There has always 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.
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.
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