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2020 Offseason Preview Series: The Gordon Hayward Question

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Will Hayward opt in or out is the major domino to fall for Boston this offseason

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Six Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics offseason kicks off…well…eventually. As of right now, the only date we know for certain is that the 2020 NBA Draft will take place on Wednesday, November 18. Free agency is expected to open somewhere around December 1. Before that, players and teams will have to make decision on options and guarantees.

No option decision looms larger for the Boston Celtics, and maybe for the entire NBA, than Gordon Hayward’s player option.

We’re going to break down the four reasonable paths forward for Hayward and the Celtics. We’re going to do so in order of most-likely to least-likely:

· Hayward opts in and plays out the 2021 season

· Hayward opts out and signs a new deal with Boston

· Hayward opts in and is traded

· Hayward opts out and leaves the Celtics in free agency

There aren’t any other overly realistic scenarios. Hayward isn’t likely to sign any form of extension. We’ll discuss it, but Hayward is also unlikely to opt out and be a part of a sign and trade transaction.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Hayward opts in and plays out the 2021 season

The decision facing Gordon Hayward is to opt in for $34,187,085 for a fourth season in Boston for 2021. When Hayward left the Utah Jazz to sign with the Celtics in the summer of 2017 on a four-year max deal, it was cause for celebration. For a second straight offseason, Danny Ainge landed a max free agent, following Al Horford in 2016. That excitement only amplified when Ainge swung a deal for Kyrie Irving. Immediately, visions of Banner 18 danced in the heads of those around Boston.

Those dreams took a huge hit when Hayward was injured five minutes into the first night of the 2017-18 season. He’d miss the rest of that season, which saw Boston fall in seven games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

When Hayward returned for the 2018-19 season, it looked like the Celtics had their deepest and most versatile team in years. Instead, too many players needed to play and competing agendas caused Boston to flame out in five games in the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks.

2019-20 was seen as somewhat of a reset for Hayward and the Celtics both. He would be two years removed from his injury and had a full season under his belt. Finally, Boston got to see the player they lured away from Utah vs just some glimpses of him. Alas, the injury bug struck again. Hayward fractured his hand while fighting through a screen in early-November and missed a month. Other than some rest periods when soreness flared up in left ankle/foot, Hayward stayed healthy. Until the playoffs that is.

Late in Boston’s Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, Hayward came down awkwardly suffered a severely sprained ankle. He returned in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, but struggled some as Boston fell in six games.

Despite the injuries, it was a good season for Hayward. He averaged 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 50/38/85 shooting splits. His individual offensive rating of 118 was the best of the Celtics regular wings. The only knock was the ever present “Will he be healthy?” question.

It’s that question that puts Hayward in an interesting spot. He’s 30 years old now. While that’s no longer the barrier it once was, it’s still seen as the tipping point in a player’s career-cycle. Hayward also has a lengthy recent injury history.

Normally, you’d suggest Hayward would look at the season he put together and opt out for a longer-team deal. Rare does a player put up good all-around stats on great shooting percentages like Hayward did and opt in. Yet, that’s exactly what is most likely to happen with Hayward.

Given his injury history and age, it’s highly unlikely Hayward will ever see a single-season payday of $34.2 million again. It certainly won’t happen this offseason. There are only a few teams that could offer Hayward that much, and they aren’t likely suitors for his services.

Also, Hayward can reasonably look at his 2019-20 season, fluke injuries and all, and bet on himself. If he has another good year in 2021, and can stay relatively injury-free, Hayward will be looking a solid payday in a far more player-friendly market in the summer of 2021.

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Hayward opts out and signs a new deal with Boston

Hayward opting out and re-signing with the Celtics is the second-most-likely course of action. Yes, we all heard this before with Al Horford, but it’s a different situation for a few reasons.

Horford opted out during an offseason with a historical amount of cap space available around the NBA. Horford was also a 33-year-old free agent. That put a significant cap on what Danny Ainge was willing to pay him. And there was a ready-made title contender sitting there to offer him a huge deal in the Philadelphia 76ers.

Even though Boston wanted to keep Horford, and was lining up a series of complicated sign and trade deals to do so, they wouldn’t match the money he got from Philadelphia. All of those factors added up to him leaving.

With Hayward, there aren’t any suitors to fend off. All of the teams with cap space this offseason are either bad, have future plans that don’t involve signing long-term deals now, or both. That makes it easier to envision Hayward opting out and reaching a long-term deal with Boston.

Why would that be something Boston would want to entertain? There are a couple of reasons. Say you can get Hayward to sign something along the lines of four-years, $90 million, but you frontload the deal at $25.5 million for 2021, that would knock about $10 million of the Celtics luxury tax amount. That would put them in range of dodging the tax entirely with another few small moves.

In addition, that type of contract would keep a quality player in Boston throughout the rest of his positive-value seasons. It’s also big enough, without being too ornery, to be a trade chip. And finally, by frontloading the deal, it would decline as Hayward’s value presumably declines on the court. The final year of this deal would be around $19.4 million when Hayward would be in his age-33-34 season.

The final reason it makes sense to re-sign Hayward if he opts out? Boston can’t replace him if he leaves. Despite wiping $34.2 million in salary off their books, the Celtics still project to be well over the salary cap. It’s highly unlikely, even with the injury concerns, that Boston could replace what Hayward gives them, given their limited resources to do so.

What about Hayward’s side? Why would opting out and re-signing interest him? Using a similar type of framework of a deal, Hayward would lock in long-term security. That’s $90 million vs $34 million. Unless he believes he can approach a near-max contract as a free agent in 2021, he’s probably not getting more than that on the open market.

Beyond that, Hayward seems to enjoy playing for the Celtics. The primary reason he gave for choosing Boston in 2017 was to play for Brad Stevens again. There is clearly a special bond there. Hayward has also spoken glowingly of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and how much he likes playing with Kemba Walker. This deal would keep him with that core for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, Hayward has a large, young family. They’ve made Boston home now. It’s unlikely they want to willingly pick up and move everyone again, especially after just having a new baby arrive. Whether it happens now, or in the summer of 2021, expect Hayward’s priority to be to re-sign with the Celtics.

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Hayward opts in and is traded

This one falls to third, because while it’s less-likely than either option that sees Hayward stay in Boston, Danny Ainge still runs the Celtics. Ainge isn’t sentimental and doesn’t get caught up in narratives. If he believes there is a trade that puts Boston closer to a title, while not harming the team long-term, Ainge will make it.

That’s got to leave Hayward a little uneasy, assuming he opts in. $34.2 million would go a long way towards salary-matching to either fill out Boston’s depth or bring in a star alongside Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. Later in the Offseason Preview Series we’re going to look at realistic trade options, and many of them will involve Hayward.

For right now, let’s talk about the plusses and minuses of dealing Hayward. Before that, let’s start with the fact that Boston can’t trade Hayward right now. As a pending free agent, he would have to exercise his option for the 2021 season for the Celtics to be able to trade him. That decision date is unlikely to fall before the 2020 NBA Draft, so that probably rules out any sort of draft day trade involving Hayward.

However, the minute Hayward opts in, assuming he does so, he immediately becomes a major trade chip. As mentioned above, that $34.2 million salary could match for any just about any player in the NBA by itself. Add one of Boston’s smaller contracts to Hayward, and there isn’t a single player they can’t make the math work to acquire.

There is also the factor that Hayward is a quality player. He put up his impressive all-around stat-line while being fourth on the Celtics in usage. He trailed Brown, Tatum and Walker by a considerable margin and wasn’t all that far ahead of Enes Kanter. It’s easy to envision another team seeing that and projecting Hayward to be a 20/8/6 player for them.

Lastly, even with $34.2 million owed for 2021, Hayward would be an expiring contract. With many teams positioning themselves for a free agent bonanza in the summer of 2021, that’s a nice amount to clear off your books. If Boston was willing to take on some long-term salary, their trade partner could clear things up for a run at free agency next summer.

The biggest thing against trading Hayward is perception. Danny Ainge is still working against backlash from trading Isaiah Thomas after everything IT went through. There are those around the NBA who believe Ainge’s lack of nostalgia also causes him to see players as pieces on a chess board vs as people. While that approach has gotten the Celtics one championship and kept them in contention, it can eventually backfire.

The other issue is finding equal value in a trade. As previously stated, Hayward is a good player, albeit injury-prone. That means Ainge has to bring back a player who is as good, or multiple players who can replace what the team loses in trading Hayward. That’s unlikely to come cheaply, so Boston probably adds some long-term salary in any Hayward trade.

So, while it’s unlikely Hayward will opt in and then get traded, it can’t be ruled out. There are reasons it makes sense for the Celtics to consider it. The best reason to keep this in mind is that Ainge is relatively ruthless. With the Los Angeles Lakers having caught Boston atop the all-time championship ladder, there is an increased pressure for Ainge to deliver Banner 18.

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Hayward opts out and leaves the Celtics in free agency

This one is pretty short and sweet. It’s probably not happening. Hayward would have to decide that he no longer wants to play in Boston for this to happen. No team is going to give him a contract that approaches the $34.2 million he’d give up from the Celtics for 2021. Only the Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks are in position to do that. It’s unlikely any would (insert your Knicks jokes here!), or that Hayward would want to play for any of those teams.

Beyond that, a sign-and-trade deal is pretty unlikely as well. Boston would have to find the right partner and that partner would have to want Hayward long-term. With so many teams angling towards cap space for the 2021 offseason, it’s unlikely anyone is positioned to take on a long-term deal for Hayward.

We also laid out the personal reasons Hayward has to stay in Boston above. Of all the options this offseason, this one seems the least likely for many reasons.

Chicago Bulls v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

While Hayward won’t be the first chronological domino to fall for the Celtics this offseason, he’s easily the most important one. Sound off in the comments on what you want to see Gordon Hayward do this offseason. Or what you want to see the Boston Celtics do if Hayward opts in or out.