An item of conventional basketball wisdom is this: Generally speaking, if you can get a certain useful skillset in one player, that is better than getting it divided among, say, two or three players. That is why, when blockbuster trades go down, the default analysis favors the team that shipped out a few lesser players for one really good one. It makes intuitive sense and is right. On the other hand, if that one player breaks his leg, he takes all those skills to the hospital with him.
The Boston Celtics acquired Gordon Hayward via free agency, but in practical terms it functioned like a very large trade: They parted with Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Gerald Green, Tyler Zeller, and Jonas Jerebko, at least in large part so that they could free up space under the NBA’s salary cap to add Hayward; they just happened not to send those players out in direct exchange with Hayward’s former team. Analyzed as a trade, it was smart and needs no defending: Up until he suffered a horrific, fluky, almost certainly season-ending, and quite probably career-altering ankle injury six minutes into last night’s season opener, you’d rather have had Gordon Hayward than any of those players, or all of them put together.
The big moves of this past offseason—signing Hayward, trading for Kyrie Irving—were supposed to signal that the Celtics were finally Going For It. After seasons of sometimes inexplicable moves and non-moves by Danny Ainge, nearly all of them put over by assurances that he, and the Celtics, were biding their time in the middle-game of nine-dimensional chess, they’d finally quit biding their time and committed to a core that would pursue a championship without one foot set aside for some undefined future endgame. The draft picks and the cap space and the overlarge cast of patiently developed young players—the assets, ugh, I hate that word—had finally been condensed and crystallized into, holy crap, actual basketball stars. And now something like half of the payout is gone, possibly for as long as forever. It’s an extraordinarily bad break in more ways than one.
Where does it leave them, this season? Before the injury, Hayward seemed like the surer bet among Boston’s two new stars; the other, Kyrie Irving, has never demonstrated that his primary basketball skill—creating sexy-looking buckets for himself off the dribble—actually translates into aggregate good fortune for pretty much any NBA lineup that does not pair him with LeBron James, literally one of the greatest players in the history of the sport, if not the actual GOAT. Of the two of them, Hayward was the better and more proven, the guy who, along with Al Horford and the team’s established style of play, would mitigate the risk the Celtics took when they shipped out their best player (Isaiah Thomas) and most versatile forward (Jae Crowder) for Irving. It’s a sobering way to look at it, for anybody who had thought this offseason might push the Celtics past Cleveland, but: He was going to be, for Kyrie, a lesser version of what LeBron was for Kyrie.
The Celtics almost certainly have enough left, even without Hayward, to remain a strong playoff contender in the profoundly shitty Eastern Conference. Horford will be steady, Jaylen Brown looks extremely ready to take on a bigger role, rookie Jayson Tatum showed out just fine last night in unfavorable circumstances, and coach Brad Stevens can mix and match Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart to get the perimeter peskiness Irving won’t provide and cobble together some of the playmaking they can’t get from Hayward. But they were going to be thinner and less flexible in any case; now, it’s hard to figure how their rotation goes more than eight deep even after Marcus Morris comes back from a sore knee, and they’re desperately thin on the wings.
They’ll have to weather Tatum’s inevitable rookie wobbles, and the way his performance likely will sag in the second half of the season, like any rookie’s does. They’ll have to survive the ordinary portion of injuries to a rotation already robbed of its best player. They’ll have to figure out how the hell to score points when Irving takes a rest. How the hell will they score points when Irving takes a rest?
The good news is, the East blows (even the Cavaliers looked like moldy dogshit), and as the Celtics showed in the third quarter, they can still defend their asses off. I doubt even a True Kyrie Hater would drop them below, say, fifth or sixth in the conference after the loss of Hayward; I figure they ought to be behind the Cavs, Raptors, and Wizards, now, and probably the Bucks too, but maybe not the Heat. I’m not sure that qualifies as “good,” but in the East it’s definitely not “bad” either. But they’re more vulnerable than any of the teams I just listed to whatever random shit the extremely long NBA season will fling out: They’ve already lost a huge chunk of what they were counting on to weather it, all those skills bundled up in the one guy, rather than the five they discarded to get him. They could get real bad, real fast, is what I am saying.
What’s certain is, however good or bad they’ll be depends a lot more on Kyrie Irving today than it did at this time yesterday. I wonder how comfortable he, and Celtics fans, and team brass, feel about it. He asked out of Cleveland for the chance to be the main guy, to bear a franchise’s and fanbase’s championship hopes to a degree he’d never get in LeBron’s shadow. The Celtics wanted him badly enough to trade away the hero who carried them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Holy smokes, they’ve got the hell out of each other, now!