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chad finn

Gordon Hayward’s Celtics career may end as one big what-might-have-been

It seemed like Gordon Hayward was still getting his bearings here, but his Celtics career appears over.
It seemed like Gordon Hayward was still getting his bearings here, but his Celtics career appears over.Jessica Rinaldi

There has been a conundrum with Gordon Hayward in his three seasons as a Celtic. A complication, a turn of events — sometimes foreseeable, sometimes shocking — that inevitably added degrees of difficulty to his quest and fans’ hopes that he could be the next all-around great Celtic.

It’s fitting, then, that if his decision Thursday to decline the option for the final year of his contract and test free agency is indeed his final act as a Celtic, the franchise will be stuck with one more Hayward-related quandary that also serves as a summary of his time here.

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He wasn’t as good as he was supposed to be.

Yet the Celtics aren’t going to find anyone soon who is nearly as good.

There’s always a yeah-but in discussing Hayward’s time here, no matter which side of the argument you’re attempting to make.

He’s not as good as he was supposed to be when he signed his four-year, $128 million contract to leave the Utah Jazz on July 4, 2017 … yeah but he snapped his ankle five minutes into his Celtics career, and he doesn’t get enough credit for having the physical and mental toughness to come back from that and average 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from 3-point territory two years later for an Eastern Conference finalist.

He’s too passive looking for his own shot, not demonstrably clutch, and his most memorable late-game moment might have been when he inbounded to Jayson Tatum rather than Kyrie Irving for the final shot in a January 2019 2-point loss to the Magic, and Kyrie barked at him as if he had said the earth was round … yeah but he played remarkably unselfishly after Tatum and Jaylen Brown emerged in his absence, and the Celtics often played their most efficient and aesthetically pleasing offense when he was the primary playmaker.

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He never seemed to warm to Boston, to embrace its passion the way someone like Isaiah Thomas or Marcus Smart did … yeah but could you blame him, after the trauma he endured in Year 1, after working his way back only to be caught up in the dysfunction of the 2018-19 season, and even after the way fans on social media butted into his family life when his wife was due to give birth while the Celtics were in the NBA bubble?

There’s still a chance that he signs a longer deal with the Celtics at a smaller annual rate, or works out a sign-and-trade to a preferred destination that allows the franchise to get something back of value. (Indiana makes sense, though Celtics fans overrate Myles Turner because he blocked a bunch of shots against them once.)

But it feels like it is over now, which is strange too, since it seemed like he was still getting his bearings here and perhaps on his way to fulfilling some of those expectations that went by the wayside the night his ankle snapped in Cleveland.

It’s easy to ignore now, especially for those sports radio dunces who like to bleat about the Green Teamers and Trader Danny but haven’t actually watched a full game since Larry Bird had a healthy back, but Hayward was playing the best basketball of his Celtics career heading into the playoffs this year.

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He played fantastic back-to-back games right before the pandemic shut down the league in mid-March, averaging 25.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in a loss to the Thunder and a win over the Pacers. When the league returned in August, he continued playing at a high all-around level, including a 31-point, 9-rebound, 5-assist gem in a win over Orlando in the third-to-last game of the regular season.

And then, this being hard-luck Hayward and all, he rolled his ankle in the playoff opener against the Sixers and didn’t return until the third game of the conference finals against the Heat. He helped the Celtics win that one, but it became clear as the series went on that he wasn’t himself, and the Heat took the series in six.

Had he been healthy, I have no doubt the Celtics would have reached the Finals. But “had he been healthy” always seems to precede some lament about his time here. If you want to call him the Celtics version of J.D. Drew, I’m not going to stop you.

I do request that you resist parroting the most basic of notions about What This All Means. If Hayward departs, a year after former big-ticket free agent Al Horford also left, that’s a matter of individual choice, not a broad indication that free agents will think twice about Boston. (If Kemba Walker is traded, though, then skepticism about loyalty to players in Boston will be founded.)

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And blaming Danny Ainge for Hayward’s situation is ridiculous. Signing him three years ago was an excellent move, given what he was as a player at that point. It is not anyone’s fault that a cruel and brutal injury found him that night in Cleveland. It’s not on Ainge — or Brad Stevens, whose candid thoughts we’d really like to hear about this and almost certainly never will — that Hayward might need a change of scenery. The happy times have not overflowed here.

Hayward has all of the leverage in this, and he deserves it. If he does choose to leave — and if his agent is doing his due diligence, the knowledge of what is out there must have informed his decision — here’s to a sign-and-trade for a useful part or two.

Otherwise, if he just signs elsewhere, the Celtics will have nothing larger than the highest mid-level exception ($9.3 million) to replace him, which means they wouldn’t really be able to replace him at all. He was an admirable player when lousy luck wasn’t conspiring against him, and if he leaves, the Celtics will be a lesser team for it.

I know, there’s a yeah-but here, too. He was so good, so essential, when injuries weren’t holding him back … yeah but at least they already have a lot of practice playing without him.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.