Over the past several weeks, the resolve of Danny Ainge has been challenged far and wide. He passed on a deal for Jimmy Butler and possibly missed out with regard to Paul George. He had one last chance to maintain his franchise’s steady upward trajectory.
Then the one of the craziest free agency days in recent memory began, reminiscent of the DeAndre Jordan saga that put the league on pause two offseasons ago.
As fireworks rang out across the nation, a supernova was erupting in Boston. When the smoke cleared, Gordon Hayward was a Celtic, announcing his move in a lengthy Players Tribune column that memorialized his time with the Utah Jazz and declared the start of his hunt for the title with his college coach Brad Stevens in Boston.
For the second straight summer, Ainge picked a 3 at the 3rd pick in the draft and signed one of the top free agents on his board. The march toward contention continues on. The tale of free agents shunning Boston is turned to fable.
Targeting the 27-year-old Hayward went beyond getting an All-Star or Stevens’s best player from college. Four years to the day after Brad Stevens joined the Celtics, they got the optimal star to throw into their mix. Hayward is both a complementary and dominant star. He thrives off the ball but can control the game on it.
On a team with Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward is the perfectly calibrated partner. He epitomizes Brad Stevens’s offense, always moving and filling gaps. He is able to pull up from anywhere on the floor, or slip into any nook and cranny to make a play.
Of the 73 players who registered over 1,000 possessions in the regular season and the playoffs last season, Hayward ranked 9th with 1.091 points per possession in total offense per Synergy Sports, tied with Klay Thompson. Isaiah Thomas ranked third at 1.125 PPP. He is an elite offensive player who has made tremendous strides to be a plus defender.
Hayward is everything the Celtics already do, yet he provides everything they still need—besides being a stalwart in the pivot.
When the pressure of playoff defense got tighter and tighter as they advanced round after round, the Celtics went through remarkable scoring droughts when Isaiah Thomas couldn’t continue to carry the burden. Once his hip labrum tear was exacerbated, the offense all but died. They had a valiant win in Game 3 in Cleveland, then were humiliated on both ends in the rest of the games. Now Boston has another veteran ready to carry the offense and spell Thomas, a mandatory requirement for any championship offense.
“[He’s] the type of player we need to get to the Finals,” Isaiah Thomas told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “I’m excited and can’t wait to get to work.”
The Celtics will have to make several sacrifices to fit Hayward into the max salary slot, including moving on from Kelly Olynyk, stashing promising swing prospect Guerschon Yabusele one more year, and trading one of Marcus Smart (who welcomed Hayward to Boston regardless), Avery Bradley, or Jae Crowder. After they clear space for Hayward, they will then have the $4.328 million room exception to work with.
But Ainge’s refusal to part with Jaylen Brown and what could be a crucial pick in Jayson Tatum sets the foundation for a new dynamic rotation over the next few seasons. They did not make the big trade for another star yet, but they have the depth required for any dynasty to be conceived and maintained.
The team is stuck on two different timelines, and the Hayward signing does not quite put them in position to make the Finals this year. But it brings them a lot closer while maintaining a youth core that should fill out the roster into a clear title contender over the next few years.
Boston continues to emphasize swings who can defend multiple positions, adding Hayward to their collection of Crowder (for now), Brown and Tatum. The last few NBA Finals has made it clear that there is no such thing as a logjam at the swing, the historically most crucial position in the playoffs. But Hayward is the only one of these players that currently can run the pick-and-roll at a strong level. While both Brown and Tatum project to get there someday, Hayward can do it in crunch time in the Conference Finals now.
This is vital for Isaiah Thomas’s career as he recovers from his hip labrum tear, as Hayward will likely run more pick-and-roll than he did in Utah despite playing next to an off-ball point guard in George Hill. This also allows Thomas to function as an off-ball scorer, emphasizing his elite catch-and-shoot capability. The biggest win for Thomas is that teams will be more reticent to blitz him and loose double him when Hayward is lurking on the weak side, knowing Hayward will twist them in knots when the ball is swung his way.
Despite the improvements, the sacrifices they make to bring in Hayward makes it unlikely they move much beyond their 53-win season. The big difference for this team will come in the playoffs, where they will be able to answer Cleveland in the Conference Finals with consistency and capability.
They are going for all of it, something Hayward saw as the calling that brought him back to Stevens.
“And that unfinished business we had together, back in 2010, when I left Butler for the NBA … as far as I’m concerned, all of these years later, we still have it,” Hayward wrote in his Players Tribune piece.
“And that’s to win a championship.”
Even if they fall short again of the Finals next season, they continue to move forward with major talent in their 20s. Hayward doesn’t turn 28 until March 23, so they will be getting his entire prime as their draft picks move towards their own peaks. Bringing in Hayward was just about the only thing allowing Ainge’s front office to maintain their two-phase development plan. They could trade their future draft picks for an All-NBA player to complete a superteam while maintaining a prospect core to keep them competing for another decade.
Either way, the Celtics will continue to be enviably good while continuing to pull off an enviable rebuild. Shoot off another firework.