scoring is cool and all, but using your strength to create an advantage through contact -- that's the good stuff.

October through March felt like four seasons condensed into one. I felt like I saw the rise, the fall, and the revenge tour of the Kyrie-era Celtics all in one season, before their imminent collapse (a relatively inconsequential losing streak near the end of the season). As such, it felt like I saw years of Hayward's prime go by without meaningful results. In reality, it took him about two months longer than Paul George to look confident on a basketball court again. Boston's best version of Hayward doesn't quite compare to what he was in Utah, but a full summer of working out could get him there. Forget all the noise; the Celtics are still built to compete.

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