The NBA salary cap aims to prevent teams as powerfully constructed as the Celtics from staying together. Marcus Smart re-signed in Boston after his market stalled for $13 million average annual value, before growing into an elite defender who can pass and score 20 points. Boston squeaked out enough cap space to sign Kemba Walker last offseason, pairing him with two stars on rookie contracts in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Those ingredients not only form championships, but multiple, just as an abnormal cap spike brought the Warriors Kevin Durant alongside an injury-influenced Stephen Curry contract, a Draymond Green second round selection, and a Finals MVP in Andre Iguodala. That serendipity produced back-to-back rings.
The Celtics aren’t there yet, but nearly made the 2020 NBA Finals. Depth remains a concern, Boston’s top-end talent needs to prove playoff-consistent, and they could use center depth. It’s a long to-do list for Danny Ainge and the team, but none of that should be accomplished by forfeiting the best fourth option in the NBA, Gordon Hayward.
$34 million is not $34 million
Two important considerations have shifted the consensus that Hayward would opt-in to such a hefty figure in recent weeks. First, Hayward is technically the best free agent in a weak 2020 class, with Anthony Davis expected to remain with the Lakers and few teams maintaining cap space. Second, his $34 million player option also won’t translate to $34 million, since the NBA’s ongoing CBA discussions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic revenue losses will inevitably end with player salary reductions through escrow withholdings — possibly 30%.
That places both Hayward and the Celtics in a precarious position. Hayward can opt-in, but he would subject himself to salary reduction with no guaranteed money beyond 2021 and allow Boston to freely trade him anywhere. The NBA owners will collect escrow payments as long as the on-paper salary of the players surpasses their effective 50-50 revenue split. With the league likely recouping more revenue each year, future salary becomes more valuable than present guarantees for Hayward.
Hayward could not be on the Celtics next year
Boston should and would consider trades for Hayward, given his $34 million cap commitment would leave the team with $0 in extra cap space to use if he departs, as Ryan Bernadoni described well here. Opting out isn’t a sure success for him either. Only the Atlanta Hawks can offer long-term prospects, warm weather, and legitimate money this offseason. Zach Lowe and Bobby Marks mentioned them as a sleeper destination this week. There are few one-year deal options available for Atlanta to kick back their $44 million in potential cap space and they’re a young team in need of a veteran. It makes sense — at least as leverage for Hayward.
Hayward leaving in free agency is the worst-case scenario for the Celtics. They would still only have a mid-level exception, slide Smart into the starting lineup and have no legitimate bench depth next year. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Boston losing in the second round or earlier without Hayward or a
Hayward leaving in free agency is the worst-case scenario for the Celtics. They would still only have a mid-level exception, slide Smart into the starting lineup and have no legitimate bench depth next year. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Boston losing in the second round or earlier without Hayward or a rookie or sophomore outperforming expectations, so let’s absolve that from our minds.
An opt-in isn’t ideal for the Celtics either, as they’d still need to weigh the short and long term. Danny Ainge would still listen to Hayward trades. A healthy Celtics with Hayward playing well at least returns to the Eastern Conference Finals conversation, but may not win a championship against a powerful West. Making 2021 an “all-in” season is not smart management.
If Hayward opts-in and succeeds, he’ll likely find a richer long-term deal in the 2021 offseason that Boston could not compete with. If not, both sides likely part ways anyway or reach a bargain with diminished prospects for both sides. That risk remains if the Celtics and Hayward discuss a new, long-term contract now, but it’d give both sides immediate security and possibly extend the championship window.
Hayward averaged historic production for a 21% usage player — 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists on 50% shooting with a 38.3% three-point stroke. He passes as well as any Celtic, defends, and rebounds with strong size and awareness. He’s definitively the best fourth option in the NBA and Boston’s top four — when healthy — is the league’s greatest consolidation of top-end talent and a lineup they should try to preserve for their contention window.
The Celtics should trade Hayward from a position of strength if he opts-in. He is hardly a damaged asset and his market should be carefully monitored in order to maintain future contracts and talent on the roster.
Trades may bring in players in areas of need, like a center or bench scorer. The Celtics will not receive a comparable talent to Hayward though, at least on the court. Speculation floating around the NBA ether right now range from Andre Drummond who’d play behind Daniel Theis, or Zach Collins, the injury-prone yet young Trailblazers big, or Indiana’s underwhelming Myles Turner. They’re all positional needs for Boston, but ultimately, they’d be getting the short end of the stick in terms of talent.
The Athletic ranked five Celtics in its top-125, something only four NBA teams can boast. That would not be the case with Collins, Turner, or Drummond. Those trade packages would most likely also include tradeable contracts, future picks, and ultimately, a palatable return that would slot into Hayward’s salary that Boston would otherwise lose if he walked.
However, claiming the moment matters, particularly in an NBA where the landscape can change every other year. Walker and Hayward seemingly share a short window to bolster Tatum and Brown’s short-term prospects. While the long-term viability of a Tatum-Brown core needs to be maintained, Boston won’t have cap space until the summer of 2022, no significant draft capital or tradeable contracts besides Marcus Smart. Hayward can be converted into the latter two.
There are cases against Hayward. “Injury prone” might be an unfair tag, but they happened and his absences have been felt in crucial moments, including most recently against the Heat. He may not return as strong as he did in 2019-20, or could decline throughout a long-term contract. The same remains true for Walker (signed through 2023), so the C’s should utilize their remaining best simultaneously. As Ainge said, we hardly got to know this team.
For what it’s worth, it’s doubtful option and other contract deadlines occur before the 2020 NBA Draft on November 18th, rendering Hayward untradeable on Draft Night.
What would make sense for both Hayward and the Celtics? If Hayward wants to join a competitive team, Atlanta could conceivably offer Hayward $18-20 million, re-sign DeAndre Bembry for $7.1 million, pick #6 overall ($5.1 million), and still maintain more than $12 million to roll into 2021-22 on a one-year deal(s). A three-year, $60 million contract works for both Hayward and Atlanta, especially if 2022-23 sees full-scale salaries return.
The Celtics could offer a similar deal. Boston pays luxury tax regardless of where the league decides to place the threshold in a COVID-era salary cap. A long-term Hayward contract keeps the team expensive and then eventually a repeater tax team, but signing Hayward to $20-22 million in 2021 and roughly $65 million over three years reduces Boston’s luxury tax payment ($1.50 per $1) in 2021, compared to a $34 million Hayward hit on the 2020-2021 books.
If security is Hayward’s motivation this fall, he has options. New noise around his decision shows Hayward as a valuable player with leverage, whether every Celtics fan believes it or not. For the Celtics, keeping Hayward is a luxury and luxuries win championships. The team is far worse — probably not a contender at all — if he departs outright. He sorts out the roster’s hierarchal concerns as a glue guy and if he can work out a new deal in Boston, he could fulfill his (and Stevens’) goal of completing “unfinished business.”
There isn’t a clear right move. Given the reported development this week though, Celtics fans should hope a Hayward departure isn’t in the cards, or his value will quickly become apparent in his absence.