Gordon Hayward enters unrestricted free agency today at 6 p.m. after opting out of his $34 million player option yesterday. The internet blew up into a frenzy, with reported interest from the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks seemingly pointing toward an imminent outright departure for Boston’s most important free agent. That’s not the case. Yet.
The move is effectively a second postponement in negotiations that involve Boston, Hayward’s camp, and third-party teams hoping to acquire him via sign-and-trade. With legitimate interest around the league, Hayward was never going to opt-in to his contract despite its hefty figure (even after you factor in a 10% reduction due to escrow). He would have no say on trades during the season and the Celtics could more easily send him anywhere as an expiring contract. Hayward is now a free agent and takes control of his destiny. That part of it is expected. His future is unknown.
Four possibilities remain: Hayward re-signs long-term in Boston, the Celtics sign-and-trade him to a team like the Indiana Pacers that can’t sign him outright with cap space, a minor deal to ship him to a team with appropriate cap space that’d return the C’s little more than a trade exception, or a nightmare outright departure.
Opting out signaled the latter to some on Thursday night leading to a Twitter meltdown, but it still remains the least likely scenario. As our Keith Smith and Ryan Bernadoni note, even if Hayward chooses the Knicks or Hawks, it’d benefit both of those teams to front-load his deals by doing a sign-and-trade with Boston. This wouldn’t land RJ Barrett or John Collins in Boston, but it would get the Celtics at least something for Hayward.
There’s a reason Atlanta and New York are names out there though. This is an intense and public negotiation, and being able to use teams with lucrative cap space as leverage allows Hayward to push the Celtics and teams like Indiana to offer him the most long-term money. Hayward is 30 and coming off a major ankle injury, with this possibly being his last chance to cash in.
If Hayward simply wanted to leave Boston at all costs, there wouldn’t be so much sign-and-trade noise, continuing last night with Bill Simmons and others hinting at the long-rumored Indiana-Boston flip. Hayward would receive at least a three-year deal in any S&T, but the receiving team can negotiate lower salaries like any team signing him outright. The Hayward negotiation, if Boston remains interested in keeping Hayward, splits three ways.
That negotiation is on hold on one front, as the NBA sign-and-trade market has effectively chilled ahead of the opening of free agency. The Bucks and Kings reportedly agreed to a Bogdan Bogdanovic deal that the NBA aggressively shut down as part of its anti-tampering efforts. That deal is now dead, with Sacramento and Milwaukee under investigation. Any talk between the Pacers and the Celtics is strictly closed until later this afternoon.
Once 6 p.m. hits, clarity could arise quickly on Hayward. Free agents tend to move fast in the early hours of free agency and few teams hold legitimate cap space. Hayward will either move fast, since he’s the biggest name on the market, or see his other options close quickly.
The Celtics’ Thursday afternoon moves pointed toward more uncertainty. They declined to make Brad Wanamaker a restricted free agent, effectively clearing a roster spot, while picking up Semi Ojeleye’s team option. They can return to Wanamaker and offload Ojeleye’s non-guaranteed money on Saturday, once they know Hayward’s intentions.
According to multiple reports, Hayward doesn’t yet know himself, with Simmons asserting he is set to enjoy free agency on his Ringer podcast last night.
Hayward's opt-out viewed more as a formality. League source said it's still possible he returns to C's in restructured deal, unless, ala Al Horford, he receives home run offer from Atlanta or New York. "Gordon doesn't even know right now."— Mark Murphy (@Murf56) November 19, 2020
The ideal scenario is Boston and Hayward coming to a fair long-term deal. With the Celtics in win-now mode and Hayward still an All-Star level player, he gives Boston an unmatched edge in the NBA as a fourth option, having the most efficient season ever in 2019-20 for a player at his usage rate. A trade makes sense too, given Boston’s needs to split Hayward into medium-sized, long-term salaries like Myles Turner to make them more flexible to make trades.
Looking back, Hayward opting out never seemed like possibility, then he got hurt again. The COVID-19 pandemic and escrow payments further complicates things, and what few emphasized is how great of an option Hayward is for teams with cap space like Atlanta. He’s still a fantastic player healthy and can fit into a more primary role on another team. Only Fred VanVleet rivals him among free agents with a chance to leave their current teams.
Is VanVleet the real reason New York cleared cap space on Thursday? It’s at least another intriguing leverage point for Hayward, who holds a considerable amount as of this article.
Nonetheless, stay calm. Options remain and if Hayward wants to play for a contender next season, negotiations still turn back to Boston.