Painful as bringing up Gordon Hayward may be, he's a crucial part of the Boston Celtics' story in 2017-18.
When the small forward went down just minutes into his Beantown tenure with a devastating injury to his lower extremities—we'll mercifully spare you a video or more detailed description—he did more than seemingly end the team's hopes of competing with the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. He effectively quelled Boston's chances of cobbling together a new-look Big Three capable of hanging with the NBA's other leading triumvirates.
Except that's not true.
Not only are the Celtics hanging tough in the race for the No. 1 seed in their half of the Association—a 102-93 loss to the New York Knicks cut their lead over the Cavs to a single game—but they've also seen a different trio emerge.
It's one that stood out yet again Thursday night, this time in Madison Square Garden. Maybe it couldn't overcome a scorching fourth quarter from Michael Beasley (who had a season-high 32 points in the pull-away victory) and capitalize on a poor performance from Kristaps Porzingis, but that's OK. Losses happen, especially when the Celtics were going to work with depleted frontcourt depth while Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown rested with knee and Achilles injuries, respectively.
So, that three-man show.
Kyrie Irving, who submitted 32 points and four assists on 12-of-27 shooting from the field and a 6-of-15 showing from deep in the New York loss, is the obvious inclusion, given his dazzling dribbles and unsurpassed shot-making ability.
He's racked up highlights throughout his first season away from Northeast Ohio, emerging as a fringe MVP candidate and likely All-Star starter. He ranks sixth on Basketball Reference's MVP Award Tracker, trailing only James Harden, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant.
But the flashy point guard isn't the only Celtic showing up in the top 10, which is based on a historical model that links production and previous voting results. The running mate with whom he completed this eye-catching fast break shows up at No. 9, sandwiching DeMar DeRozan and Clint Capela between a Boston duo:
Al Horford also has a better chance in a different race: Defensive Player of the Year.
Though he might not record many steals (0.6 per game) or blocks (1.0), he's been the backbone of a stifling unit that allows just 101 points per 100 possessions, which is second behind the Oklahoma City Thunder. Head coach Brad Stevens has freed him to patrol the paint and shut down passing lanes by deploying Boston's bevy of switchable guards and forwards, and he's reaped the rewards on a nightly basis.
That's just two players, though. A Big Three requires, well, three members.
Enter rookie sensation Jayson Tatum, who submitted yet another strong scoring performance against the Knicks with a 17-spot on 6-of-10 shooting from the field. The forward seems to show off new tools on a nightly basis, displaying preternatural footwork and body control while seldom making an ill-advised decision.
He's a brilliant basketball player and is working with an arsenal of offensive moves that would make veterans jealous. It doesn't hurt that he's been able to parlay his length into effective defensive play.
These three complement each other perfectly, excelling on both ends of the floor. They're scoring. They're finding open teammates. They're communicating on defense and shutting down all different types of players. They're also throwing up monstrous numbers.
According to NBA Math's total points added model, this Boston trio entered Thursday boasting the No. 4 combined score of any threesome throughout the league. Only seven have cleared the 180 threshold:
- James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela: 391.53
- LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyle Korver: 307.76
- Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green: 293.65
- Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum: 284.78
- Russell Westbrook, Steven Adams and Paul George: 258.98
- DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and E'Twaun Moore: 193.4
- Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and OG Anunoby: 193.19
That's impressive company, particularly when you remember the expectations with which each Boston contributor entered the season.
Irving had massive upside, but he still had to prove himself as the leader of a team. Dinged for his relative inefficiency, defensive woes and lack of success without James on the floor during their mutual time in Cleveland, he wasn't universally considered a top-five point guard.
Horford wasn't anywhere close to the DPOY conversation, and his reputation seemed to lag well behind what many advanced metrics might otherwise indicate, pegging him as a complementary piece rather than a do-everything big man who could find himself featured in an MVP discussion. Tatum, meanwhile, was an offense-first rookie who finished outside the top three in the annual GM survey's Rookie of the Year predictions.
Bleacher Report's Dan Favale ranked the NBA's top 100 players prior to the start of the year, and he placed Irving and Horford at Nos. 22 and 27, respectively. Tatum went unranked. In NBA Math's #CrystalBasketball rankings of every player in the league, the three finished at Nos. 23, 34 and 160. ESPN.com's #NBARank had Irving at No. 25, Horford at No. 40 and Tatum outside the top 100.
Again, their status as one of the league's deadliest trifectas is one of the more unforeseeable developments this season, especially when adjusting to the brutal loss of Hayward on the fly. Not to discount the improvements made by Marcus Smart and Brown or the first-year success of Daniel Theis (among other impressive storylines), but they're also the biggest reason Boston sits pretty at 26-9 with the NBA's fourth-best net rating.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Celtics are outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions when all three are on the floor. That number isn't likely to trend anywhere but up as the season progresses, considering none of the three had ever logged a minute together prior to the current campaign.
Boston will always wonder what could've been. What if one ill-fated alley-oop attempt had transpired innocuously? Might this magical campaign have gone even better if Hayward had remained healthy?
But the unexpected silver lining has been the emergence of a new Big Three that features pieces precious few would've expected. Even on the heels of back-to-back losses by a combined 10 points, that should fill Celtics fans with renewed optimism, allowing them to think positively about both the present and future of this quickly rising organization.
After all, Hayward will return eventually. And then we get to start talking about a Big Four.