Our regional what-if as the Miami Heat try to prevent the Los Angeles Lakers from winning the NBA championship (Disney bubble edition) on Friday night is a persistent one. Actually, it’s two-fold:
Would the Celtics have defeated the Heat and advanced to the NBA Finals had Gordon Hayward been healthy?
And would the Celtics have given the Lakers a tougher time than the Heat had they overcome Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.
I’m more positive about these Celtics than most — reaching the NBA final four is an achievement, especially under this season’s circumstances — and I do lean yes and yes on the answers.
I’ll acknowledge that in the conference final, the Celtics were to the Heat what the Heat have been to the Lakers: The slightly lesser team that always seems to be fighting and lumbering uphill, even in victory.
The perception around here is that the Celtics blew two early games to the Heat, and there’s some truth there, but the Heat deserve more credit than they get for winning them. The healthier and better team won that series.
Now, against LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and a quirky but effective supporting cast, the Heat are hobbling — Celtics tormentor Goran Dragic hasn’t even played in this series — and they suddenly require everything to go right to prevail. So far, it’s happened once, when they got as flawless a performance as you will ever see from Jimmy Butler to win Game 3.
But a healthy Hayward — the version who was a poised initiator on offense, a savvy passer, and was playing his most aggressive basketball of his star-crossed Celtics career before rolling his ankle in the first playoff game — would have made a major difference.
Yes, a big enough difference to defeat the Heat. And at least enough to make the Lakers sweat for what appears to be their inevitable 17th title. I wish we’d gotten that matchup, almost as much as ESPN/ABC executives do when they see the Nielsen ratings.
As we watch this strangest of seasons' final scenes play out, I must admit there’s an even broader what-if regarding Hayward that bounces through the mind like a Spalding.
What if, when he was the most coveted free agent on the market in summer 2017, he’d signed with the Heat rather than the Celtics?
Now, I’m not advocating that we should wish that had taken his talents to South Beach, not for a second. Hayward has had horrific luck beginning with the fifth minute of his Celtics career, but signing him to that four-year, $128 million contract was a move that no one would have had a beef with at the time.
The Celtics were coming off an unexpected, satisfying, Isaiah Thomas-led trip to the Eastern Finals. Reuniting the All-Star Hayward with his college coach, Brad Stevens, was a daydream-come-true of a transaction.
Anyone saying now, after all Hayward has endured, that they shouldn’t have signed him in the first place is pretending the clarity of their hindsight matches what they thought then. Don’t be a sucker for that kind of misleading sports-takery.
If you want to play the hindsight game, there’s a more authentic way to do it. The interesting question is not whether the Celtics should have signed Hayward, but to consider this butterfly-effect scenario and ask this: How would things have played out had he signed with the Heat instead?
When Hayward hit free agency in the summer of 2017, the conventional wisdom was that he would stay with the Jazz or join the Celtics to reunite with his coach at Butler, Brad Stevens. But the Heat, with Pat Riley turning on his slick charm, gave him a third option to consider, as Hayward later told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
“Riley kind of talked a little bit,” he said. “And that was the moment where you kind of do get some chills. And everyone’s wearing their ring, too, everybody on the staff was. And so that’s the moment where you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ an I-want-to-put-on-the-jersey-right-now type feeling.”
Hayward said he left the meeting with Riley, coach Erik Spoelstra, and other Heat personnel believing it might be the right fit. But the Heat couldn’t pull off the upset. Four days later, Hayward joined the Celtics.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had to move some pieces around to make Hayward’s salary fit. That included renouncing the rights to forward Kelly Olynyk, who almost immediately signed with the Heat (four years, $50 million), where he has been a reliable scoring option much like he was with the Celtics.
Later that summer, the Celtics traded Jae Crowder — who had become incensed during the 2016-17 season when Celtics fans cheered Hayward as a member of the Jazz — and Thomas, among other pieces, to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Crowder, who bumped Hayward on the play in which he broke his ankle in his Celtics debut, is now reunited with Olynyk with the Heat, where he is a defensive whiz who occasionally throws in a 3-pointer.
Hayward announced he was joining the Celtics with a 2,000-word first-person story on the Players' Tribune. He cited the wining culture of Boston sports as something that appealed to him, but closed by acknowledging how much the chance to play for Stevens again shaped his decision.
"And of course, there was Coach Stevens,'' he wrote. "Not just for the relationship that we’ve built off the court — but also for the one that we started building on the court, all of those years ago, in Indiana.
“And that unfinished business we had together, back in 2010, when I left Butler for the NBA [after losing the NCAA title game to Duke] … as far as I’m concerned, all of these years later, we still have it: And that’s to win a championship.”
All these years later, the quest remains elusive. But if Hayward — who can opt out of his contract but is expected back next season — can stay healthy when it matters the most, the Celtics' chances of winning that title might just be fulfilled.