On Tuesday afternoon, Gordon Hayward and the Celtics delayed the decision on Hayward’s $34 million player option to Thursday at 5 p.m. The move likely affirms that Hayward will not opt into the final year of his contract and assures that Hayward’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, a longtime negotiator across from Danny Ainge, is fully engaged with the Celtics about Hayward’s future.
Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reports that the Atlanta Hawks — cap space rich at $44 million — hope to acquire Hayward. There’s also the long time flirtation with his hometown Indiana Pacers and of course, the possibility that Hayward could sign a new, long-term deal to stay in Boston.
Ultimately, it’s Hayward’s decision on where he wants to play, but for the Celtics, their motivation is clear: retain him or get something for him.
Hayward at 30 years old and coming off a severe ankle sprain, appears determined to cash in on his final chance to sign a hefty NBA contract. You can’t blame him for that. However, there are few teams that can offer him anything substantial, but there’s enough to believe that Hayward has options and more importantly, leverage over the Celtics.
None of Tuesday’s developments proved encouraging for fans hoping to see Hayward play for the Celtics again. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported that the Celtics shopped Hayward in a potential Jrue Holiday swap with picks before the Bucks unloaded their godfather offer. Then Kemba Walker’s name appeared in trade rumors, signaling a desire in Boston to redirect the team’s core closer to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s age profile.
If Boston isn’t willing to bid on Hayward or he is determined to ultimately leave the Celtics, the disastrous Al Horford-style departure needs to be avoided at all costs. The Hawks signing Hayward outright would remove a max contract talent from the Celtics’ books without providing them any cap space to replace him. It’d only help Wyc Grousbeck’s wallet by avoiding the luxury tax.
Hayward’s injury history are well documented. He missed 2017-18 season and struggled in his 2019 return. He broke his hand this year and missed most of the 2020 Playoffs with a severely sprained ankle, but all things considered, he had an otherwise excellent season. He broke efficiency records at his usage rate, 50% from the field and 38% from three last year, and provided Boston a fourth option unmatched in the NBA.
While losing his production on the floor would hurt, losing him outright on the cap sheet might be more damaging in the long run. With Jaylen Brown’s extension kicking in next season and Jayson Tatum’s max coming next summer, the Celtics reasonably hoped to keep this championship window open with four past and future All-Stars for as long as possible. A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals was proof positive that this roster works, but if Hayward leaves, there’s little Danny Ainge can do to replace him.
With or without Hayward, Boston is already hamstrung without middle class contracts to deal in possible trades outside of the indispensable Marcus Smart. The rest of the roster is more or less made up of rookie contracts. For example, a PJ Tucker deal (one year remaining on his deal at over $7 million) is currently impossible without including Romeo Langford, Robert Williams, or Grant Williams to match salaries.
That issue becomes grim if Hayward leaves, with Boston unable to open significant cap space until the 2022 offseason if Walker opted out. It’d force the Celtics to consider moving Walker or Smart. Boston could slide Smart into a starting role and hope for youth development and a hit in today’s draft, but Hayward’s injury in the playoffs shows how precarious leaning on youth and unproven talent is in the postseason.
The Celtics could acquire a massive trade exception by sign-and-trading Hayward to Atlanta, open the full mid-level exception ($9.7 million), but it would hard cap Boston at $139 million. That exception could be handy in trade talks at the deadline, but in the immediate, it can’t play the 4 on Opening Night or defend Giannis Antetokounmpo.
What to watch for between now and Thursday
- Can Boston, a third party, and Hayward work out a draft night trade? It’s unlikely, given the cap and roster situations of teams above Boston in the lottery. The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach reported those teams like where they are in the draft. If a player Boston likes falls to #13 with New Orleans, there could still be mutual interest in cap-strapped New Orleans for Boston to acquire each other’s free agents (Derrick Favors, JJ Redick) and swapping picks (perhaps with an extra Celtics selection as sweetener). Phoenix, another potential partner, also kept its #10 overall pick in the Chris Paul trade.
- My preference: could Boston bite the bullet and pay to keep Hayward around for two years? My Atlanta hypothetical offer gave Hayward $60 million over three years. Would Boston do the same over two, with a second-year option? It may be too short term in this salary-reduction era for Hayward, but it would almost double his current $34 million option. In exchange, Boston maintains flexibility to move him at any point going forward for more trade-friendly salaries. A shorter-term deal makes Hayward more appealing to other teams, and if he thrives with the Celtics they get the benefit of contending with this core again while Hayward lines up another deal in 2022.
- Circle back to Indiana. It is feasible Atlanta is a leverage point rather than Hayward’s first choice. Indiana is home and a long-rumored destination. The trade would more than satiate Danny Ainge’s desire to break Hayward’s $34 million into two or three contracts — say Myles Turner, Jeremy Lamb and Doug McDermott — with Boston able to compensate Indiana with draft picks. Hayward is a need in Indiana, Boston comes away with helpful players and assets, and a long-term deal is secured for Hayward. The key: Hayward needs to approve his new contract and the Pacers are stingy.
- Hayward walks to Atlanta. This scenario rightfully burned down Celtics Twitter last night. It’d effectively end any chance of the Celtics contending in 2021 and precipitate a follow-up move like a Walker trade that could harm a prime year for Tatum and Brown. It’s rare to see Boston landing in such a poor position organizationally, but it’s possible enough to fear. The second Hayward leaves the table, it’d be in Boston’s interest to block the door and reveal a better offer, or call the Hawks for that trade exception. Bartelstein knows this.